I’m not a fancy woman. I get uncomfortable in really nice restaurants and don’t even dare set foot in higher end stores. I long ago gave up on the idea of having nice clothes since I inevitably ruin them with massage oil or spaghetti sauce or general neglect. And while I’m all for self-care, if it comes in too fancy a package, instead of relaxing, I just feel awkward.
There is nothing fancy whatsoever about Jade Sauna, the only Korean-style spa in my area. In fact, I’m guessing most westerners wouldn’t call the place a spa at all. Sure it, technically, has some of the same trappings. There are robes and heated rooms and steam. There are exfoliants and copious amounts of hot water. There are knowing hands running smoothly over your skin.
But Jade Sauna is different. It sits in a shabby yellow house in the suburbs across from a Chuck-E-Cheese. The dressing room is just a row of lockers separating you from the main entrance. Instead of a thick terrycloth robe you’re offered, almost as an afterthought, a cheap cotton thing that looks like a dowdy housecoat. Instead of soft and warm, the lights are dim and sickly.
The Jade Room was hot and a little confusing. The floor, made of large pieces of jade, was too hot to stand on for long. So I laid on the futon in the corner on a handtowel taken from a stack by the door. I stared at the lines of Korean text printed on the wallpaper and wondered what it said. Outside the door, two people talked loudly in Korean, one of them repeatedly falling into what sounded like an imitation of a hated, irate mother-in-law.
No quiet flute music. No pitchers of cucumber-flavored water. No soft-spoken, uniformed employees concerned about my comfort. Still, I appreciated how practical this all felt. Weren’t my muscles loving the heat? Wasn’t my mind growing quiet, away from distractions?
Next step was the steam room, where I stared at the shiny water droplets clinging to the ceiling tile and breathed in the herb-infused air. After ten minutes or so, I was directed to a vinyl-covered table in a room off of the showers. Another woman was there on a second table being covered in olive oil by an older Korean woman in a tank top and black spandex shorts. Clearly, an exception had been made to the rather ridiculous Oregon law that during a massage the nipples, genitals, and gluteal cleft must remain covered. At Jade Sauna there is no option for such modesty.
The woman who’d been vaguely directing me through my visit finally introduced herself and told me to lay face down. She put on her loofah gloves and gently pulled my legs apart. That’s right. She scrubbed everywhere, rotating me from back to side to front. This might be a painful process for some, but I thought if felt incredible. Best of all was when she dipped a container into a giant rubber bin filled with hot water and deluged me with it, washing away my old layers.
Fuck fancy, I thought. This is the shit.
After I’d been scrubbed from every angle, she massaged me with olive oil, then warm milk, then honey. More honey on my face, on my lips. Hot towels, cool towels, some kind of cucumber mask. It all smelled delicious. Not like carefully crafted floral blends, but like the fresh scent of simple ingredients. And then there was the water and water and water, tossed from buckets and sprayed from hoses. Rinsed clean, I sat up. Warm to the bone and dressed in fresh skin.
Finally, she patted one dry towel against my back. Handed me another for my front. And that was it. “All done,” she said. “Thank you. Bye, bye.”
I often talk to my massage clients about maintenance care, but I never felt quite so much like I was being maintained as I did during my two hours at Jade Sauna. This was the body, not pampered, but dealt with. Nothing delicate. Nothing demure. This was the body in all its practical beauty.