The 5 Best Korean Spas Around the Country—And Why You Should Go
Skipping a grade in elementary school gave me a huge burst of confidence. That is, until I was forced to navigate locker rooms among very developed thirteen-year-olds while I was still very much eleven. I learned how to artfully unhook my completely unnecessary bra while half of my shirt was still on, covering my undeveloped body as though with a magician’s cloak. But even with superior draping techniques and dexterity, locker rooms terrified me well into adulthood. Even with a healthy body that finally developed into what could be classified as an average adult woman, I continued to be racked with nervousness, to the point that I would rather jump out of a plane than take off my clothes in front of my peers.
In my postcollegiate life, I consumed a steady diet of mainstream media that told me how to get a beach body, perfect abs, and generally hate myself for having hips. As an adult in my 30s, I’d even duck into the bathroom before disrobing among others. Pair this with the fact that I’m American (if you didn’t already know this, we’re culturally some of the most modest and uptight when it comes to baring all) and you have a trifecta of modesty.
All of this came to a head a month ago in Los Angeles. I was on day four of a seven-day boot camp, and one of my fellow CrossFit sadists suggested we get a massage to help with the muscle soreness. She said she knew a great place in Koreatown, a neighborhood right next to our gym. I could barely wait to have hot stones sliding across my deltoids to the sounds of whales mating or whatever might be trending sonically in the day spa scene.
On the drive over, my friend joked that we should sign nondisclosure agreements, given the fact that we’d see each other naked. I laughed and agreed, but would have seriously inked that NDA right then without irony.
Little did I know we were booked at Olympic Spa, a traditional Korean spa, or jjimjilbang. My friend wasn’t referencing the 90 seconds of changing into a robe before heading into separate dark rooms where we’d be covered by a sheet and a closed door. She was referencing the 90 minutes of full nudity that we’d be experiencing in brightly lit rooms full of dozens of other women. This wasn’t a day spa in Koreatown; it was a Korean spa in Koreatown.
I realized what was going down once we approached the communal showers, part of the ritual before entering the soaking tubs and mineral pool. It was just like that classic nightmare in which you show up to class and you have no clothes on, except in this reality, everyone was naked with you, laying in a jade steam sauna. There I stood, facing the hooks for my robe and towel. In the distance I saw the exit, but I knew I couldn’t make a run for it. I was a grown-ass woman, and this was something I had to do. I hung up my robe and marched to my destination, the farthest of the twelve showerheads. At this point my only cover was eye contact. If I was making eye contact with my friend, or anyone else, then we couldn’t really see each other naked. But this didn’t really help; I continued to cycle between disbelief and complete white-knuckled terror.
As I left the shower and entered one of the soaking tubs, I tried to maintain an air of nonchalantness, even though my heart rate was reaching 150 beats per minute. I glanced around and noticed I was surrounded by naked women of almost every size, race, age, and body type. There were birthmarks, moles, hair, cellulite, scars, stretch marks, wrinkles, freckles, acne, nipples of different diameters and colors and proportions that never make cameos in movies, magazine pages, or on billboards. There were big-breasted women with small hips and big-hipped women with small breasts. Why had I never seen this before?!
It hit me quite squarely: This was the first time I got a glimpse of what women really look like naked. And while this revelation could have occurred in many other places—a Finnish sauna, a Turkish bath, a Japanese sento, or a Russian banya—I had never been so grateful to live right near L.A.’s Koreatown, where there is so much diversity.
The contrast to the airbrushed perfection of magazines and ad campaigns was expected, but the contrast to viral ads like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty was also striking. Those “real” women were just slightly larger (but still flawless and in perfect proportion) than their non-real counterparts.
After more than 30 years of being in the dark, I had created a gap between a perceived reality and a reality so incredibly large, it’s no wonder I didn’t want to get naked. As I drove away from the spa, my skin was refreshed, and so was my mind. The Olympic Spa provided me with possibly the most transformative 90 minutes on offer in L.A. Prices start at $20.
Here, the five best jjimjilbang in the country:
Wi Spa takes the Korean spa experience to the next level. It’s a megaplex that’s open 24 hours a day, is family-friendly, has a Wi-Fi-outfitted lounge area, a gym, a library, a computer room, a kids’ zone, a restaurant, a nail salon, and a sleeping room. You can check out anytime you’d like, but you may not want to.
Run by six sisters who emigrated from South Korea, Imperial Spa emerged from a dry cleaning facility on Geary Boulevard in Japantown. The 6,000-square-foot spa will leave you feeling clean as a whistle after taking part in its public baths, scrubs, massages, and cucumber masks.
New York Spa & Sauna
While the neighboring theme park–like Spa Castle may get all the hype, New York Spa & Sauna provides a more traditional and tranquil place to unwind. The services are minimal and mostly feature dead-skin exfoliation scrubs, but what it lacks in pizazz, it surely makes up for in atmosphere.
Havana Health Spa
Just outside Denver, you can forget about the ski lodge spa experience and soak and get scrubbed at Havana Health Spa. Make extra time to take in its mud room, which it claims detoxifies and hydrates, as well as its crystal room, which it claims helps your digestive system and energy levels.
While many Korean spas are segregated by gender, Olympus Spa caters only to women. After soaking and getting scrubbed with scrub mitts, enjoy a cup of tea in its gorgeous tearoom.