I was naked as a jaybird on a plastic-covered table not terribly unlike a gurney. Next to me, so close I could reach out and hold her hand, lay another naked stranger. With not so much as a modesty washcloth, all of our bits were on full display, and one of us was a lot cooler about this than the other (spoiler alert: it wasn’t me). For their part, the two women attending to us and speaking rapid-fire Korean were entirely unperturbed—they weren’t wearing much more than we were, actually, having stripped down to their own skivvies, apparently resigned to the fact that this service, the $130 “premium scrub with facial mask,” was going to get messy.
But more on that later. My day at GangNam Spa had begun hours ago, at 9 a.m. sharp. The 24-hour, 30,000-square-foot facility on Highway 6 in northwest Houston is a traditional Korean megaspa, Houston’s first. “Wow” is all I could manage upon encountering its sprawling “relaxation lounge” off the lobby, points of interest everywhere competing for my attention: the low tables and legless chairs; the soaring, zig-zagging ceiling; the mammoth flat-screen TV tuned to Korean news; and, inexplicably, what appeared to be four felled trees, meant for decoration or, perhaps, rustic alternative seating.
Then there were the dozens of topaz caves lining the perimeter of the space, each with room for a single mat, and the pair of furnace-like stone domes called Bul ga ma—large, super-hot rooms that are essentially saunas on steroids. Built with Elvan stones, they emit infrared rays and natural minerals meant to detoxify and heal—that is, if you can bear them. I nearly keeled over after sticking my head inside the one that’s kept at 231 degrees.
Elsewhere the Himalayan salt room clocks in at a more tolerable 149 degrees. Made from ancient rocks that expel trace elements of key minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc, it advertises healing properties similar to those of the Bul ga ma, including reduced muscle tension and better circulation. Afterward the adjacent 68-degree “igloo ice room” was a godsend. Next door a tranquil foot spa whose bubbling waters fluctuate from hot to cold felt like a hands-free massage.
I wandered past a wing of the facility called Hu’s Massage, just up the stairs from Hu’s Nail Salon, the latter of which was closed during my visit. By 10 a.m. the full-service restaurant, which offers traditional fare like fish cakes, cabbage soup, and fruit shaved ice, had swung into action. Patrons tend to get hungry when they stay all day—and sometimes all night—as is the norm in Korea, where places like GangNam are a social, and protracted, experience.
While I didn’t sleep over, I did sleep, despite the light, sound, and near-constant presence of strangers. In my pajama-like, XXL short set, the same uniform worn by all spa staff and guests, I surprised myself by kicking off my spa-issued rubber slippers and drifting off for a nap in a leather recliner. After a bit I came to and realized it was 12:30, time for my scrub in yet another area: the women’s sauna, an expansive, white-tiled space off the locker room with pools, hot tubs, and showers.
After the spa tech and I both removed our identical clothing, I realized I had no idea what to expect, since the menu of services bears no descriptions. With me on the table, she used bright-yellow exfoliating mitts to repeatedly scour my every limb—inside my ears, between my toes, and just about everything in between—intermittently sloshing my carapace with bowls of hot water. Later, armed with a loofah, she briskly applied a lather that smelled faintly of cherries, then rinsed me again. “Shamp!” she then said, startling me by setting about shampooing my hair. I had to admit, I’d never felt so clean.
All the while, though, I was obsessed with my nakedness. I’m not a naked person—on more than one occasion, I have shrieked when my own mother walked in on me showering—and this 90-minute service entailed enough public nudity to last me a lifetime. Still, somewhere around the halfway mark, I began to give up and accept it, trying to see myself in the same way, I suspected, that the GangNam Spa employee did, as a mound of flesh; nothing more, nothing less.
That became my new mantra as the vigorous scrub gave way to a vigorous massage, something that is apparently included in the “premium scrub with facial mask.” Mound of flesh, mound of flesh, I whispered to myself throughout the thorough kneading, which squarely straddled the line between pleasure and pain. Have you ever tenderized a chicken cutlet? I was the chicken.
When it was all over, I was buffed and bruised and feeling ... kind of great, honestly. I’d sloughed off all my dead skin and my puritanical nudity complex to come out the other side a better, brighter, cleaner me. Where a mere two hours ago I’d slouched, I now strutted my way to the shower, thanking my spa tech before she—wait, what?—pulled on my clothes and scurried away. Evidently hers had been tidied up by mistake. Not ideal, I thought, but fine. I don’t care about being naked anymore. I’ll just run to my locker and change.
Which is when I realized she’d taken my locker key, too.
Horrified, I dried myself with no less than half a dozen hand-towels—inexplicably, that was all I could find—and weighed my options. Should I ask someone to borrow their clothes? I certainly hadn’t evolved so much in the last 90 minutes that I’d actually go out into the lobby in my birthday suit, had I? Heart racing, I wondered what was more frowned upon: pulling someone else’s soiled spa suit from the laundry bin, or breaking into a locker?
Finally—mercifully—a tap on my shoulder: “You forgot your key!”