A Beginner’s Guide to Korean Spas in Los Angeles: what to expect, what to bring and what to do.

A couple of ladies chilling in the clay room at a Korean Spa

Somehow this post is home-related… oh yes! Our water heater broke! And it didn’t just break, it overflowed. And it didn’t just overflow, it overflowed into the unit below our own. So that was super. Since we’re getting ready to renovate in a little over two weeks, it doesn’t make sense to buy a water heater. We are planning to get a tankless water heater and that involves quite a bit of demolition, so we’re just holding off.

The upside is I get to go to the Korean Spas of Los Angeles and take a shower (I don’t belong to a gym so that option is out). Yea, it’s a tough job but The L.A. Lady is up to it! Let’s get down to business…

First, let’s talk about the Korean Spa aka bathhouse. The bathhouse tradition, in Korea and elsewhere, stems from the fact that the average household didn’t have bathing facilities. Therefore, you go down to your local bathhouse once a week or so and really get your scrub on. It’s a simple premise. So if you’re bathing that infrequently, your baths and showers are precious! They’re not five minutes worth of body wash and shampoo. It’s an all-day event of scrubbing, massaging, skincare and relaxing. And since the whole town is there, you need to have a place to socialize and get a bite to eat. Plus you’re not going to leave your kids at home…

Which brings me to the modern Korean bathhouse experience. Los Angeles contains a thriving Korean community and the bathhouse tradition has been carried over. Some of the larger spas, like Century Day & Night Spa and Wi Spa, really cater to the “spa as a group activity” idea. Both are considered a “Jjimjilbang.” Basically, it means you have bathhouse facilities (segregated by gender) as well as a co-ed area. Usually, they’re open 24-hours and have a variety of amenities. I’ve seen this word used to describe basic Korean bathhouses, but it seems more applicable to the larger variety.

What you need to know before you go…

So you’ve been to a spa and had a massage? Great! Let’s start over. Western spas are usually very tranquil and quiet. They also give you unlimited towels and robes and it’s usually a pretty private experience. Unless you’re a Real Housewife of Some Damn Place, you go here only occasionally. At a Korean spa, you have a job to do. You’re there to get clean, get pretty and shoot the proverbial shit with your friends and family.

1. Nudity. Nudity. Nudity. Korean spas are not for the modest. When you first enter the facility, you get a key for a locker (which is also used to track any purchases you make, like food or drinks) a towel and a hand towel. You might get a robe if it’s a nicer place. If they have a co-ed area, you’ll get a pair of shorts and a t-shirt to wear in the co-ed areas. After the reception area, you’ll enter a locker room. At that point, there’s usually a door or two leading to the “wet” areas with the pools and steam rooms and saunas. Once you hit that door, it’s naked time! Swimsuits are not even allowed. And if it’s a real bathhouse, nobody cares. Everyone is doing their own thing and your worries about nudity are definitely lost on the other patrons. I have only gone to Korean spas on my own and although I was very nervous, I got over the nudity in about 30 seconds. Honestly, it’s not a big deal. There are women there of all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities. If the thought of being seen by a man in one of these places scares you, there’s a few that are women-only.

2. Shower. Shower. Shower. The biggest Korean spa faux pas, aside from wearing a swimsuit and shower sandals into the sauna, is not taking a shower. Going into the tea jacuzzi*? Take a shower. Going to the steam room? Take a shower. Have you finished the steam room and want to go into the cold plunge pool? Take a shower. Did you just sneeze? Take a shower! Your first shower once you hit the wet room should involve soap and shampooing your hair. After that, a quick rinse will do. Since the aforementioned nudity rule is in effect, this is how these places stay (reasonably) clean. If you don’t adhere to this rule, especially the first-shower rule, you will get the stink eye from the regulars.

3. The Korean body scrub. It’s like hell during the process but afterwards your skin will look like a newborn’s. Korean spas offer the usual spa services, but the Korean body scrub is unique. If I get a spa service at a Korean spa, this is the only one I get. I’m going to be honest. It is not pleasant. You are a piece of meat and some Korean ladies are going to take off a layer of skin or two. They will flip you over by your arm and leg like a cadaver. Let them. They might wash your hair and oil you down afterwards, but it’s all about the scrub. I finally went and bought one of the plastic scrubber cloths they use and now I just give myself a scrub when I’m at the spa, but it’s worth it if you’ve never had one. You’ll notice that many of the shower stalls are “seated” and have plastic seats so you can sit and scrub and shave and do your business while seated. Makes sense, no?

I’m pretty particular about my skincare products so I don’t get facials here. Nor do I get massages. The one time I got a massage from these women I was sore for four days afterwards. Again, refer to the part about being a cadaver.

4. Bring your own supplies. You can get by fairly comfortably if you come as you are, but you’ll be much more comfortable if you take a few minutes and pack a small bag. When I go to a spa, no matter how luxurious or basic, I bring the following:

  • bath sheet/turkish bath towel like this spa wrap
  • everything I lay my hands on in the morning: shampoo, conditioner, skincare stuff, makeup, hairbrush, and so on. I have a small travel kit I keep stocked when I need to go out of town and it works well for this purpose.
  • hair towel. I like to do my initial shower and then put my hair up in a towel while I do the rest of the spa stuff. The one they give you for this purpose is a hand towel, which won’t do for my long hair.
  • shower sandals. The “no shoes in the wet area” rule still applies, but I like to have a pair of shower flip flops with me so I can walk around the other areas comfortably.
  • a bottle of water. stick it in the bottom of your bag. There’s usually a no outside drink rule but those steam rooms are pretty damn hot and you don’t want to chance serious dehydration because they forgot to refill the water cooler. Just be discreet and pick up after yourself. I usually see people with a water bottle. They probably just don’t want you in the sauna with a Slurpee.

I just throw this in a gym bag or whatever I have around and I’m good to go!

5. Be courteous. Even those these are businesses open to the public, they call them Korean spas for a reason. With the exception of the men’s side at Century Spa (which has a fairly decent gay scene) the clientele is mostly Korean. Recognize these places for what they are and what they aren’t. If you want a five-star elite spa, this might not be a place for you.

So is it worth it? Typical access to these spas is about $15-$30. That will get you in the door to use the various saunas and jacuzzis. These fees are usually waived if you get a service, like the scrub or a facial. I think the typical 30-minute scrub is about $30-$40 (you won’t want a longer scrub, trust me). You can have a full day of facials and massages and scrubs and steam rooms and tea jacuzzis for $100.

So, they’re cheap. That’s why I go here.

*All the Korean spas I’ve been to have a jacuzzi filled with mugwort tea. Supposedly there’s health benefits. I like them because they’re comfortable.

Here’s my Yelp reviews for a few Los Angeles Korean spas, including Natura, Century, Wi and Hankook spas.

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