There’s something delicious, hedonistic even, about a trip to a day spa. If I close my eyes, I envision lying on a cushioned table, snuggled in one of those fluffy, heated blankets, straight from the warmer, while an anonymous someone applies fruit or herb scented concoctions to my face and body after a 60 to 90 minute massage. I’ve been to a few, but not many, as they usually don’t come cheap.
When one of my daughters announced we were going to spend a few hours at a spa in Los Angeles recently, the appropriate pleasure area of my brain lit up. She saw my eyes roll back and quickly added a disclaimer: it was a place she had never been to before, but thought it might be fun to check out together. And, by the way, it was a Korean spa.
The lighted things in my brain paused, realigning their expectations. Stereotypes and preconceived notions swirled as a weird mosaic began to take shape. I envisioned a spa-version of a Chinese laundry with sweaty Asian men dressed in white tee shirts, aprons and head wrappings punishing me with their hands, beating my back like a drum while judging my wrinkles. Female attendants tsk-tsked as they smeared octopus ink, shark fin serum and oils made from slaughtered endangered species on my skin, reserving the magical potions for their well-heeled, regular customers. After all, what could I expect from a place that is open 24 hours a day and only charges a fifteen dollar entry fee?
I smiled bravely and entered the double doors of the Wi spa, somewhat apprehensive about the exact translation of the word “jjimjilbang”. At the front desk, we were given waterproof wristwatch-like devices that secured our lockers with a wave of our hands. The receptionist explained that the lower floor was for women only, the middle floor for men only and the upper floor was co-ed. She indicated that we were welcome to don an outfit of their well-worn signature tee shirts and shorts if we were uncomfortable with nudity.
Wait….what? My anxiety meter rose. Who said anything about being nude? I brought my bathing suit for the hot and cold Jacuzzis, so surely that would be allowed. We changed into the logo-splashed uniform and walked straight into a room full of naked Korean women. A large sign indicated that no clothing of any kind was allowed in the Jacuzzis, and instructed us to visit the washing stations before entering the water. Oh, those must be the showers, I thought. Why don’t they just call them that?
Well, because they aren’t. Rows of women squatted on little molded plastic seats that looked like step stools to me, but tilted so you could see THAT in front of large lighted mirrors, wash basins and handheld shower heads. They cleaned every inch of themselves as if they were preparing to be inspected afterward. I told my daughter I would wait for her on the benches against the wall and sat behind a post so I’d have something to look at other than, uh, naked people. There was no escape. My eyes searched for something neutral to stare at, only to land on an open passageway that revealed a room full of tables that held more naked women whose body parts jiggled as they were massaged by female attendants dressed in bras and panties. Said daughter knew I was hiding and suggested we check out the co-ed floor.
A little voice in my head warned, “If the women’s floor freaked you out, just wait.” As it turned out, the co-ed floor was my favorite. The stairwell opened up into a large gym-like area ringed by several saunas. The first was small, and the floor was covered with large nuggets of salt. We followed the example of the others already inside and lay down in the salt. I was tempted to move my arms and legs to make the equivalent of a snow angel, but restrained my Caucasian self. The temperature was 124 degrees. After a prudent length of time, we decided to try the ice room, where the 41 degree air was a welcome relief. The jade sauna was next, with mats on the floor of an enclosure where the walls and ceiling were constructed of various rocks and geodes which I supposed were types of jade. Its temperature rivaled the salt sauna. They clay sauna was closed for maintenance, but what we could see indicated it was made of little clay balls to lie on instead of salt.
The most intense sauna was the forest room where the temperature was over 200 degrees. There were no places to sit, as our butts would have protested vigorously. We stood on our towels for protection and fled back to the ice room after about 5 minutes.
Mats and foam block headrests lay in rows on the floor, inviting us to relax after the saunas sucked away energy, toxins and bad karma. Thank goodness everyone on this floor was clothed. My daughter took a brief nap on one of the mats. I rested beside her for a few minutes before fleeing to the familiarity of the computer terminals to check my email, in English.
So, would I go back to the “jjimjilbang” Korean Day Spa? Definitely. It was super-clean, and I loved both the alternating temperature saunas as well as the opportunity to relax. Just close the door to that room with all the naked people.