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Basking in a uniquely Korean 24-hour spa experience

Not just saunas, but video games, TVs, food, multiple generations and oddly, a place to sleep around the clock can be found at Wi Spa.

December 13, 2012|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Wi Spa at the edge of Koreatown is a place where immigrants, children of immigrants, local hipsters and more spend the night together on mats after bathing, playing video games, eating and otherwise relaxing.
Wi Spa at the edge of Koreatown is a place where immigrants, children of immigrants,… (Bethany Mollenkof / Los…)

Robert Kim took his family to Wi Spa last Friday night so his wife could revisit the public bath culture she grew up with in Korea. Besides, his two sons, the older one anyway, love the children's playroom, equipped with video games, foosball and a slide.

The Kims (the last name, he joked, of half the families in the cavernous jimjilbang) ran into another father he knew from the Korean-English dual language school their kids attend in Porter Ranch. (More on the jimjilbang later.) The children ran back and forth from the playroom to the floor mats where the men lounged, leaning against backrests.

"It's a nice little family outing," said Kim, a contractor. "We usually don't let them play video games except for weekends," Kim shrugged. "But my wife wanted to relax."

Wi is a 24-hour spa on the edge of K-town, modeled on a national culture that arose when most Koreans didn't have their own bathrooms. Several floors resemble a Western spa: marble counters, room dividers covered in tiny glass tile and a gym.

But the jimjilbang is uniquely Korean, a ballroom-size chamber with wide pillars where mother, father, grandparents and kids are sprawled out on vinyl mats, fooling with their laptops, watching television, reading and sleeping. Everyone dresses in yellow T-shirts and baggy khaki shorts, handed out at check-in as a hygiene measure. The scene looks like a reunion picnic, or summer camp, without the bunk inspections.

Some families even spend the night. Rest assured, no matter what time you arrive at Wi Spa, someone will be sleeping. On the mats in front of flat-screen TVs at 4 p.m.; on the wooden bench beside the baths at 6 p.m., and on white leather couches near midnight.

And no matter when you leave, someone will be applying makeup at the vanities, taking baths and using the hair dryers. As I packed up at 5:30 a.m. last week, a mother was smoothing lotion on her daughter in a scene out of a Renoir painting.

There are no rules but one: You must get naked. But only on the floors where the men and women part company to take the baths and undergo various scrubbing, massaging and skin-polishing regimens. In the women's section, the services are provided by no-nonsense Korean women dressed in matching black lace bras and briefs — I know how that sounds, but the uniform is serviceable, not alluring.

Radiant heat wafts up from the floors, creating a womb-like atmosphere. During my visit, a few young women hung onto their towels until the last second. But you really can't cling to your modesty when grandmothers, mothers and daughters of all sizes and descriptions have abandoned theirs.

No one cares what anyone else does, or who sees them do it. A 24-hour restaurant serves snacks, Korean food and, in a sop to vegans, avocado tacos. But one mother passed out persimmon slices from a plastic container she brought from home.

The jimjilbang is ringed by saunas of varying temperatures and (unproven) health benefits, the clay ball room, Himalayan salt room, jade room and ice room. The bulgama, encased in a clay oven that looks like a lopped-off beehive, was 226 degrees, hot enough to boil an egg. Manager Jonathan Seo said it was too hot for him, but typical of the Korean spas he used to visit with his family.

"Back in my country of origin, the public baths would be a bonding time for my dad and myself," Seo said.

Unlike in Western spas, no one cares about the kids experiencing extreme temperatures. A 10-year-old told me she braved the bulgama, and when I peeked in the ice room, one little boy was sitting on top of another.

I got caught up in the indulgent mood and watched several Korean soap operas. In one, two couples sought fake divorces so they could inherit money. The stock villain seemed to be the daughter-in-law.

Friday night was family night, and most of the spa guests were Korean Americans, but there was a sprinkling of Chinese and white locals, and some tourists from Atlanta. A downtown office employee stopped by on her way to a party in Santa Monica. "That way I'll arrive relaxed" and beat the traffic, she said. A few Hollywood filmmakers were also there, including one who asked me not to name her lest the place be deluged with industry types. She sometimes takes meetings in the jimjilbang.

Her son and other twenty-somethings bar-hop in K-town, get a late-night bite at the restaurant and lie down for a few hours before heading home, she told me. And indeed, about 1 a.m., the hipsters, including one in blond dreadlocks, arrived on schedule, although not noticeably inebriated.

Two young couples half-sat and half-lay on the little stage where Wi Spa from time to time has put on karaoke contests. Sean Fohle, a graduate student in economics at UCLA, had been there after a bachelor party brunch, arriving "fairly inebriated," he said. One of the guys cannonballed into the men's pool.

"There were some bad looks, but nobody said anything or kicked us out," said Fohle, a Palms resident.

For the bachelor party, Fohle had gone on the Internet and learned to make the traditional Korean "lamb's head" towel hat, which many of the Koreans in the jimjilbang were sporting.

At 1 a.m., bedtime was nowhere in sight for the Kim family. The dads and I had the kind of long, lazy conversation you can only have at 1 in the morning when you're so relaxed you're not embarrassed to sit on a mat in kids' clothing and talk to perfect strangers.

I retreated to the darkened room on the women's floor, passing three robed bodies in translucent face masks lying end to end, and a mother with her limbs entangled with her daughter's, all sound asleep.

gale.holland@latimes.com

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