I chuckle to myself, laid out on a table, face down, as a woman who I had just met wrestles the muscles in my back into submission. It feels more martial art than massage, though I happily endure. I have been looking forward to this and excitedly paid for the experience.
Before moving to the Bay Area, I was living in Los Angeles for 10 years longer than I had ever planned. During the last three years there, I was also living in an abusive relationship. Going to the spa was a way for me to escape my troubles for a couple of hours — a form of healing of the body and mind. The bathhouse became a place of refuge where I could escape the male gaze and the pressures of my chaotic domestic life. The spa became my safe haven.
Spas are a place where you can cultivate a sense of relaxation and well-being. The scientific proof of the health benefits are harder to pin down, although a Harvard Medical study shows that saunas increase blood flow and circulation. They should be used with caution if you have blood pressure or heart problems. Spas can also melt stiffness in the joints and muscles, promoting flexibility. Most importantly, it is a space that is devoted to healthy relaxation — no work! No phones! No alcohol! Please, no alcohol. Be sure to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. A short stay in the sauna can sweat a pint of water from the body.
The first Korean spa, or Jimjilbang, was the result of the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1925. Invading colonial forces brought their bathing culture with them and the public bathhouse, evolving in time with Korean saunas and bathing practices, which then became a fixture of Korean culture.
Los Angeles has the highest Korean-American population in the United States, according to the 2010 Census, and there are a staggering number of spas to choose from. My favorite, called Wi-Spa, in Koreatown is a multistory wonderland of rushing water and steam — a layered cake of relaxation, beauty and leisure. From the ground up is the women’s spa, the second level is the men’s spa, above are hair salons and treatment rooms, then there is the massive co-ed area with heated floors, restaurant, saunas, computers and children’s play room, and up at the top on the roof level is an outdoor lounge and sitting area where men chain-smoke cigarettes and spa-goers can marvel at one of the best places in the city to catch the sunset. It is open 24 hours every day of the year. You can even spend the night. Wi-Spa is similar to the grander spas you will find in South Korean cities.
Re-locating to the Bay Area over a year ago, I was a little uneasy about where I could go to get my spa fix. I have heard that there are some larger spas in the South Bay, but living in Oakland required something a little more local.
In the neighboring city of San Leandro sits PSY Health Town. Although smaller than Wi-Spa, it offers many of the services found in a larger Jimjilbang. I booked a scrub and massage for $80. This price includes full access to the facilities. When you factor in the admission to the facilities which is $25 without any services, this is a great deal for a full body massage and scrub. For the scrub, they usually recommend that you arrive at least a half an hour beforehand so you can soak and steam your skin in preparation for a buffing. At the front desk I am handed a locker key, a pink cotton robe, a small and a big towel.
I strip down completely, except for the key around my wrist, and as I walk to the spa area, I am startled and amused by my nakedness in the giant mirror. I forget that going to the spa is also an act of bravery.
The nudity took a little getting used to for monthly spa goer Mi-Ri Harris, 32, of Los Angeles.
“At first it was jarring. There are so many naked bodies. I admit, there was a little bit of peeking on my part, but you get used to it,” Harris said. “Everyone has such interesting bodies!”
In a Korean spa, all ages and body types are represented. Everyone is naked which requires a little bit of trust but is also quite liberating.
PSY Health Town is not the luxurious place you might find in fancy hotels and resorts. The hot and cold tubs are located in the middle of a cavernous, echo chamber of a tiled room that may have once contained a swimming pool. The giant arched window has been blacked-out so that no one can see inside, and the room is pretty dark. In the center sits the hot tub, and wading into the illuminated pool is like entering a warm, green moon. Alone, I swirled about until I tired of acting the celestial mermaid and headed for the steam room.
Opening the door, I am confronted by a thick cloud of steam scented with medicinal mugwort, and it feels good to breathe it in. The walls are mortared with amethyst and jade for their healing properties. I feel the tension and the toxins of city life and academia sweat out of my body.
My attendant, Lina, dressed in the traditional uniform of a black bra and panties, leads me to one of three green slab-like tables in the back of the shower room. I have been to Korean spas in Las Vegas, Honolulu, and California, and I am always tickled by the sight of these older women working in their black lingerie.
On the table, Lina uses roughly textured hand mitts to scrub the vestiges of tired epidermis off of every inch of my body. She taps me on the shoulder to marvel at the millions of grey balls of dead skin that are no longer a part of me. She throws buckets of warm water over me like people do to beached mammals, washing it all away.
Lying on the slab, I have an out-of-body experience, like I am on a table in a morgue, body washed in ritual to prepare for another life. She covers me in warm towels. I am peacefully laid to rest.
As quickly as I have slipped away, I am flipped over and jarred back to life. Face down, I cannot tell for sure, but Lina seems to leap up onto the table: jabbing, pummeling, kneading me with her knees, her feet, her elbows! It’s as if she has grown extra limbs, whipping the rocks in my back into cream.
Dazed, I get off the slab, naked as a newborn babe, thrilled by the new skin I am in.
Mi-Ri Harris can attest to this feeling.
“It shifted for me. It’s hard to live without,” Harris said. “I feel different. I walk different, and goddamn, my skin is so soft!”
The treatments and scrub at PSY Health Town are the best I ever had, but another option nearby for Oaklanders, with a more elegant and refined ambiance, is Imperial Spa in San Francisco.
Here, for $25 you can grab a razor and toothbrush at the front desk, slide your feet into jeweled rubber spa slippers, a pretty pink robe, and dip from hot tub to sauna to steam room to cold plunge in any order you wish. One woman I saw there was reading her Kindle in the hot tub, but electronic devices are usually frowned upon in the spa area.
Imperial is a nice, cozy spa that does not have co-ed saunas and restaurant, but its bathing areas are top-notch, clean, and the soaps, shampoos and lotions are higher quality. It’s intimate. On the evening I went, many women were taking part in the healing ritual that the bathhouse provides, and there was a sense of camaraderie.
“I feel part of a culture of women, “ says Harris.
I, too, have learned to take better care of myself. Though I no longer feel trapped in the toxic love I once had, there are plenty of things I need to release into the steam every so often. The jimjilbang offers community and a space for well-being that would be hard to let go of now that it’s a part of me. Thankfully, the Bay Area offers some nice, affordable spas to retreat to and soak my cares away.
Wi-Spa: 2700 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90057
PSY Health Town: 14075 E. 14th St. San Leandro, CA 94578
Imperial Spa: 1875 Geary Blvd. San Francisco, CA 94115