The first time I experienced a Korean spa, I was a youngster, visiting my grandparents in Taegu, South Korea. The shallowness of the oval tub reminded me of our local kiddie pool, except everyone was female, not a bathing suit was in sight and there wasn't an ice cream stand.
In recent months, I have started visiting the mogyoktang , or Korean spa, in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Korean is the preferred language at the spa, but I don't speak it, despite my Korean roots. I'm not sure if it's harder at the mogyoktang to be Korean and not speak the language, or to be a non-Asian.
My favorite spa mate Nancy, who was also my translator, had reintroduced me to the mogyoktang . But after she moved to New York, I was reluctant to go alone. Finally, I did. And, despite my language phobia, the experience was one of the best I have had.
If you are prudish, the mogyoktang might not be for you. Although men and women have separate facilities, there is very little privacy, and everyone is naked. You receive your body scrub or massage mere inches from someone else. But the nudity is something to which you quickly adapt, and you'll end up feeling like an outcast if you shroud yourself in a robe or towel.
Unlike other spas, which strive to pamper clients in more luxurious settings, Korean spas have a casual, bustling atmosphere. Though they offer scrubs, massages and facials, the goal is to get clean; on weekends, mothers often bring their children.
There are about a dozen Korean spas in Los Angeles; the best-known is Beverly Hot Springs on Beverly Boulevard, which also happens to be the most integrated. Others are scattered around Koreatown like hidden gems, discovered mostly by word of mouth.
"It got to the point that people made their friends promise not to tell anyone about them," says Edward Kim, manager of Century Spa on West Olympic Boulevard, which has become my favorite. There's something I find especially satisfying about its open ambience, the warm milk bath and sauna temperatures.
There is a regimen to be followed at a Korean spa, and those who speak no Korean should be initiated in advance. When Nancy and I used to visit the spa, we would speak English--loudly. As a result, the mogyoktang newbies would often seek us out for guidance.
When clients first arrive at Century Spa, they are expected to shower before they may enter the black tub, a pool infused with tea made from mugwort, a medicinal herb that's brewed before it's poured into the pool. Mugwort is supposed to improve circulation, eliminate toxins and reduce fatigue. After the black pool, we cool down in the cold pool or venture to the sauna.
The ajuma , or middle-aged woman, who gave me my body scrub, or ttae miri, and massage oil treatment on my most recent visit, spoke little English. Wearing a yellow robe over her uniform of bra and underpants, she was searching for a client, calling out a number in Korean. I didn't realize it was mine until she found me in the sauna among several other Korean women. I broke the sauna's silence--in English--when I asked if she'd been calling number 91.
"Yes, yes, that's you," someone said.
A ttae miri treatment removes dead skin, leaving skin glowing and silky soft.
Traditionally, a Korean bride will bathe like this before her wedding--this also would be a good way to impress a first date. One friend who got the salt rub treatment claimed she glistened like a disco ball for a week.
During my first ttae miri, Nancy kept checking up on me--she knew I was scared, having heard the rumors that sometimes the attendants scrub too hard. But afterward, all I could think of was how great it would be to be scrubbed like this every week.
On this visit, though, there was no Nancy to monitor my welfare. The woman started scrubbing me with scratchy little mitts on both her hands and asked if I spoke Korean. I shook my head and said no, wanting to explain that I grew up in Minnesota, a place with few Koreans. But I just smiled instead.
After my scrub, she gave me a soap massage and told me to shower. I thought I'd rinsed well, but apparently not. When I returned, she pointed out flecks of exfoliated skin and shook her head in disappointment.
I felt like a child as she led me back to the showers and helped me remove all traces of dirt so that I was spotless and primed for my oil massage.
The oil massage was deep and a bit painful, but got a crick out of my back. A fresh cucumber mask was slathered over my face and then the ajuma washed my hair. The massage ended when she doused me with warm milk.
Fees at Korean spas tend to be lower than those at mainstream spas. Getting in the door usually costs about $15. Body scrubs cost about $30 and an oil massage $40, but clients are expected to tip at least 20%. At some spas you tip each attendant, at others you leave a tip on the total bill.