Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Alternative therapies: Korean steam treatment offers time to unwind

Michael Dickison gets a traditional Korean back scrub from Jacky Chen.
Photo / Natalie Slade
Michael Dickison gets a traditional Korean back scrub from Jacky Chen. Photo / Natalie Slade

In Seoul, families would spend hours - sometimes days - at mega-spa complexes known as jjimjilbang, literally translating to mean heated bathrooms.

There, complexes usually house gender-segregated public baths, saunas, massage rooms and unisex areas for lounging, sleeping, dining and even playrooms for the kids.

An earlier attempt to recreate a jjimjilbang in Albany failed, but the new kid on the spa block, Gold Coast Health Spa in Auckland's CBD, is confident Kiwis will eventually get hooked on the Korean spa lifestyle.

"At a jjimjilbang, people can really take their time to unwind and relax," said manager Anita Yu. "As life gets busier for Kiwis, they will find this far more effective than say, a massage, where you are limited to the time you're booked."

Though not on the same scale as the jjimjilbangs in Korea, facilities at Gold Coast include the public bath, which is unisex by day, and men-only after 1pm, sauna, a traditional Korean steam room and TV rooms.

The therapy starts with a soak in the jjimjil, or heated bath, which Miss Yu said "circulates magnetic waves", followed by a visit to the sauna and steam rooms "to flush out bad toxins and promote good circulation".

She said the traditional steam room, which used heated stones, had three different tourmalines which aided skin rejuvenation, enhanced circulation and cut body odour.

The dress-code for public bathing in Korea was to go stark naked, but Ms Yu said Kiwis were "a bit on the conservative side", and most were uncomfortable with full nudity.

Most of those who went to the spa for the Korean therapy were non-Koreans, she said.

Kiwi Koreans said cost put them off visiting a jjimjilbang in NZ, but they would go to one when they went home for a holiday.

"It cost only about 6000 won [$6.60] to go to a jjimjilbang in Korea, where you can even stay overnight," said Mrs Molly Kim.

Goodbye to dead skin scrolls
The most uncomfortable thing was seeing my dead skin come off. It was grey in small rolls, and the burly man scrubbing it off was full of glee.

The treatment at the Gold Coast Health Spa began with a long soak in a hot tub.

Once I had been softened enough, the man took me into a small adjoining room with a table.

He picked up a green towel with small plastic teeth on it, told me to lie face down, and tore into my back.

It didn't hurt as much as I expected - then I saw small pieces of my skin like eraser dust rolling off.

I didn't think I was so dirty, which made the whole exercise a bit embarrassing.

He proceeded to scrub my arms, legs, neck, chest - everything, really, even my armpits.

You wear nothing at all, so lying on the table facing first up and then down while dead skin falls off you doesn't exactly get you relaxed.

The man also cracked some toes and used his knuckles to grind down on my feet for good measure.

It was all part of the Korean bathhouse - or Jjimjilbang - experience, the benefits of which haven't yet been explained to me.

But I suppose you come out cleaner than when you went in.

The Gold Coast Health Spa, near Sky City, is simple and clean, and when I visited, on a Saturday afternoon, it was mostly empty, which was a plus because the scrubbing table was right by the public bath area.

At least my somewhat humiliating cleansing experience didn't have to be shared publicly.

Gold Coast Health Spa
51 Hobson St
$38 hot tub and spa
$35 body scrub

- Michael Dickison

- NZ Herald

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