Myself, in the foreground with my friend Erin in the background at Wilshire Spa in L.A.’s Koreatown.
For my 3*th birthday I wanted to try something different. When I say different, I should clarify. Skydiving: too cliché. Besides, the older I get the only reason I’d try anything potentially nausea inducing would involve growing a small human.
Pushing the boundaries for me means trying new ways to discover looking at the world or that would involve wafts of expertly mixed fragrance, most things shiny and anything which promises youth and beauty.
So when a Groupon came up for a day pass for a spa I was down. This wasn’t just any kind of spa though. It was dun dun dun… a Korean one. I’m not sure what you may already know about Korean spas but let’s just say in Korea they have a very different cultural significance than stateside. By the way, I’m talking about South Korea here. I don’t even want to know what a King Jong Un’s idea of a day spa would be.
First off you are naked. That’s right totally nude. When you enter the spa you are given a robe or a “spa outfit” and a couple of towels along with a locker key. You are to change out of all your clothing and place your clothes and belongings in the locker. You then are supposed to go to the showers inside the gym and take a preliminary shower before entering any of the pools.
I went with a close friend of mine who lived for a year in Korea and she said that for the Koreans the spa is less about pampering and more about maintenance or self-care.
In Korea, day spas, called jimjilbangs are very popular, very much a regular ritual as opposed to a special treat. The idea is that it is a place to get especially clean, to induce better health by soaking in pools with water of different temperatures, going from a scalding hot spa, straight into an ice cold plunge pool for example.
Then there are the rooms at different temperatures with different “mineral and medicinal” properties. Typically, there is a dry hot salt room, a jade room and a clay room. Most people spend several hours at the spa alternating between rooms and maybe doing a treatment or two. They are usually divided into two sections, male and female, with the larger spas having co-ed facilities (which are clothed) and some even have gyms and restaurants.
Some spas even have specialty baths like a mugwort (herb) bath and at some more er, holistic places you can find a special chai-yok treatment (a steam bath for your nether regions).
I wasn’t going to go that far. I feel like my nether regions don’t need a bath right now. What I was here for was the scrub. The traditional Korean body scrub was something I was scared of. From what I’d heard, it was kind of a cross between a full body microdermabrasion and a chemical peel. And there is that nude thing.
So there I was, naked standing in front of a clinical looking treatment room with what looked like surgery beds. No ambient lighting or music here. The bed was covered in plastic.
Soon, a diminutive Korean lady comes out and with a smile tells me to lie “face down”. She then proceeds herself to strip down to a black underwear set. I just do as I’m told and before I know it a bucket of lukewarm water is being sloshed over me.
The temperature was perfect. She then proceeds to scrub me. There is nothing slow or calming about her scrubbing-she is getting a job done, but surprisingly it wasn’t as painful as I had heard.
I then had every part of my body, thankfully exempting crevices-scrubbed in this manner. At one point, she told me to shower and come back and as I opened my eyes I saw little chunks of grey rolled skinned that had been sloughed off of me. I assume this is what the shower was for. I had opted for the massage along with the scrub and received a very deep borderline painful- in- the -best way massage. I heard things pop, I relaxed and trusted this lady with my body.
I had my hair washed, my scalp massaged, cucumbers placed over my face and it all ended with a milk bath. I don’t know how she got it all done in an hour.
The experience was illuminating in more than one way. My skin felt renewed, softer no doubt and the lines that had been bugging me so much around my neck seemed less visible. Then, it was illuminating in the sense that I was experiencing something outside of my culture. My culture which sometimes has trouble seeing the body beyond the sexual-and beyond the hidden identity our clothes give.
This lady has seen all types and shapes of bodies I’m sure. Although I was self-conscious I put aside my fear and gave over to the experience. Even though I was paying her there was something about having another person care for you-attend to your dead skin, dump lukewarm buckets on you, work out all the kinks. There is something about caring for yourself-letting go and seeing your body as your living vessel. To fall in love with it again or for the first time.
Most traditional Korean spas can be found in L.A.’s Koreatown a district which is about as close as you can get to Korea in the western U.S. The spa I visited is called Wilshire Spa I’m already plotting my next visit, with hopes to check out some other well known facilities in the area.
Below is a link with some of the best Korean spas in LA courtesy of CBS Local.