Google+ Two-Wheeled Tourist: Thoughts from my first time at a Korean spa.

6.05.2018

Thoughts from my first time at a Korean spa.

Disclaimer: My experience is that of a first-timer at a single Korean spa and isn't representative of all Korean spas. Results may vary. But that body scrubbing though.

With everything going on with school and my extremely varied work schedule, I made the last-minute decision to go to the Korean spa closest to my house. This was really more of a long-time, last-minute decision; I was offered to go to one with friends last year but the job where I was working at the time got in the way. I think it was better to experience this alone for the first time as I learned that taking it all in required time alone and being lost in my thoughts. I am aware that this account will be mostly descriptive, but the emotional output I received from this activity is very indescribable in itself.


I live in the South Bay region of Los Angeles, but I wasn't in the mood to get onto the freeway and head north to Koreatown where the vast concentration of these jjimjilbang (the Korean name) are. The one closest to my house was a nice facility and great first-time introduction to what I now consider as a far more relaxing experience than the American-style spas with all of their pomp, circumstance, and significantly higher prices.

In a typical American style spa, you're in a bathrobe sipping on cucumber or strawberry water while waiting for your turn to receive a relaxing massage in a private room while being upsold on extras such as aromatherapy or stones. A visit to a place like this could cost upwards to hundreds of dollars depending on how much you want to throw down to pamper yourself. At a Korean spa, admission is broken down to a one-time fee (for access to the basic amenities of saunas, jacuzzis, and common spaces), any skin or massage services, and if you so choose, food at the restaurant that you're billed upon exit. You pay at the front and then have access to the building, with the exception of areas reserved for the opposite gender. My visit, including the service I selected and the food I ate still put me under $75. I could've stayed as long as I wanted to (the place closes at 11:30PM), but I had an enjoyable time with a stretched out, four-hour stay.

So I rolled up to the spa at 10:30AM. Fortunately, I happened to be going there on a Wednesday so there weren't a lot of people there. Check-in was relatively straightforward. I requested an exfoliation and was booked for a 2:30PM appointment, which was changed to 1:30PM when a slot opened up. I paid my admission fee and for the exfoliation service at the front desk, received my spa clothing (for the upstairs common areas), towels, and an identification bracelet that had my locker number and key. That locker number was also used to keep track of any purchases I made at the restaurant and for when I was going to be called to receive my additional services (it's much easier than names).

You really don't have to bring anything with you to the Korean spa, unless you have some specific personal care products that you prefer to use. (I just brought in a hairbrush but I'm a simple woman.) The facility provides everything, all the way down to the blowdryers. The whole point is to come in and get away from it all. And that's what I did.

After getting all of my spa gear, I received a tour of the female-only side of the first level. The first things that came off at the entrance to this area were my shoes, and they were put in a cubby matching the number of my bracelet. I was then escorted to the locker area where I put my belongings. The attendant then showed me the room where the showers (both standing and sitting), saunas, and jacuzzis were located. This was the area where I was going to receive the exfoliation services as well. And as expected, all the patrons in that room were completely naked. No wrapped towels, no robes. This is where some people would probably start reading this and start balking at the concept of a place like this. But seriously, bear with me, this gets more interesting and fun.

So back to that part where no clothes are mandatory. Yes, even my glasses came off - that's when I consider myself to be completely naked. There is a benefit to being nearsighted in this case. Everyone's a flesh-colored blob, and once you've washed up in the shower (don't bother with wearing makeup here, everything gets cleaned off) and taken a dunk in one of their three jacuzzi tubs (hot, warm, and cold), nobody else matters. Once you've been in the room for several minutes and gotten over your self-consciousness, your mind gets settled in and nudity no longer becomes an issue. Having been an ice hockey player for nearly 20 years, stripping down to nothing comes with the territory. The only difference here is the setting and the purpose. And honestly, what do you really have to hide? I think I was more intrigued by how different and the same people really were when the social construct of clothing is temporarily eliminated in a safe, non-judgemental place.

Are you naked in the building the whole time? No. If you want to go up to the second floor to eat or enjoy one of several dry saunas, you will need to provide more than just your birthday suit. Since I had quite a bit of time before my exfoliation service, I actually started my planned spa routine here. After changing from my street clothes to the provided spa clothing (in this case, an oversized shirt and elastic shorts with a drawstring), I took the elevator. Up here, there was a full-service restaurant serving a wide selection of Korean food, a central area where patrons could grab padded floor mats and pillows to lay down and rest, and four saunas, three hot and one cold. Each of the hot saunas had a specific focus and purpose, and I tried the salt and jade ones. The salt sauna is said to purify the respiratory system, improve circulation, strengthen the immune system, and relax the muscles. The jade spa is meant to balance hormones, reduce stress, and also relax the muscles. I spent about 10-15 minutes in each room, taking a break in between to drink water and sit in the cold sauna to wake myself back up again.

Laying on the floor of a dry sauna is an experience in itself. The rooms are approximately 125-130°F in temperature and, as the name suggests, an extremely dry climate. In the salt sauna, the entire floor is covered in salt rocks, and you're laying on top of canvas blankets. This is the only barrier you have from the jagged terrain and it helps to make the heat more tolerable as you lay on top them. The jade room's wooden floor was better managed by laying on top of my towels and bringing in one of the foam pillows from the common area for neck support. I spent my time alone in the jade room, and I found the quietness to bring about a calm that I hadn't experienced in several months.

Because the air is so dry in these rooms, breathing deeply is not an issue. It takes a little practice and some adaptation to get used to staying in the room for long periods of time, but I found that 10-15 minutes a session is a good average and enough to feel the effects. If you can stay longer in there, go for it, but don't do it to a point where you are starting to feel ill or disoriented. In these rooms, you can both figuratively and literally melt away negativity and stress. Your focus turns from the worries you can't control to finding an equilibrium within your body as the heat bears down and you're sweating profusely.

I capped my sauna time with a hearty bowl of udon in fish broth and headed back down to the first floor. Stripping back down, I went back to the jacuzzi area to take my pre-service shower and head over to the back of the room for my exfoliation service. As the name suggests, exfoliation is the removal of a dead layer of skin. In other words, this was going to be some hardcore scrubbing. In retrospect, I probably should've sat in the jacuzzi for about 15 minutes prior to the treatment to soften my skin a bit more to help the process.

When it was my turn, the attendant placed me face-down on a vinyl massage table and began the process of dousing me with warm water and covering part of my body with a wet towel to keep me from freezing. It was the closest thing I was going to get to experiencing what a beached whale feels. And then the scrubbing began with nicely colored, abrasive loofah gloves, starting on one side of my body and then the other. It is awakening. It is not a pleasure cruise. Everything is being scrubbed, and I mean everything. When one section was finished, I was asked to flip to my sides and then face-up. You know it's working when you're surrounded by flecks of your dead skin fragments and more were flying off with every pass. My nerves were stimulated, my skin tingling with the firm rubbing of the attendant's hands. She even got into the inner thighs. Yikes. Once she finished, 40 minutes later, I felt like I had lost ten pounds. And my skin was glowing. Seriously. To conclude this treatment, I rinsed myself and sat in the warm jacuzzi for about 15 minutes, letting my thoughts melt away again, and then shocked myself back awake in the cold sauna before rinsing one last time and getting ready to leave.

Now I understand why there are people who can spend all day in a place like this. It's an oasis for destressing. Needless to say, I will be back again, even if it's just to use the basic facilities. Korean spas would also be a great date idea. That is if you're comfortable laying with your significant other in a dry sauna in the silence while just enjoying each other's company. It's healthy, it's cleansing, and it's mentally awakening. And lately, I've needed a lot of that.