y4pcT1JaIwGptQJPO6l_mZmgv34 tiffin unboxed: My First Korean Bath House Experience in Multiculti L.A.

My First Korean Bath House Experience in Multiculti L.A.

When was the last time your skin felt like this?

Can you imagine having baby soft and smooth skin even before applying lotion? Have you ever felt really clean? Not quick shower or self loofah clean - squeaky clean?

And that's just how you feel on the outside. What about the inside? Try calm,  rejuvenated, feeling mentally and physically renewed, even cathartic.

Would you believe that for me these feelings and that silky skin came just over 1 month ago? This magic came from one of my most feared yet anticipated experiences - the Korean Bath House, engaging in traditional cleansing rituals.

In order to psyche myself up for this adventure, I did exhaustive research and found that public baths are popular in Korea because many women don't have private showers at home. Bathing publicly is also a social outlet for many women. Public nudity is not so commonplace in the U.S., and especially not in my culture and family upbringing.

I also asked people I know who engaged in this experience for full play by plays of what goes on inside a Korean spa. A friend even forwarded a blog post about a vist to a very popular Korean spa.

For months I combed spa reviews on Yelp. Many reviewers complained about spa staff not speaking English, the spas being "no Burke-Williams", too many Russian women in the spas and other seemingly random details.

In L.A. Korean spas are a dime a dozen, especially in Korea Town. Some cater to Western tastes, some are family-friendly, some are open 24 hours, many have beauty salon services, some have on-site restaurants and all have various types of traditional baths and saunas.

Personal preferences for spas vary, so I will focus on the experience itself vs. any particular facility. Clearly since one cannot take photos inside the spa, this post is long on words and short on images. But I will try to paint the picture with words as accurately as possible. And there will be a couple more photos towards the end, if you stay with  me that long.

My desire for my first experience was finding tradition and authenticity in a down to earth, clean setting. The facility did not need to be high tech and luxurious. Language barriers and unfamiliar customs were no deterrent. After all I have traveled extensively and can handle it. The more Korean women clientele, the better.

I chose a small, no frills, clean, women-only bath house in a Korea Town strip mall setting. The exterior was humble to say the least and tinted windows left the interior a mystery. I sat in the car for 5 minutes wondering if I dared go in.

When I entered, there were articles about the facility by L.A. Times and other prominent publications on the wall so it was clear there was little to worry about.

The Korean-American owner welcomed me in fluent English, gave an introduction to spa etiquette and assured me things would be "mellow". Even without an appointment, she welcomed me in right away. She even said I can wear my robe until I felt comfortable, which immediately relaxed me, although I don't think this is the norm at these spas.

I signed up for a short scrub treatment since they didn't have availability for more without an appointment, and was told that my $20 facility fee was waived with the treatment. Use of the sauna is a prerequisite for the scrub so I was encouraged to use the facilities before the treatment, and afterward if so desired.

She urged me to take my shoes off in the lobby and carry them to the locker area, handing me my locker key, basket with 2 towels and a light cotton robe. She continued with the etiquette lesson saying that I must shower and wash my hair before using the facilities and also shower after using each sauna.

She also told me to place a towel "beneath my butt" before I sat anywhere, which almost made me chuckle to myself. That was a given considering how germ and hygiene-conscious I am! She reminded me that wearing swimsuits or clothing was not allowed.

Next to the locker room there was a lounge area where at least a dozen women in various levels of undress sprawled on the heated floor with mats and blankets engrossed in watching a Korean serial on a plasma TV. They didn't seem like they'd notice if I did cartwheels in the lounge!

The lounge area also contained water, tea, coffee, toiletries and a refrigerated case of cold beverages for sale, one beverage called "Sweat". They had no cafe inside, but posted several local Korean restaurant menus that delivered food there.

The floors throughout the spa were heated jade stone and felt great against my bare feet. Much to my surprise, the whole place had soft lighting. I expected fluorescent lighting for some reason.

As I put my street clothes into the locker and changed into my robe, I decided to lock away my inhibitions too. When I entered the bathing area, the room was mirrored from floor to ceiling on one end and the wall was tiled on one end. There were about 14-15 nude women in the pools, bathing and treatment area.

I opted for one of the four standing showers (safely away from the mirrors), taking baby steps. Nobody even made a sideways glance at me, despite the fact that I was the only non-Korean woman in the room. They were busy scrubbing, in seated bathing, stretching, conditioning their hair, chatting. It began to feel like I was at a gym rather than having a new cultural experience.

It was impressive how these ladies were so at ease with their bodies, instead of focusing on every flaw, like many of us do. And there were all ages, shapes, sizes in the room. I wondered if the custom was to avert one's eyes, like we do in elevators. After my shower a couple of women made eye contact, smiled and a few greeted me, asking me my ethnicity in a friendly way. Most just went about their business.

So it was time to let the games begin! First up was the Jim Jil Bang sauna. This sauna had dry adobe walls with pine tree wood baking in a kiln. Sacks of herbs (probably mugwort) hung on the walls. The floors were so hot I hopped over to an open spot and quickly laid the towel down to get off my feet.

A woman sat next to me with a series of props including sandbags, an oversized sand timer and a couple of other things. She then left and another blond woman came in who was the only other non-Korean woman there. She mentioned she visited on a regular basis and proceeded to do some stretching.

I asked her about several trays of eggs stacked up on a rack over some coals in the room. These were seasoned spa eggs that slowly bake in the sauna for 7 hours. They were sold as snacks, 2 for $1. I love eggs and loved the concept and price but really didn't feel like eating after that intense heat so I passed it up for a future visit.

After 10 minutes in that sauna I already noticed some dead skin sloughing off my leg. I proceeded to the crystal and marble steam room with bowls of salt and thick, steamy air. Steam rooms are my favorite but somehow this one was too dense and warm for me and I didn't make it for more than 5 minutes before coming out to drink copious amounts of water.

The pools were empty at this point so I took another quick shower and then dipped my foot into the jacuzzi tub. The scalding water was too hot, so I decided to skip it. For some reason I've always felt suffocated when submerged in water and don't enjoy pools or jacuzzis much.

I looked at the ominous cold plunge pool and, for a change, was willing to use it to cool down. The strategy was slow immersion to limit shock, about a foot at a time. So with ankles in I was clenching my teeth. Knees in, not much better. Submerged from the waist down I began shivering. Then it was all the way, soaking from below the chin down.

My heart started beating faster. Then after a couple of  minutes my body kicked into gear and naturally warmed me up from the inside. Another woman loudly splashed into the pool and started pedaling her legs in place as if she were on an imaginary bike, probably to stay warm. Then other women came to take buckets of the cold water to splash on themselves.

I used my yoga training to tune out all the noise and movement and just focus on my breathing and inner warmth. In the yogic tradition, cold showers stimulate the nervous system. To my amazement I stayed in the pool for 15 minutes, outdoing (time-wise) any of the other women there. Some even gave me a couple of nods of approval. I felt invigorated and refreshed.

With all this new energy, it was time for the most appealing sauna. The largest sauna contained mud, clay and salt in the walls and floor with hot mineral air. It had a rustic, earthy cabin vibe, also with herbs, pine cones and very hot floors which had me hopping yet again to the nearest bamboo mat, which I lay down on and rested my head on the log pillow.

The room was not quiet. As I mentioned, these rituals are social in nature. As I lay there awkwardly in my birthday suit, two women were loudly talking to each other on either side of me. Some women were seated along the wall, loudly chatting, probably waiting for available mats. There were drafts of cold air as the door kept opening and closing by staff and customers.

Once again, my Western mindset associates relaxation with silence, but I opted to close my eyes and reframe my thinking. How hard was it to tune out these ladies speaking a language I couldn't even understand? My towel and mat were drenched by now with my own sweat, which was the intended result. It felt like I was transported to Asia, somewhere back in time.

I was quite zoned out and loving life right about then. After a few minutes I heard in English "number 25 - ready". I looked at my wrist band with the locker key and sure enough, it had a tag with 25 on it. Time for the treatment. This was my second hurdle, after the fear of mandatory nudity, of being aggressively scrubbed to oblivion!

The Akasuri scrub, also known as "red scrub" (ouch!) is an ancient Korean and Japanese purification ritual where ajumas, as these ladies are called, don exfoliating mitts and scrub bathers' backs. This vigorous rubdown restores vitality to the skin by cleaning pores and brushing away dead skin, dirt, bacteria until the skin is clean and smooth to the touch.

The Yelp reviews indicated that the typical uniform for the ajumas are black lace bras and panties. Why not a bathing suit, I'm not sure. For my adventure I hopped onto a vinyl covered baby pink table on my stomach. The ajuma scrubbed me not once, but three times, making sure no nook or cranny was neglected.

The back scrub felt good, with a decent but not painful amount of pressure. She proceeded to arrange my body like a doll, having me flip around and to each side.
The front scrub was more challenging, since many areas of the body are, well... softer. Her English was minimal but effective asking me "turn to side" or "Is the power okay?" from time to time. She got her points across effectively.

One of the Yelp reviews by Mary Kay T. said they cover "...all except the sweat-inducing grazing of Hello Kitty", which sums it up. She scrubbed everything but my face, included areas that are not often scrubbed, such as my palms, neck, underarms. She used stronger materials to scrub the feet.

My skin is the one thing I get complimented on the most and it was hard to imagine there was a lot of bad stuff in it. Wrong! Dead skin was coming off in grey shards that looked like eraser dust. It was piling up on the table and I could even feel if fly into my palms. Not a pleasant sight to behold or feel. Even less pleasant knowing this is what we usually carry on ourselves.

The best part of the scrub was periodically having a bucket of warm, cascading water poured all over me. It almost felt like I was an infant being bathed, it was so comforting and primal. My eyes were closed for most of the scrub because the tables are all alongside each other with no partitions and it's just strange making eye contact with someone going through such intimate grooming.

The roughly $40/45 minute treatment ended with being covered with soap, rinsing under the shower, a facial cleanser, a shampoo with scalp massage and a quick 2-minute back massage. A better bang for the buck for any treatment I cannot fathom. I got up from the table a bit dazed and headed back to the lounge to moisturize my skin, comb my hair, drink more water and get dressed.

Upon leaving the spa area the woman who welcomed me told me I was glowing and looked like a transformed woman. Another poignant comment by Yelper Mary Kay T. was: "they'll kick your butt and you'll like it". So true. I didn't leave feeling pampered but felt healthy and decompressed.

Since the treatment ended during peak rush hour, I spontaneously drove over to Thai Town and completed my "me time" with a decadent Thai massage.

Next stop was to pick up some carb-loaded snacks from the Thai sweet shop Bhan Kanom. The snacks were crispy rice cakes with palm sugar drizzle, bananas stewed in warm coconut milk, Thai Iced Tea with boba, and my favorite, the mouth-watering grilled coconut milk cakes. I took a few bites in the car, then enjoyed the leftovers the next couple of days. I hadn't eaten all day and these sweet snacks gave me the energy boost to drive home.

While I was contemplating whether I'd try the bath house, I took this photo of my hand, on the left. The image on the right was taken the same evening, after the treatment. They were taken at different times of the day with different lighting, so it's not an accurate comparison. 

But it's not about how it looks, it's how it feels. The days following the scrub any accidental brushes against my own skin made me smile. I could hardly believe it was me with this irresistible skin that felt softer to the touch than all but a baby's skin. I wanted to ask everyone I saw to touch my arm, but knew that would be strange.

This visit actually improved my self-confidence, a result totally unexpected after my anxiety about embarking on this experience. I left the outside world for awhile and returned with the priceless gift of feeling calm, clean, soft and beautiful.

14 Responses to “My First Korean Bath House Experience in Multiculti L.A.”:

  1. Andi? says:

    This sounds like a great experience, actually. I think I would love to try something like this.

  2. Thanks, Andi? HIGHLY recommended.

  3. ideafield says:

    Having only tried the Korean Spa experience once a few months ago, your post makes me want to go back right this minute! But this time I will try the place you tried... the spa eggs intrigue me! As do the very authentic touches you described. I laughed and smiled numerous times while reading your words. Eraser dust? lololol I must agree, stepping outside if our comfort zone can pay off tremendously. We should all push each other to challenge ourselves more. In my experience... the reward is divine. :-)

  4. Thank you for the kind words, petite_syrah. In our friendship you've definitely pushed me to be more creative and adventurous and I am so honored to do the same for you.

  5. Sunny D says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. In my own experience with Korean day spas, I was kneaded and punched like pizza dough by a tiny Korean woman. Rather than the spa experience that I encounter at American spas, the Korean Day Spas physically wore me out. In the end, however, I had beautiful, baby soft skin.

  6. Thanks for your comments, "DGTFT". I agree that the service is not mild or pampering, but I think the reward is the soft skin afterward. I was reluctant to get the massage because I can't handle deep pressure, so just did the scrub. I also really enjoyed the various sauna facilities.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I wanted to thanks for this great read!! I positively having fun with every little little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you put up

  8. And I positively had fun reading your kind words. This was a huge experience for me and was so fun to write about. Hope to create more fun posts for you.

  9. V. Y. says:

    Your article was spot on. I have recently been initiated into the K-Spa scene, trying out a different one each time. Regardless of how "lux" or basic the facilities, the satisfaction of getting scrubbed to within an inch of your life is the most satisfying treat. Admittedly the first scrub was kind of shocking -- both the very, very thorough nature of it and seeing how much dead stuff came off!
    I keep trying to convince my girlfriends to go, but they can't muster up the courage for the full nudity. I frankly find it so sweet to see three generations walking around ~~Toddlers to 700+ years olds, bathing each other and sharing such a wonderful bathing ritual.

  10. Hello V.Y., Thanks so much for your wonderful comments. As the post describes, it was a challenge for me to accept the experience but it's so worth it when one surrenders.

    Admittedly, I would feel uncomfortable going with a group. For now easing in with stranger works for me.

    One's comfort level with this type of thing is largely based on cultural norms, as you've suggested. I too find it sweet!

    Thanks for reading.

  11. im says:

    I must try it!

  12. im, would love to hear your thoughts after you try it! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  13. foodieNewbie says:

    great read! even i haven't tried a rubdown, mostly because i'm too ticklish but i have been to one of the more popular, famous K-spas around: Olympic Spa. can you tell me which one you went to?

Leave a comment

Please feel free to provide feedback and comments.