Tips for Getting a Massage in Korea

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Feeling the stress of travel or life? Why not get a massage while living or traveling in South Korea? We often stop for a massage when our bodies or emotions feel stretched to their limit.

About Massage in South Korea

Massages (마사지) are a popular part of South Korean culture, with many believing in their health benefits and relaxation. You will find that many people use massage to help with the pains and stresses of life.

Availability of Massages in South Korea

In South Korea, massages are widely available at spas and shops, with various styles offered. Locals and tourists in South Korea enjoy massages, and the country is known for its high-quality spa and beauty services. As you move around the country, you will notice them in almost every city and neighborhood.

Culture Shock and Massages in Korea

As with almost everything in a new country, getting a massage in South Korea comes with many different areas that may cause culture shock. How you experience culture shock related to massages in Korea may differ depending on your home culture, length of time in Korea, and ability to emotionally navigate change.

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Within our community Facebook groups we have heard international residents express culture shock related to the following experiences:

  • Language barrier: You may not be able to communicate as clearly and completely with your massage therapist as you can in your own language.
  • Clothing: You may find wearing clothes during a massage an unexpected experience. Additionally, you may find the clothing too small (in which case you can bring your own clean shorts/pants and t-shirt from home)
  • Vibe or Atmosphere: You may find the way massage spaces are physically curated to feel new or uncomfortable. Getting used to the new look or feel of the physical spaces may take time.
  • Taking Shoes Off and Wearing Slippers: Most massage businesses require guests to take their shoes off and wear slippers. This may feel new and uncomfortable to the first time.
  • Room Temperature: You may find the room either too hot or too cold. It all depends on where you come from.
  • Massage Pressure: Different cultures have different expectations regarding massage pressure. Make sure to communicate before starting. Instead of using words, use a physical demonstration of what you find ok and not ok.
  • Noise Level or Back Ground Noise: Massage spaces in South Korea may not be completely silent or may not use background sounds. For some, this takes away from the experience.
  • Safe v Unsafe: One of the hardest parts about doing new activities, especially those as vulnerable as massage, may feel unsafe because of all the new experiences at a vulnerable time. Taking a friend along for the ride when trying a new location is advised.
  • Massages Style Variations: A Thai massage in South Korea may be different from a Thai massage in northern Thailand which is different from a massage in southern Thailand which is different from Thai a massage in the United States. Expect your massage experience to be different from what you have had before by the same name in other countries.
Getting one of my regular Thai massages.

It’s important to note that the above-listed points of culture shock at a Korean massage business represent only a small overview of experiences that may cause you emotional frustration or distress. When experiencing any new culture, try to pay attention to your areas of discomfort. Feel your feelings and grow in knowledge related to how you experience change or newness. Such observations may help you navigate future experiences when choosing your next massage location.

Choosing a Massage Location

Not knowing the language, neighborhoods, and culture can make choosing a massage location stressful. As with all countries, researching massage businesses is essential. You want to select a reputable spa to ensure a safe and enjoyable massage experience. This might be the most daunting part of finding the right massage experience.

Most locations recommended in English online for massage in Korea exist in Seoul, but you have other options. We can’t all go to Seoul every time we need our muscles worked out. So, it’s important for you to know how to find a location near you instead of schlepping across the country.

Helpful Tips for Selecting Location

When looking for a new massage location anywhere in South Korea, I use the same system I use when looking for a massage facility in my hometown of Pyeongtaek:

  • Avoid Red or Pink Lights: This is the first thing to look for. If you enter and it’s pink or red, you need to leave. Very likely not actually a massage studio.
  • Go with your friend or spouse: Reputable massage businesses have rooms that hold more than one person. This allows safety in numbers. In Korea, people often go with friends, partners, or even their kids. You will be in a room together so you can feel safe and comfortable.
  • Pay attention to the neighborhood: If you are near the glasshouses or business club districts, you are more likely to find massage studios that are not massage studios. On the other hand, if you are in Sosabeol, it will most likely be legit.
  • Ask a local or Facebook group: When we first arrived, we asked one of our friends from Pyeongteak where she and her friends went. She has continued to offer excellent advice on the topic over the years. In addition, we always check the Naver reviews and have a friend help with this as well. Finally, you can make local friends by attending local language exchanges and social events.
  • Look at the Naver rating: Even if you can’t read the reviews, the Naver rating gives you a pretty good idea of how legit a massage business is.
  • Visit a brand or chain: Some massage locations like The Foot Shop have become brand names with spots across the country.

Keep in mind that businesses change owners, employees, and managers. A location that you love one year might now be comfortable for you in the next year. Stay aware of what’s happening with your favorite spots and ask questions as needed.

Finding a Massage Location

You can go about finding a massage location in a few different ways

Search Korean Map Apps

You can look on Naver Maps and Kakao Maps by searching “마사지.” It’s wise to go with locations with lots of reviews where clients have also shared photos.

Walk Around your Neighborhood

Take a walk around your neighborhood or city. Look for places near you. However, if a massage location you see in front of you is not listed on Naver or Kakao, consider that a big red flag.

Ask a Community Group

You can also ask a local Facebook group. Again, this can be hit or miss, but it’s worth a try if you can’t find something on Naver or Kakao.

Ask Your Hotel or Pension

If you happen to be staying at a hotel, you can ask the staff for possible recommendations.

Read Recent Local Blogs

Business information in South Korea changes quickly in South Korea and so do local expat bloggers. You can find locations via local bloggers and then check the current business information using 1330. Always double-check information published over 1 year ago with no “Update” notes. (This includes South of Seoul posts)

Choosing a Massage Type

You can find many different types of massages in South Korea. Finding the right one for you will depend on such things as

  • The purpose of the massage
  • Injuries that you may have
  • How much do you want to pay
  • Your comfort with nudity

To help you decide, I will organize the most popular massage types in South Korea by pain level and address some cultural information that international readers may find necessary.

Meridian Massage (Chinese, Korean, Japanese)

Warning: I love the meridian massage style, and it changed my life. However, I DO NOT recommend it to many people. I’ve chosen to lump Chinese, Korean, and Japanese types together under this category since they follow similar principles and have similar levels of lovely pain.

A Meridian Massage style will not be fun for you, and you will feel that it is unsafe. For example, a Meridian massage will likely leave bruises, and when you express feelings of pain, they may not reduce pressure. You may also feel pain and stiffness for 1-3 days after.

Meridian massage, also known as acupressure or acupoint massage, is a type of massage based on traditional Chinese medicine principles. It involves applying pressure to specific points on the body, known as acupoints or meridians, to promote healing and balance within the body. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that the body has a network of energy pathways, or meridians, that connect to various organs and systems. When these pathways become blocked or imbalanced, it can lead to physical and emotional health issues.

Meridian massage is believed to help restore balance to the body’s energy flow and promote overall well-being. It is often used to treat various health conditions, including stress, headaches, and muscle pain. It may also improve sleep, digestion, and immune function. Meridian massage is typically performed by an acupressure therapist, who will use their fingers, hands, or sometimes even elbows to apply pressure to the acupoints. The massage may also include using oils, heat, or other techniques to enhance the treatment.

Example of a Meridian massage

To help create a better understanding of how a Meridian massage works, watch the following YouTube video.

https://youtu.be/AOkn6O-n2mw

Thai Massage

Thai massage is a type of massage that originated in Thailand and is based on the principles of traditional Thai medicine. It involves using hands, feet, elbows, and knees to apply pressure to the body in a series of stretches and compressions. Such massage is typically performed on a mat on the floor, with the client wearing loose, comfortable clothing.

Thai massage is a full-body massage that aims to improve flexibility, reduce stress, and improve overall well-being. Massage techniques include acupressure, which involves applying pressure to specific points on the body to release energy blockages, and assisted yoga stretches, in which the therapist helps the client stretch into various yoga poses. Thai massage is known for its holistic approach and may also include herbal compresses and aromatherapy.

About Thai Massage in Korea

One of the most popular types of massage in South Korea is Thai massage. You can find 24-hour massage locations in almost any neighborhood in the country. Thai massage may involve less body manipulation than Thai massage in Thailand.

Most Thai massage in South Korea is conducted by Thai employees. The immigrant employees (often women) come from Thailand to work on-call or even live on-site. As you can imagine, this situation may create an unhealthy work environment. Please always be aware of these complexities. You can find healthy organizations by doing your research. Despite such issues, finding a reputable Thai massage often occurs more often in smaller cities than in Chinese or Swedish massage options.

Clothing for Thai Massage

Thai massage locations usually have you wear clothing for a normal Thai massage. You will be given shorts and a t-shirt to wear. You can also keep on your hijab or religious clothing. Most provided clothing goes to about a size 12 US.

Larger people can bring their own clean clothing as needed. For example, in some places, I bring my own shorts and t-shirt because I find the provided clothing uncomfortable.

However, if you choose an oil massage, you will remove your top for the hot oil massage. If you do not want to be naked with strangers, this is a very important point for those who need a massage and modesty.

Expat Life and Thai Massage

YouTuber BostLife shared her experience as an ex-pat in South Korea fitting a Thai massage into her day. It’s a fun way to go along and see what the experience may be like.

Swedish Massage

Swedish massage is a type of massage designed to relax the entire body. It involves using long, smooth strokes, kneading, and circular movements on the top layers of muscles. Swedish massage is typically performed using massage oil or lotion to reduce friction on the skin. It is a gentle form of massage suitable for people who are new to massage or have sensitive skin.

Swedish massage’s benefits include reducing muscle tension, improving circulation, and promoting relaxation. Swedish massage is often recommended for people experiencing stress or muscle tension caused by poor posture or overuse. It can be a great way to relax and unwind after a long day or week. Swedish massage is typically performed by a licensed massage therapist in a quiet, comfortable setting. It is a popular choice for people seeking a relaxing massage experience.

Please note, due to either the expense of fancy Swedish massages or the questionable nature of the less expensive versions, I’ve never had a Swedish massage in Korea, so I can’t speak in detail about them.

Discounts

If you like to find a deal on massages, massage businesses may offer the following types of discounts:

  • Punch cards or rewards cards
  • Pre-purchased discount packages
  • Discounts for paying with cash
  • ‘Happy Hour’ discounts for certain times or certain days

Since Korea is not all the same, each business has its own system for offering discounts based on the business owner’s choice. You will need to read the information at each location to learn more about their rewards programs. Some businesses do not offer any discounts.

Most Massages Are Illegal in South Korea

In South Korea, it is illegal to receive a massage from someone who is not legally blind or a certified massage professional. This law originated after World War II when the Ministry of Health revoked the licenses of many visually impaired people as healers. Many of these individuals then turned to fortune-telling and chanting scriptures to make a living.

In 1948, the Ministry of Social Affairs banned this activity. In 1963, the state medical code was revised to allow only the visually impaired to work as masseuses or masseurs, except for moxibustion and acupuncture, which were reserved for traditional doctors. This law aimed to provide employment opportunities for the visually impaired, who may have otherwise faced challenges finding work. However, penalties and fines are in place for people caught operating without a license.

Illegal Businesses Often Function Normally in Korea

The concept of “illegal” in Korea exists as a slightly different experience than in other countries. For example, tattoo shops are illegal, but they also exist across the country, and nothing happens. What I am trying to say is that no one will come in and arrest you for getting a massage. It’s just a social quirk.

Additionally, a business existing as “illegal” doesn’t mean the establishment is morally corrupt, untrained, unlicensed (some may hold licenses from other countries), unsanitary, unsafe, or poorly maintained. The business may simply be “illegal” due to social and political issues.

Additional Blogs To Read About Korean Massage

Since massage exists as an extremely personal experience, we recommend reading a variety of blogs. After reviewing many of the options, we recommend the following blog articles as the provide excellent insight and different views on the topic.