Lifestyle & Culture > Who ordered fish?

Who ordered fish?

Published: May 9, 2012

I am not a screamer.

I might giggle, or gasp. Occasionally I snort at inopportune moments.

But I do not scream.

In fact, I can recall just two significant screams in my history.

The first took place in 1991 at Kelly Little’s house, while we were watching Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

The second occurred in the middle of a plush café, in the upmarket Seoul suburb of Gangnam.

I am well aware it is obnoxious to scream in a public place.

It is particularly loathsome in a country like South Korea, where shyness and modesty are considered highly desirable qualities in women.

But it is important to understand that when I unleashed my life’s second big scream on the patrons and staff of the Woodshade Cafe, I did it purely as a survival instinct.

I was being eaten alive at the time.

Hundreds of greedy, Turkish fish had latched their toothless mouths onto my feet and were, quite literally, eating my dead skin for lunch.

The species colloquially known as “Doctor Fish” or, scientifically, Garra Rufa, is becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction on the Seoul café scene.

The trend had its origins in Turkey, where it was believed the fish could be used to treat skin diseases such as psoriasis.

Doctor Fish cafes in Seoul rarely rate a mention in travel books, but word of their existence has spread rapidly via internet forums and discussion groups.

Most cafes require customers to purchase a coffee before they are allowed to use to the Doctor Fish pools for a small additional fee.

Then, after washing, patrons place their (usually foreign) feet in the water and wait for the little mouths to get to work.

The fish would no doubt be partial to a taste of Korean foot, but the locals tend to venture to these Doctor Fish cafes for the cheap coffee, rather than the pedicure.

The sight of squirming foreigners is no doubt also somewhat of a drawcard.

A middle-aged Seoul businessman seated near the pools could barely hide his glee at the high-pitched sound that exploded from my lips, while a teenage couple peered at me and giggled from behind their laptops.

Seated nearby, Canadian, Jesse Town, looked deceptively calm with his book in his hand and his feet in the water.

It soon became clear the literature was a weapon in his courageous battle against the tickles.

“I was trying to distract myself by reading, I was hoping then I wouldn’t focus so much on the weird feeling,” he said.

Jesse ventured to the Gangnam café with his wife Gypsi and their friends, Tom and Christy Gage, after they heard about Doctor Fish via social networking site, Facebook.

Christy, 28, said she had “totally judged” the screamers she heard from the other side of the cafe, before she tried Doctor Fish for herself.

“We saw two different groups go in and we were like, ‘oh be quiet!’, and then we put our feet in and we were just, like, totally freaking out,” she said.

The high possibility of screaming was exactly the reason Korean Ayoung Moon said she had never braved the café’s fishy waters.

The 28-year old, who has visited Woodshade Café several times, said she worried her reaction would attract the wrong kind of attention, particularly from men.

“It would be a little bit uncomfortable because many people would see (me scream), and especially in Korea women have to be careful of their attitude,” she said.

“Many people would look at me and think, why is she doing that?”

Woodshade Café owner Oh Ki-Hwan said he heard the screams of foreigners on a daily basis.

“All the foreign people shout, but the Korean people who try it don’t shout because they are a little bit shy,” he said.

How to describe the feeling that shot through every nerve ending between my calves and my toes, as those minutes ticked down?

I suppose I could compare the experience to a surprise and hostile tickle attack.

It might be fair to say it was like an unpredictable foot massage.

But, to be perfectly honest, it simply felt like hundreds of small fish were eating my feet.

It was undoubtedly the strangest foot-related experience of my life (hand-related experiences not withstanding).

But bizarre as the feeling might have been, after seven and a half minutes (according to my timer) I began to relax.

The feeling became bearable.

I was even calm enough to warn two American women, who ventured to the pools at the eight-minute mark, about what they should expect.

“I screamed,” I told them.

“We heard you,” one of them replied with a judgemental sniff.

Moments later, she screamed too.

So, my only suggestion to avoid screaming during a Doctor Fish pedicure is to either be Korean, or to skip the experience altogether.

And as for Gremlins 2: The New Batch?

Watch it with the lights on.

Photography: Carlye Vroom.


1. Tess on May 10, 2012

That was my exact response, I did it in Malaysia and I have a video of me completely wiggling out. Drew thought it was hilarious. I tried to put stay and get used to it but after 20 odd attempts I gave up and went and had a foot massage! Oh you have made me giggle Bunny.

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