I’m naked in a room full of strangers, who are also all naked. It’s not a bad dream or the sort of thing you’re told to imagine when you’re nervous about giving a speech. I’m in the women’s-only area at Jeju Sauna, a massive Korean spa in Duluth, and there is no safe place to put my eyes.
Everywhere I look there is nudity, brightly-lit and mostly unapologetic: on me, on my three friends, and on the dozens of other women here on a Saturday evening for a series of soaks, scrubs, saunas, and steams. The towels are too small to provide any sort of coverage, perhaps by design. It feels a little bit like the locker room at a YMCA, though instead of having just the one weird, naked person wandering around, it’s everyone. Twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, there’s nowhere to hide.
I become pretty okay with that reality within about 30 minutes of paying the $25 entry fee and getting a numbered bracelet to track my purchases in the women’s room and throughout the co-ed (and clothed) areas of this two-level, 34,000-square-foot facility. I start out in the nudity-required area, where I move from a shower to a steam room, to a hot sauna and a freezing-cold pool, then back again. I also take a dip in the hot whirlpool and begin to feel my tired muscles—and my Puritanical inhibitions—relax. Then I lie down on a stone slab beneath infrared lights, feeling a little bit like a Big Mac abandoned under a heat lamp.
Devotees of Korean spas promise that weekly or monthly visits can do wonders for your blood pressure, fatigue, stress levels, and chronic pain. Some of these claims are backed by science, with studies showing that some saunas can detoxify and improve cardiovascular health.
All I know is I feel really relaxed when I hear my number called. It’s time for me to try the spa’s infamously painful scrub.
I walk, naked (you get the picture now), to the scrub room, which has four wet, vinyl-covered tables manned by middle-aged Korean women wearing black bathing suits. I lie face-down, and my attendant flings a towel over my face. I peek out to see her lathering up some gritty mitts with what looks and smells like Irish Spring soap. And then she gets to work, using both hands to scrub my body in long swipes and big circles. The mitts feel like low-grade Brillo and I love it—I love the way it feels and that I can sense (and see) pills of dead, gray skin flying off of me, landing on the table and in my hair (gross, I know, but I’m a picker; it’s hard for me to keep my hands off a stranger’s peeling sunburn).
She roughly turns my head and flings my limbs out of the way and sloshes a bowl of warm water all over me. Then she grunts that it’s time to turn over, and repeats the process, only drawing me out of my reverie when she splays my legs like chicken wings and scrubs perilously close to my nether regions. She sloshes more water over me, turns me on each side for more scrubbing, then rubs me down with liquid Dial and sends me to rinse off. (Total cost: $40.)
As I half-stumble to the showers I see another room, where women are wearing soft pink ponchos that cinch around their necks and cover them entirely, draping around their seats. They look like cupcakes, heads poking up like cherries on top, or like human tea cozies. Apparently they’re getting their vaginas steamed. They call it a “Hip Bath,” and it costs $30. Gwyneth Paltrow would be proud. But I take a hard pass.
At this point my friends and I have had enough naked time, so we put on the shapeless, beige T-shirts and shorts issued by the spa and venture into the rest of Jeju. There’s a huge cafeteria that serves delicious Korean food and cold fruit smoothies that probably come from a package but, to our parched mouths, taste like perfection.
There’s also a fitness center (oddly located next to a smoking room), a full-sized nail salon, an Olympic-sized lap pool, massage suites, a sleeping room with pillows and blankets, lots of benches, and several saunas. Some are housed in what look like big igloos. The inside of each is coated in a different material that’s purported to provide a health benefit. There’s the jade sauna, said to increase metabolism, improve circulation, and relieve arthritis pain. There’s gold and silver (which Jeju says will help your nerves and something they call “poison sounteraction”—I can’t figure that one out), red baked clay (said to reduce muscle soreness, improve blood circulation), and a salt room (said to calm stress, ease tension, and flush out impurities). I do sense a different energy in each room, though maybe the heat is getting to my head.
Men and women lounge on the floor of these saunas on straw mats and plastic covered pillows while looking at their phones or snoring peacefully. There’s also a cold room that I visit between hot sessions. It is not very popular.
Four hours pass easily, and by the time we leave I am soft-skinned, de-stressed, ready to climb into my bed—and a firm believer in the power of prolonged lounging, steaming, and, yes, being naked.