the communal men’s shower area at Wi Spa

The communal men’s shower area at Wi Spa

Rich tradition and a no-nonsense approach have helped Korean spas surge to popularity in the U.S.
It used to be that a visit to the Korean spa was something that only the most culturally adventurous among us braved. Less a temple of pampering than a place to experience extreme Asian beauty treatments and centuries-old methods of holistic healing, the Korean spa, with its functional tiled interiors and fluorescent lighting, isn’t exactly a spot in which to luxuriate. More often, it’s a place for visitors to transform themselves—through sheer force, if necessary. This culture’s traditional body scrub and acupressure facial require a hearty threshold for pain, but they do deliver the desired effect.

This tough-love approach to beauty is growing in appeal and, not so coincidentally, Korean spas are as well. In the past decade or so, these hardcore palaces have been popping up in most major cities around the nation. Today, Asian transplants to America and multicultural devotees swear by the Korean approach to preternatural good looks, renewed youth and skin as soft as a newborn’s. —By Alison Singh Gee

Wi Spa’s jimjilbang

Wi Spa’s jimjilbang boasts a salt sauna, clay sauna, jade room, ice sauna and bulgama (“yellow earth room”).

Cultural Comfort

Throughout much of the 20th century, Korea was an impoverished country, and only wealthy families had their own bathing facilities. So, the majority of households relied on communal bathhouses for their weekly soap-up. The practice became a ritual: Men looked after their sons on one side of the bathhouse; women cared for their daughters on the other. Everyone roamed naked (and without self-consciousness), basic white towel in hand. Parents and elders took this opportunity to scrub themselves and their charges clean—thus the rigorous Korean scrub-down was born (see Rigorous Ritual, page 94 of June Issue).

To this day, the jimjilbang, or “heated bath,” remains at the center of Korean social life. In Seoul, some modern spas are 10 stories tall, with each floor devoted to a different activity: soaking in hot and cold baths or whirlpools; lying on towels spread out on heated marble, tile or wood floors in 105-degree rooms; watching big-screen TVs in a boisterous relaxation area; and supping on bulgogi (barbecured meat) and kimchee (spiced, fermented vegetables) in the spa’s house restaurant.

“People come to a Korean spa to rest, socialize and re-energize,” says Niki Han Schwartz, owner of Tikkun Holistic Spa in Santa Monica, California. “They come seeking a haven, a place to heal and enjoy themselves.”
In Los Angeles’s Koreatown, one of the world’s largest concentrations of Koreans outside Asia, spas have sprung up on practically every corner, and a mammoth 100,000-square-foot spa is reputedly in the works.

“It’s a lifestyle for Koreans and most of them have a membership so they can go four or five times a week,” says Schwartz. “They don’t go there for treatments; they go to squat by the pools and scrub themselves. It’s also a place to meet with friends. Some women will spend eight hours a day there, gathering with friends and having a meal.” 

Running Hot and Cold

Unlike Americans who might only draw a scented bath or seek out a Jacuzzi on vacations or special occasions, tub-soaking remains a weekly ritual for Koreans. In a Korean traditional spa, expect to find community tubs—that’s right, everyone of one gender naked in one big tub—at temperatures that range from hotter-than-hot to Arctic cold. Hot tubs gradually increase in temperature to allow the body to acclimate to the heat and ultimately relax the muscles, induce sweat and dilate the pores, which allows toxins to drain. This is generally followed by a plunge into the cold pool to jolt the body’s circulation and close the pores, thereby sealing in the minerals and nutrients absorbed from the hot bath.

close up of a vigorous body scrub


Rigorous Ritual

The traditional Korean scrub is not for the shy and sensitive among us. As one Hollywood dermatologist put it, “After I had one for the first time, I had to go home and pour myself a stiff drink.” Clients who opt for a Korean scrub should be sure to check their self-consciousness at the door (or pop a Xanax) because they’ll be nude among a roomful of equally nude strangers during most of their spa visit. 

The Korean scrub ritual goes as follows:
• After shedding all clothes, a client soaks in a communal tub for approximately 10 minutes.
• A scrubber, generally an older Korean woman (referred to as an ajuma in Korea) dressed in sturdy undergarments leads the client to a noticeably warm room to lie atop a wooden table topped with vinyl.
• The ajuma sprays the client with warm water and begins the sloughing activity. And it is active: Using a white towel, she vigorously scrubs all parts of the body: behind the ears, neck, under the breasts, arms, stomach, legs, feet—even between the fingers and toes. Korean scrub practitioners are relentless; the goal is to create extreme friction with the towel, then hold up the resulting rice-paper-thin sheets of dead skin to show the client, like a prize.

“Layers of dead skin come flying off,” says Schwartz. “Some people tell me it’s like they’re a dead fish and someone is scaling them!” 

Often the scrubber will use a basic bar of Korean soap to aid the exfoliation. In more upscale establishments (many developed for Western tastes), practitioners use a Korean scrub net and all-natural liquid (Ready Care is one popular brand). Indeed, Korean spas have developed a wide spectrum of treatments to entice Western customers. Olympic Spa in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, for example, offers sugar scrubs with milk baths, grapefruit body shampoo, a honey moisturizer and a chopped cucumber facial.

Interestingly, once clients experience (or perhaps “endure” is a better word) a Korean scrub, they may think that Western exfoliations are for sissies. “No American treatment can compare to the Korean body scrub—it feels like you’re a little child and your grandmother is scrubbing you clean,” says Schwartz. “People end up feeling really loved, nurtured and cared for. And it leaves their skin so soft and glowing. After that, American scrubs feel just like a tickle.”

Add-ons also mitigate the intense Korean scrub experience, and many spas now offer post-scrub treatments like a milk-and-rose-water shampoo and condition, Korean deep-tissue massage or a pineapple cream facial.

Wi Spa’s salt sauna

Wi Spa’s salt sauna is a detoxifying haven for guests.

Communing with Nature

Most jimjilbang include sauna-like rooms that feature different natural elements and themes to help connect the body to natural environments. In deluxe spas clients might find a jade room, a salt room and/or an infrared clay room.

Jade is a mineral that has been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries, and is also worn against the body for its healing properties. The stone contains zinc, iron, copper and calcium, and Koreans believe that lounging in a jade room—where light reflects off the stones—balances the blood, stimulates body rhythms, increases brain activity and prevents osteoporosis.

The walls of a salt room are plastered with the common mineral, and its floors are lined with coarse salt pebbles. Among many other salt devotees, Koreans subscribe to the belief that the mineral catalyzes detoxification and helps clear sinus passageways.

Red clay rooms are constructed from the dark crimson substance, using infrared rays and low temperatures to preserve it. Infrared rays are purported to increase body metabolism and stimulate cell renewal, bringing about weight loss and slowing the aging process.

Wi Spa, located in the heart of L.A.’s Koreatown, boasts all of the above, plus an “ice palace” and a bulgama or “yellow earth room,” which is made out of oak wood and heated to a whopping 231 degrees to deliver an intense thermotherapy effect.

On the Fringe

Some Korean spas offer less typical treatments for more open-minded and adventurous clients. One of Tikkun’s most popular treatments, says Schwartz, is the V-Steam (30 min./$50), inspired by an ancient Korean ritual. During this process, a nude woman sits on an open-seated stool with her genitals exposed to a steaming concoction beneath the seat. In the brew is a boiling pot of mugwort tea blended with wormwood and other herbs. The theory is that the steaming treatment stimulates the production of hormones to maintain uterine health, aids regular menstrual cycles, boosts fertility and helps correct digestive disorders, while soothing the nervous system.

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