What it's really like to get butt-naked at a Korean spa for the first time
When it comes to beauty treatments, I’ve pretty much tried them all. Microcurrent, crystal healings, an underwater massage—that’s a different story for a different day—been there, done that. And honestly, nothing really shocks me anymore. But there’s one thing that’s been on my list for years now. It’s intimidating as hell, but I finally just grew the balls to try it: the Korean spa. I hear it’s a culture shock, it’s slightly uncomfortable (because you’re butt-ass naked the whole time), but it’s also a must-try experience. And since I can’t truly say I’ve done it all until I strip down and have a woman scrub me from head to toe, I make an appointment at L.A.’s most popular Korean beauty destination, Wi Spa. And let me tell you, nothing could’ve prepared me for this.
Since I already know being naked is a requirement, I try to be slick and book an 8:00 p.m. appointment on a Saturday night (Maybe now is a good time to mention traditional Korean spas are open 24 hours!). I figure nobody will be there late on a random Saturday night, but boy, am I wrong. I’m expecting to pull into a dark parking lot behind the building (it is L.A., after all), but instead, I end up in a valet line that’s spilling into a lot well beyond capacity. I think to myself, surely, they’re not all going to the spa—then I realize holy shit, they actually are! It sinks in that I’m about to be naked in front of a whole lot of people.
Once inside, I wait in line at the front desk—I feel like I’m checking in at a hotel or going through TSA. Everyone is handed a towel and a t-shirt, then, men and women are separated into their designated areas. I bring my husband Jerry with me for moral support. I couldn’t muster up the courage to go alone and I’d sooner die than to take a female friend only to be naked in front of her. Just knowing Jerry is in the building too makes me feel a little bit more at ease.
Not two steps into the female locker room, I’m surrounded by fully naked women. Most of them are wearing the towels wrapped around their hair or just draped over their shoulders; they’re not even trying to cover up. I pretend to be unfazed by it all, but I’m freaking out at the thought that in minutes, I too will be just another woman letting it all hang out. Once I strip, I grab the towel I got at check-in with the intention of wrapping it around myself. Not much bigger than a washcloth, this thing doesn’t even come close to wrapping around my body. I guess I just have to go with it. I take a deep breath, suck in my stomach, and make my way over to the showers.
Here’s a lesson in Korean spa etiquette: Showering before and after everything is a must.
Again, everyone is naked, so impeccable hygiene is non-negotiable. Soap up and shampoo your hair upon entering the wet room (this is where you’ll find women-only hot tubs, cold baths, showers, and saunas). Don’t expect privacy when you shower, either. It’s an open space with shower heads lining the walls. To kick off my evening, I spent some time in the hot tub and popped into the sauna, but again, rinsing off in between is key. Going in the hot tub? Shower. Getting a treatment? Shower. You sneezed? Shower.
After about 10 minutes in the sauna (and you guessed it…showering), I get called in for my treatment. From what I hear, the traditional full-body scrub is a must. It’s $40 for a 30-minute rubdown and you’re promised to walk away with baby-soft skin. A woman in a black bra and panties (this is the spa technician uniform) leads me to the treatment area. Being the spa regular that I am, I’m expecting the usual quiet, dimly-lit room, one with a door that locks and perhaps some soft nature sounds playing. Nope! I’m lead over to a (barely) separate section of the wet room, behind a wall not much more private than a pop-up screen. I lay face down on one of the many rubber massage tables lined up like cots in an army barrack—one naked woman to the right of me, one naked woman to the left of me, both getting vigorously scrubbed down.
The table is wet, uncomfortable, and lets out an awful skin-on-rubber sound every time I try to find my spot. Then, I feel warm water being dumped on me by the bucketload, which actually feels so good. But what comes next is far less pleasant. The technician starts scrubbing me with what feels like a metal Brillo pad. She goes to town scrubbing me from my neck to my toes and everywhere in between. She rolls me around to get every square inch, she tugs at my limbs as I lie there like a cadaver, and she only stops occasionally to dump another bucket of water on me. As I’m lying on my side, I finally open my eyes for a second (I’ve kept them shut this whole time, in fear of making eye contact), and I see a pill of dead skin land on the table. I quickly peek around and noticed the table is covered in dead skin—that’s why she keeps rinsing me off! Between the aggressive scrubbing and chunks of dead skin flying everywhere, I actually forget that I’m naked. She finishes with an equally vigorous scalp massage and a gentle face scrub before rinsing me one last time and sending me on my naked way.
By the time I hop off the table, I walk away, almost forgetting the towel that I walked in with. At this point, I’m completely over the whole naked thing (that happened quicker than I could’ve ever imagined). The towel is soaked, so instead of wrapping myself back in it, I hold it in my hand and strut out of there. Now that I’ve made my way around the wet room, I get dressed in my oversized khaki shorts and yellow Wi Spa T-shirt, and make my way upstairs to the co-ed area, also known as the jimjilbang.
This is where you hang with your family, your spouse, friends—and honestly, it’s a good place to meet people, too. Here, you take a nap on the heated floor (there are so many people on the floor, there’s not much space to walk!), try different saunas (like salt, clay, and jade saunas), watch TV, read a book, anything. At this point, I’ve been here for a couple of hours, so I’m getting hungry. Luckily, off to the side of the jimjilbang is a cafe, so Jerry and I place an order for a late-night dinner. Here, I have one of the best ramen broths I’ve tasted in L.A. In between slurps, I gush to Jerry about how much I’m enjoying myself. To my surprise, he is really enjoying himself and suggests we do this on a regular bi-monthly basis. I’m in!
Four hours later, we check out. It’s right before midnight and it’s still packed inside. I’ve heard it’s totally normal for people to spend the night—maybe next time, I’ll try that. The whole ride home, I’m incredibly relaxed—so relaxed, I realize I’m driving 45 mph on a 65 mph highway. Once home, I sink into bed and fall into the deepest sleep within minutes. Consider my new Saturday-night ritual found.