It’s often said that the heart of Los Angeles is only experienced when introduced to by a local. Korean Spa-ing, I discovered, is a sacred and thriving subculture that LA-ers have adopted, appropriated and now groove to at their own tempo.
While being guided through Downtown LA’s maze-like establishment, Wi Spa – arguably the largest and most notorious of all Los Angeles’ Korean spas – I asked the General Manager if it was modelled on the same kind of thing in South Korea. Her response: “In many ways, sort of.”
The Wi Spa experience is like no other. Let me start at the beginning – believe me, every detail is worth it. Upon arrival, you’re handed a yellow T-shirt, a pair of grey shorts, a towel and a watch-like, waterproof wrist band with a number on it which acts as your key and ID respectively. If you don’t have the good fortune of being shown around as I was, you sort of… find your way to male or female quarters. From this point on there’s one thing and one thing only that becomes very apparent: everyone’s naked. You find your allocated locker by the matching number on your watch thingy, strip off (when in Rome!) and head towards the bathing area. In the women’s bathing area, women shower, scrub, soak and steam. Some people might be in groups or families and may chat, but for the most part, people are enjoying a quiet, introspective cleansing experience, collectively. There’s three communal tubs: The Warm Tub (which is really hot), the Hot Tub (which is fr**##in hot) and the Cold Tub (which is COLD). There’s also a Steam Sauna and a Dry Sauna.
Sitting in the tub you might think: “Wow… I’m naked in amongst all of these strangers and I didn’t even get a wax!” And it’s really liberating! In the women’s section there’s a kind of unspoken celebration of womanhood. Girls and women of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages convene; mothers and daughters, girlfriends, elderly Korean women, young professionals, hipsters – all enjoying the same sacred moment, the peace.
Behind a partition in the bathing area are the scrubbing beds. Korean women dressed in black underwear and flip flops come around the corner and call out appointed numbers (check your watch thingy!) The black undies and bra are purely practical attire (not saucy): these women throw buckets of warm water over bodies and scrub paws until whats left is baby porcelain.
If you go all out like I did, the time will come for your massage appointment. This is a big deal. In your uniformed shorts and T-shirt, you’ll make your way around and up the maze to the Acupressure section (be warned: finding the correct floor and door may take some trial and error…) The Acupressure Massage they offer is quite rough and is performed over a sheet. At one point during this massage, the masseuse holds onto bars rigged to the ceiling and walks along your back! I had the Swedish Massage which begins with the sheet but is mostly a full body, sensual oil massage. If you can spare $90, you will get FULL access to the spa as well as this 1 hour massage. A worthy investment indeed!
The co-ed area is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Families and friends lay about on mats and watch TV in what is like a large gymnasium. Off from this common area is a kids room with all kinds of colourful play things and children’s entertainers. Then there’s the Korean cafeteria and an IT room. The highlight on this level, however, are the special saunas: Salt, Jade, Clay, Bulgama and Ice. You spend up to 20 minutes laying in each of these saunas while absorbing their therapeutic effects. For instance, you can bury your body in tiny hot clay balls which are imported from Korea and believed to detoxify. The thousand year old salt in the Salt Sauna helps cleanse the skins pores, and the rich jade embed walls in the Jade Room helps massage the brain and balance hormones.
For just $10 – $25 you have a general admission to all of these common areas. I can honestly understand why the Koreans and LA locals alike embrace the Spa-ing culture: a ritualistic, cleansing extraction from the frenetic pace of city slicker life. I think if we all entitled ourselves to a weekly Wi Spa visit, the world might just be a better place.