Monday, April 7, 2008

Seoul & The Skin-Eating Fish

On my way back to Japan from Cambodia, I stopped in Seoul to catch up with two old pals: a friend from high school who I hadn't seen in eight years, and another buddy from my undergrad days, whom you might recall from my misadventures in Osaka in February. Both work as English teachers in Korea.

It was, of course, lovely to see my friends. We took Seoul by storm, visiting a centuries-old palace called Gyeonbok, climbing a mountain to view the city from Seoul Tower, taking in a healthy dose of America by drinking at a bar near the U.S. military base, checking out the Korea War Memorial Museum, strolling through markets and shopping districts, and dining on authentic Korean kim chi and bibimbap.

However, my most unforgettable Seoul experience came on Saturday night. In what will certainly go down as one of the Top Five Weirdest Experiences of my Life, I voluntarily stuck my feet in a pool of fish that eat dead skin.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I could launch into a list of obvious puns, about how I smoothed my soles in Seoul, or about how a nice pedicure is good for one's soul, but I think that this experience is weird enough to stand on its own, without the lame cliches.

The place was called the Doctor Fish Cafe, a lovely little coffee shop with a menu featuring creamy lattes and cute cakes - and, for 40,000 won ($4), the opportunity to stick your bare feet in a pool of sucker fish.

Is there no better way to bond with old friends?

The fish, as per my extensive research on Wikipedia, are called cyprinion macrostomusare and are imported from the Middle East. They eat dead skin. And they tickle like heck while they do it. So it's a good thing that this cafe also had beer on the menu -- a certain member of our party needed to consume several to take the edge off.

During our "treatment," I chatted with other patrons around the pool, trying to put the steady tingle of little fish lips out of my head. I concentrated on other things when the big fish -- fat from eating loads of dead skin -- attacked my pinky toes. And I tried not to be embarassed when the fish passed up my friends' comparatively-dainty feet to feast on my running-induced calluses. Gross but hilarious.

The post-treatement regiment included an aromatherapy soak in fish-free water (ostensibly to get rid of the fishy smell), coffee and beer at our table, and a piece of complementary cake.

Two days later, my feet are noticeably smoother. But I think I have a fish hickey on my big toe.

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