Date: 13 September 2019
Location: Holly’s Coffee, Hongdae, Seoul.
The first smack comes as a huge surprise.
My defences were low. I was fresh off a plane from London, dizzy and nauseated with jetlag and, disarmed as such, overwhelmed by the bustle of upward-sprawling downtown Seoul. My physical defences were also down: we were in Happy Days Spa, a jimjilbang or Korea Sauna. Like the Japanese onsen, the dress code here is minimalistic neutral. Naked naked naked.
First, we’d been ushered into the hot pools by a naked ajumma. Once she deemed us sufficiently pink, crinkly and soft, she summoned us to a set of pink vinyl massage tables and scrubbed and scrubbed. When she tugged at my ankle to prompt me to turn over and I dragged open my sleepy eyes I was aghast to see what looked like grey eraser shavings all over the table. My skin! Just how dirty was I? It was after she’d scrubbed me all over (front, side, back, other side) and soapily washed me down (really close call with the slip ‘n’ slide situation there) that the smack came. Right on my buttocks. Hard. Loud.
I made a tiny yelping sound of surprise. She ignored me with the sturdy Reisebericht would learn all ajumma cultivate. The smacks keep coming. A massage, but a brutal one.
And thus begins my trip to Seoul with Panda. (I’m going to call her that, as that’s her emoji on our WhatsApp Group.)
We squeeze a lot into our 6 days. Seoul is a city that encourages a sort of buzzing, restless activity. Many places are open 24 hours. Peak activity in our ‘hood, Hongdae, seems to be around 11pm. It’s too easy to find that you leave the hotel at 9am and don’t step back in until the evening, by which time you’re sweaty and exhausted, craving BHC fried chicken or dak galbi or soju bombs and only have time to drop your hefty bags of skincare purchases before turning around and heading back out into the neon night. I don’t know when the Koreans sleep, and I’m certainly exhausted from my sojourn. (Seouljourn?) But exhausted in a good way. And, my god, my skin is happy! I mean, my skin is happy any time I leave London and it’s skin-clogging, hair-dulling, corpse-ridden water but it is really loving this. Not only does it get a daily steam and scrub but Korean is the undisputed skincare mecca. The key place of worship for this pantheon is the shopping district of Myeongdong. I actually remember this funny little network of streets from when I visited Seoul at 14. In fact, it’s one of the few things I do remember from that trip. I think perhaps I was so homesick and so traumatised from my first ever taste of Asia to retain anything else. Other memories trickle back through the week but it’s only the rush of pink and cutesy plushies that is Myeongdong that I truly, vividly remember.
I adore Myeongdong this time around. I love the street vendors selling everything from buttered scallops to lobsters rolls, Korean fried chicken, dumplings, tteobokki, crepes, pomegranate juice. I love the plethora of brightly-lit skincare shops promising you the whitest skin and freshest berry lips. I love the cat cafes — we visit one and I lose my heart to a tiny Scottish fold kitten called Huwala. I love the high-end tea shops and the sugary bite of an Asian iced coffee. The favourable exchange rate helps too.
Panda has much more recent memories of Seoul than I and is a wonderful tour guide. She is a brutal shopper (I approve) and I suspect her language skills (both Korean and Mandarin) get us kinder service than many tourists enjoy. She also knows how to eat. This is one of the highest compliments I can pay.
I trust her epicurean instincts so implicitly that I find myself agreeing to Noryangjin Fish Market for ‘breakfast’ and even to try freshly killed octopus. Shopping for breakfast is a crazy, weird, fishy experience. The market is indoors and so wet I’d even wear Crocs. Store after store exhibits shining tanks of scallop, sea slugs, prawns and fish, much of it alive. We tell one proprietress that we want to eat ‘chigee’ (fish stew) and she helps us fill bags full of the freshest seafood you can imagine, all for ahoy 40,000 wan. We head upstairs to the restaurant floor and hand over our purchases to the cook. Just ten minutes later a colourful stew is before us and I’m enjoying some of the best seafood I’ve eaten and trying very hard not to get hot sauce on my white dress. (Side note: strongly recommend against white dresses and sandals as market outfits. Idiot.) We demolish the whole pot along with some barbecued abalone wrapped in sesame leaves.
Then it’s time for the main event. I carefully follow Panda back downstairs. I must look a little green because she reminds me I don’t have to do this. But I like food and I like an adventure. Oh god, please let me not throw up. I almost back out at the stage where a small (but not nearly as ‘small’ as I’d been expecting!) octopus is fished out of a tank of its brethren and stretches its suckers desperately back down to stick onto safety. It’s too late; he’s in a clear plastic bag. We escort him upstairs and hand him over to a different cook. Within minutes he’s on our plate, squirming as if he still has his head. I go a greyer shade of green. We get soju. The soju helps. Then I take my chopsticks and, with great difficultly, get a twitching tentacle to my mouth. I nervously swallow it whole. That was a huge mistake. The thing suckers it’s way down my oesophagus and I’m hating it almost as much as it is. Panda scolds me for not chewing. I try that and it’s… ok. I don’t hate it. I don’t mind it at all. Once you get used to your food moving in your mouth (gag) and sticking to your cheek (double gag) it’s just calamari. I eat more. The soju really helps.
It’s the second last day of our trip and I’m very grateful for my training at Happy Days Spa. I’d ventured out from our local to the epic Siloam spa, near Seoul station. This leviathan complex stretches over 5 floors and has everything from a canteen to a heated jade room to sleeping pods in a dugout to a kilnlike structure heated to 85 degrees Celsius (I lasted 3.5 minutes, I timed it). Of course, there are also the sex-separated naked Korean baths. If Happy Days is your local public pool, Siloam Spa is Wet And Wild. The bathing complex comprises two saunas, a mug-root bath, a salt bath, a jade bath, a hot bath, an icy cold bath, waterfall baths and massage spas.
By now impeccably trained in jimjilbang process and etiquette, I’m even able to help the lone other tourist — a lost looking Aussie woman. I teach her about putting on your sauna outfit to visit the main saunas to get all sweaty and then about how to come down, pay the little old lady for a scrub and a cucumber mush mask and then strip naked — fully naked, I emphasise — and take your tiny little towel downstairs to baths where you fill a bowl with water and wash thoroughly before splashing around in the bath to await summoning to the vinyl tables. I warn her about the smack.