I’m writing you from the back left La-Z-boy at a Korean Spa in Los Angeles. The room, an off-white (that odd vanilla color that’s supposed to be cozy and warm, but always looks a bit dingy), is buzzing with snores of my fellow La-Z-boy loungers, of all races and ages. Not just Koreans, but people from all over LA (and the world?) who have come to relax in the saunas and steam rooms of Wi Spa.
I’m here in the back left La-Z-boy with a Muji pen and Moleskine notebook. Materials that proved to be a conversation starter with one of my fellow loungers. “Paper and pen? You don’t see that very often,” said a singer-songwriter from Trinidad who came to the Korean spa to get away from the hustle and bustle of a life in LA. I, too, am here for the same reason.
Maybe you remember that time I got all kinds of naked at a Japanese onsen (sauna) in Tokyo. No? Ok. Well that happened. I personally remember it very, very vividly. This experience at a Korean spa is very similar…with less rainbow-colored vending machines.
Koreatown, Los Angeles, is known for having the largest Korean population outside of South Korea. With that comes the Korean culture – Korean barbecue restaurants, Karaoke bars, Korean cafés, and Korean spas. But of these Korean culture “imports” I’d say the most different from American culture is this concept of Korean spas.
You’re completely naked.
And I know that’s scary for many of you, especially those of you who are American who didn’t grow up with nudity being “a thing.” Trust me, I’m from the depths of Indiana where even wearing board shorts above the knee is reason enough to be shocked.
Being that I live in Koreatown and am surrounded by literally over ten Korean Spas, I knew it was only time before I blogged about what it’s really like inside. And I think I’ve been putting this off because…it’s really not that overwhelming or intimidating at all.
Of the many Korean Spas, all the reviews will tell you to go to Wi Spa. I’ve done a few of the other spas, but I agree Wi Spa really is the best. It’s located in a somewhat shady part of town where my Uber driver confirmed I “probably shouldn’t be walking around this area at night.”
Upon check-in, you receive a white Wi Spa t-shirt for men, or a yellow t-shirt for women, to be worn in all areas except your gender’s exclusive sauna/steam rooms. They also give you some paper thin sandals that’ll probably fall apart before you’re done with your visit (happened to me).
Each spa is typically divided by gender, for nakey-nakey purposes, but Wi Spa has a coed floor, often referred to as jimjilbang. Here at Wi, the coed floor feels like an airport terminal, where groups of teens are lying on the floor giggling, mothers are walking around with their toddlers, and couples are eating in the cafeteria. It feels like camp, in a random building in the middle of Los Angeles.
On one side of the jimjilbang are two hot saunas and one ice sauna, all coed, but reminder: you have to wear your Wi Spa uniform on the coed floor ya nasties. While I appreciate the option of being able to relax with my friends of another gender, I’m 100% sure y’all can catch me outside because sweating in a 100% cotton tee uniform does not sound too relaxing after all.
Now onto the more…raw side of the spa
So you get naked. You don’t have to; there were a few guys who kept their Wi Spa big balloon shorts on, but to all the Koreans out there, you’re probably looking like “that guy.” When in Rome, do as the Romans do – and that’s what the other thirty men in the room are doing.
I know what you’re thinking. “But what if I run into someone I know?” Ok, so what. We all have bodies underneath our clothes – and from what I’ve seen in my peripherals, they all look 99% the same. Give or take a few inches. Hahahahaha.
There are two hot pools, an ice pool, a steam room, a sauna, a heated floor to lie down on, and about 30 stand-up and sit-down showers. I choose to head to the sauna first. If you go, there will probably be some middle-aged Korean fathers nonchalantly chillin’ with their junk out, super fit athletes with a gallon of water trying to detox, and a few randos/stragglers like myself who came alone and who are just trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing there. I close my eyes and try to clear my brain from all the videos, blogs, meetings, emails, etc., and just as I’m getting into my zen, I notice there’s a TV playing – with no buttons to shut it off – and it’s playing American Horror Story. Of all the shows, how was that show chosen? And on top of that, it’s the trypophobia season. Not what I want to be focusing on while I’m naked in a 184 degree sauna. Instead of realizing life’s daily problems are all pretty minor and focusing on letting things go, I find myself strategizing this poor woman’s supermarket escape so she doesn’t get attacked by clowns.
I leave and go to the hot bath. There are two hot baths, but after seeing other guys’ bodies literally beet red, I opted for the less hot hot pool. It feels like a big hot bath, that doesn’t get lukewarm like a bath at home. Most people will alternate between the super hot bath and the freezing ice bath to help their blood circulation. After seeing many of the guys jumping into the ice bath, I knew I had to do it too. I didn’t come this far to stop now.
I walk over and dip my foot in. Freezing. Absolutely freezing. Not the most enticing thing a man would want to do when he’s completely exposed. But whatever, it’s not about that; this is supposed to be a relaxing, rejuvenating experience. I mentally pump myself up like I’m about to go on a roller coaster, and I dip my toe in, trying not to look phased, when really I was dying inside. I finally tell myself to just do it and I plunge myself in.
Cue the panicking and dramatic gasping for air – literally letting out a loud “Ahhh!” – the only person to do so. I knew it was loud when a man who was in the shower twenty feet away looked over and in a deadpan voice says,
“Is it cold in there?”
I couldn’t even get words out. I’m sure I looked like an amateur, but that’s ok because I am an amateur.
Your trip to the Korean spa can be as social, or as quiet, as you want it to be. I personally talked to more people in the three hours I spent at spa than at my gym since I signed up nine months ago. The conversations I’ve had range from a college student asking what magazine I was reading to a yogi asking if I was the guy who gave him back his debit card. I responded “No, no, I don’t work here.” (which I now realize probably sounded rude at the time) but it gave me hope we’re all in a safe place if people are being handed back their debit cards. Even when checking in, I stood behind a middle-aged brunette who looked and acted like my mom – she knew the employee at the cash register and complimented him on becoming manager.
It made me realize that the concept of a Korean spa is more than just a spa; It’s a community. I see why Koreans have kept this tradition around in their culture and why they felt it was necessary to bring it to Koreatown in Los Angeles.
And if we take this even a step further – I think it’s just now hitting me:
I’ve got kimchi and rice in my locker and I’m totally naked at a Korean spa.
I think I can finally say I live in Koreatown.