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  • Writer's pictureMiechelle Hwang

Massage Experience in Japan & Korea

I recently vacationed in Japan and Korea, and I was lucky enough to get a massage in both amazing countries !

In Japan, I visited an onsen (Japanese hot spring) called Madoka No Mori in Hakone. I spent the day soaking in various hot springs and even visited a rock sauna. In the evening, I was picked up at the hotel by a lady who took me to a beautiful massage area decorated in the traditional Japanese style. After undressing and putting on the disposable cloth underwear I crawled between the sheets. The massage was done with oils, rather than lotions or creams. The massage was what I would consider Swedish, medium to firm pressure. She did not target specific muscles and mostly massaged the body, which felt great but did not release specific tenderness or knots. I felt very zen, which is what the whole onsen experience is really about. I was not disappointed at all!

The massage in Korea was very different from anything I have ever tried before. I went to a jjimjilbang, which is a large, gender-segregated public bathhouse, with hot tubs, showers, traditional Korean kiln saunas, and massage tables. The saunas at this jjimjilbang were on a different floor from the bathing areas, not gender-segregated, and everyone was clothed. There were many different types of saunas and many different temperatures. There were also places to work out, watch TV, play games, read, eat, and sleep. It is uniquely Korean.

I wanted to experience the traditional Korean scrub-down, which was in the gender-segregated bathing area. I was completely nude on a rubber table next to other people, but there was nothing odd about it since that is normal attire in that part of the bathhouse. My skin has never felt as smooth as it did after that scrub—they used a grainy sugar scrub with loofah mitts. Afterwards, I washed it off and came back for an oil massage. The pressure was firm, and as in Japan, I didn't feel my individual muscles were worked, simply that the overall body was massaged. It felt good, in a zen wellness manner. Note that only visually impaired people can train to become massage therapists in Korea, so all others are masseuses or body workers. The ladies at the jjimjilbang were not visually impaired so therapeutic training was likely not in their skillset.

So, what was different about my massages in Asia from a massage in the United States? When you visit a massage therapist in the US you always communicate with your therapist, often in an intake form, so the massage therapist can determine the best approach, hear your goals, and learn of any health concerns that might affect the massage. I did not do this in Japan or Korea. In the US, your body is always fully covered on the massage table; the Japanese massage was similar to this, but the massage in Korea was unique in that it was nude. I have had other massages in Korea that were clothed similar to how it is done in the United States. Oil massages can be found in the US, though they are less common than lotions. Lastly, I will mention that in the United States, all legitimate massage therapy locations have licensed or certified massage therapists who take their profession very seriously. If you do not fill out an intake form on arrival, or see a certificate on their wall, ask for their license number. If they cannot produce this then they are not a true massage therapist and you are likely in a “massage parlor”—these are not legitimate places of business in the US. I will elaborate on this in a later post.

This concludes the story of my massage experiences abroad! I encourage you to get a massage wherever you travel, so you can sample the different local types and techniques of massage and have a truly unique cultural experience.

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