Was privileged to spend my Sunday afternoon streaming UFC 144- Frankie Edgar vs Benson Henderson, live from Tokyo, Japan. Despite the storyline being the return of MMA to Japan, the first return since the Pride days, I found another connection that made the already impressive fight card seem even more attractive. Benson Henderson, the challenger to the light weight champion Frankie Edgar (currently one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world), is an American fighter of of Korean descent. Raised by his Korean mother in the US, Henderson is of mixed ethnicity as his father was an African American soldier. Nicknamed “Smooth”, Henderson preaches his strong faith and avoids any harmful substances such as alcohol and tobacco at all costs, training and cutting weight better than most in the sport. I found this to be quite fitting after experiencing not only Korean culture but both Chinese and Japanese as well, tradition, discipline, and respect are in the forefront of most decisions made by their respective citizens. From what I’ve gathered, Henderson is quite a proud athlete, especially in regards to his Korean influences which I think provides him with a relatively strong following over here. All I know is that after watching all five, five minute rounds, he’s won me over as a fan showing impressive discipline as a fighter— its safe to say I’m hopping on board the bandwagon if I hadn’t already.
The largest and most gaping difference in Korean life, compared to that of a North American is the use and common practice of the Jjimjilbang or Korean “saunas” (pronounced ‘saw-oo-na’ by all Koreans due to the Konglish use of the word). If this is a new term, as it was to me, essentially in every Korean neighborhood lies a public bath, similar to the way the ancient Greeks and Romans used to do it, in which you pay to hangout with hundreds of other naked Korean men or women for hours on end while everyone bathes, cleans, rubs, washes, sleeps, and relaxes together. You can pretty much do everything in these spas but grocery shop (although snacks are available). There are even areas for couples but these areas have a mandatory pajama dress code (pj’s provided). Took advantage of this over Christmas and even treated Tara to a spa dinner at the restaurant after work one day. So you might wonder how one could possibly spend hours on end at one of these places. Well in addition to the availability of a barber, the baths are all different temperatures, there are different pressured showers, different temperature rooms (like a Finnish saunas) and of course the ever popular body scrub. This is interesting- you pay an additional fee to have another man, of Korean decent, who is also often fully or partially nude, scrub your entire body while you lay on a massage table. Most definitely one of the least desirable jobs that I’ve encountered (and thats coming from a former employee who assisted in giving suppositories and changing diapers). All in all, these Korean spas are world renown and specifically speaking, within the city of Busan, lies the two largest spas, by square foot, in all of Asia.
Despite this lead-in sounding like I’ve been turned off from the experience, I become quite accustom and a fan of spending an evening, or sometimes a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in such a place. I’ve grown quite used to being starred at and sometimes even relish in the opportunity to be the main attraction. Sometimes I feel as though Koreans pay in hopes of catching a glance of a foreigner who was stupid enough to take the leap. I’ve been that guy for 6 months now and I have to admit, its a relaxing experience. Once you get past the National Geographic-like images, its an efficient way to unwind and either detox or work out the lactic acid from an earlier workout. Its also convenient having one anywhere you go. It truly is mind blowing every time you step foot inside one of these places. To fathom that every other person thinks a giant hockey shower-like environment with tens, sometimes hundreds of strangers is normal will always amaze me but for the time being, I’m taking advantage of the experience. That being said, if you plan on visiting, it’s a Korean must, really a wild experience and taking from the reactions of the visitors I have had, its worth it to say you’ve tried it.