When in L.A., Nourish Your Seoul

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I call it my “poor girl’s vacation.” Whenever I’m stuck in a rut and crave the exotic, I hop on the 10 freeway and drive north to Rampart and Wilshire, where a monolithic building called Wi Spa is, at 48,000 square feet, the largest spa in Koreatown. As I park in the secure lot, I realize that the on-site auto detailer will do for my car what the spa is about to do for me.

This is where I go to be immersed in another language and culture, one that has a long history of honoring the body with communal bathing–a concept that seems completely foreign to someone who was raised in a little Quaker town and is self-conscious in the extreme. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Wi Spa attracts local Korean families and jet-lagged travelers on long layovers from Seoul who see this ritual as a way to get scrupulously clean, relaxed, and recharged, a tradition born in ancient Korea where most homes lacked bathing facilities.

At the no-frills front desk, I pay in advance ($90 for a 90-minute Buff & Massage, $15 for a manicure), and am given a towel and a locker key: since some of the staff don’t speak English, by your locker number you shall be known, not your name. I’m directed downstairs to the women-only floor, where self-serve cubby holes stock different sized T-shirts, shorts, and (for modest newcomers) waffle-weave wrap robes. Abandon all shoes, ye who enter here, and swimsuits too: ye will go naked in the hot and cold pools, dry sauna, steam room, and scrub room. The only other clothes permitted are shapeless spa-issued shorts and-T shirts, worn in the vast women’s lounge (with couches on which to chat or read and a soundproofed sleeping room if you want to catch some Zs) and in the coed rooms two flights up. The schlumpy outfits ensure a G-rated atmosphere, which is a good idea, since families are welcome up in the coed jimjilbang, with its heated marble flooring (nice on bare feet), five sauna rooms (one, a sandbox-like affair filled with warm terra-cotta ball-bearings, is a trip to sink into, just watch your footing as you step in), a play zone for children, computers for those who just can’t remain offline, flat screen TVs (tuned to Korean sports, news, and soap operas), a restaurant (try the spicy ramen noodles), and plenty of space on which to pitch a foam mat and just zone out.

Although there is no time limit at Wi Spa (you can hang out all day and night if you wish), I like to arrive at least 45 minutes before my appointment to shower, shave my legs, soak in the two hot pools, take a dip in the cold pool (even if it’s just a toe), and then work up a sweat in the sauna and steam rooms. (Note to first-timers: although the shower stalls are equipped with bath gels, shampoo, and conditioner, and the locker room with body lotion and toothbrushes, there are no razors; a boutique near the locker room has anything you’ve forgotten (all imported from Korea, including makeup, hair accessories, nail care, skin-brightening masks, and loofahs).

My number is called by a no-nonsense body worker named Yoo, a middle-aged Korean lady in black bra and panties, and I follow her into the scrub room, where dozens of chest-high stalls, open to the front, are outfitted with massage tables and sinks. “Face down,” she says, applying shower gel to a hand mitt, before scrubbing me backwards, forwards, sideways, and down and rinsing me with sloshes of warm water from a plastic pail. I’ve never felt so alive and tingly, as if I’ve molted off my skin, and we’re only 30 minutes into the treatment. “Up,” she says, squeezing out what looks like toothpaste onto my hand. Turns out it’s facial scrub, and I’m to head to the shower, wash my face, and rinse my body thoroughly (in case the pail missed anything). When I return, I lie down on fresh towels, and she gives me a dry, acupressure-type massage and then a rubdown with moisturizer. I’m in heaven, emitting small groans when she unkinks the knots in my upper back and shoulders. Face up, I feel a cold fresh-cucumber mask being smoothed on my skin, and she shampoos and conditions my hair as it hangs over the end of the table. She combs it through, wraps it in a towel, removes my facial mask, and has me sit up so she can pummel my shoulders with little karate-chops—slap slap slap—which signal the end of the treatment. I thank her, she hands me a white tip envelope with her name on it, and I walk back, zombie-like, to my locker, where I contemplate what just happened to me. Every fiber of my being feels alive, and I resolve to do this weekly, as a thank you to my body for carrying me around, letting me play tennis, and housing my soul. Heck, it’s no less than a groom would do for a racehorse. The Thoroughbred deserves it, and so do I.

In my T-shirt and shorts, I step into the nail salon for my manicure, which is a bit  anticlimactic, and then walk on up to the jimjilbang to hang out while my nails dry. Like Goldilocks, I check out the oak wood sauna (too hot, at 231 degrees), the ice sauna (too cold, at 41), the salt room (where I tread on ½” thick salt crystals), and the jade room, walled in the semiprecious stone for its supposed healing properties. No need—I’m healed. As I drop off my locker key and leave a tip for Yoo, I make a deal with myself: stop eating out so much and use the savings to explore the “menu” here. I already know what I’m going to order next time: something called the Brown Sugar Polish. My soul says yum.

About Laurie Drake

A third-generation Californian, Laurie fled to New York City after college to pursue a career in publishing, where she worked at Vogue as an editor and writer for 13 years before deciding it was time to come home. (After screaming at a dry cleaner on Second Avenue who had lost her favorite dress, she realized that the mean streets were making her…mean.) So she grabbed her then-husband and has been freelancing since 1991 from a condo in Santa Monica. Beauty is her usual beat, but she also likes to travel. Over the years she has written about beauty, health, and fitness for The New York Times, Allure (where she was a contributing editor), Glamour, Self, and the Los Angeles Times. (If you still have the July 2011 issue of Vogue, catch her story on the latest wrinkle fillers, “Custom Made.”)