Wanderlust Wednesday – What to Expect When You Go to a Korean Spa in the US
Hey kids – today we’re traveling to South Korea – well not really! But, it might feel that way. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to a Korean spa! Some of you may have experienced a Korean jimjilbang (or public bathhouse). For those of you who haven’t, it’s a really fun activity for the whole family. Let me walk you though it so you know what to expect.
Now, I’ve never been to Korea, so I can’t tell you what spas are like there, but I have been to several Korean spas in Los Angeles and New York, so let me give you a rundown of how it works. First of all, a jimjilbang is a place where men and women can go to relax with saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs and ice rooms. Some Korean spas cater to only women, but many are unisex, with certain areas for men or women only, and a community area for both. Most of the jimjilbangs that I have been to have a snack bar, televisions (mainly tuned in to Korean soap operas), books and even computers to surf the web.
Korean spas are relaxing, but not in the way Westerners might assume. They are not private AT ALL and there’s usually no mellow music or relaxing wind chimes. It’s more of a community vibe – where everyone hangs out to sweat out their toxins (or their recently imbibed alcohol!) together. They are usually open 24 hours, and businessmen have been known to sleep overnight after drinking with coworkers late at night. In fact, the spas I go to actually charge MORE in the wee hours of the morning, so I can only assume that is their busiest time.
My fiance, Gregg, and I love to go to Wi Spa. It’s a very large, 24-hour Korea Town spa with four co-ed saunas, an ice room, a restaurant, a gym, and jacuzzis and steam rooms in the men’s and women’s locker rooms. It costs $25 to use the facilities before 12 am ($35 after that and a $10 overnight fee if you stay past 4 am). The treatments cost extra, but we don’t usually get any treatments (I’ll get to that in a minute).
When you check in, you get a bracelet that unlocks your assigned locker AND is used to keep track of any food or drinks that you buy while you’re there (you pay when you check out – so no money needs to be handled while you’re relaxing). They will give you a t-shirt in your size, towel and slippers at the front desk, and you grab your shorts in the front entrance to the locker rooms. Let me just go ahead and tell you that these are the ugliest t-shirts and shorts that you will ever wear. Remember – you are here to relax – not to look cool! I’m guessing this is to keep people from stealing the clothing – no problem guys – not interested in taking these home with me!
Okay, so now you have your ugly shirt and shorts, and you’re at your locker. Just wave your bracelet over the lock to open it, and again to close it. If you get confused, there are people who work there wandering around – just flag one of them down. When you are in the locker rooms, you are expected to be naked (most don’t seem to allow swimsuits). This is a women’s (or men’s) area only, and everyone is walking around nude or with a towel (mostly nude in my experience). When I was younger, and a bit more comfortable with my body, I was running around nude with the best of ’em. That being said (and my own body insecurities aside), you will see ALL ages and body types – these are not places just for young Hollywood types – trust me.
At Wi Spa, there are hot and cold tubs, and dry and steam saunas that you can use in the locker rooms. If you book a treatment, just hang out near the treatment room (in the back of the sauna/hot tub area) and they will call you when it’s your turn. I haven’t had a treatment in a while, but let me just tell you – they are HARDCORE. The massages are pretty brutal and not fun in my opinion – they bang you up pretty good – and they do it while you are WET. The scrubs are actually kind of cool if you can put your pride aside while they scrub every inch of you while you are completely nude in a room full of other nude and half-naked women. You kind of feel like a thoroughbred being scrubbed down after a race. The scrubs are VERY hard and not for the timid. But you can see tons of dead skin coming off and afterward, you will glow like you have never glowed before.
These days, I usually skip the locker room activities, change into my ugly, borrowed t-shirt and shorts outfit, and head straight up to the jimjilbang (the co-ed area) to meet up with Gregg for some sauna time. We love the different saunas at Wi Spa – they have a salt sauna, a jade stone sauna, a bulgama (extra hot sauna!) and an ice room. Each room is supposed to have different healing properties. I don’t know if there’s any science behind that, but I still visit each room every time I go.
The salt room is my favorite – the walls are literally made of salt and they have a beautiful glow. It’s very hot so wear the slippers they gave you on the way in. Just find a spot and lie down – there are wooden blocks to put your head on if you wish. I always grab a bottle of water from the restaurant and bring it with me so I don’t die of dehydration. I kind of feel like if you pass out in one of these saunas it would be a looooong time before anyone noticed!
The jade room is nice and very similar to the salt room. The spa lists all the health properties of the stones but I don’t know if you actually absorb any minerals by lying in the room sweating. Maybe? Maybe not. Either way it’s a beautiful sauna.
The clay room is kind of a weird torture and I don’t think I’m into it anymore. There is a walkway through the dimly lit room and two TV screens playing Korean dramas on the wall. You find a spot amongst the tons of tiny clay balls and kind of throw yourself on top of them. They are small and they really hurt when you’re trying to lie down and get back up. Maybe I’m just old, but they can feel like you’re stepping on legos, and I feel like they are most likely just full of other people’s sweat. Kinda unnecessary.
The bulgama is just way too hot (over 230 degrees). I think most people spend five minutes or so in there. Some people are more hardcore, but I think if you’re a newbie, you shouldn’t push yourself. You don’t want to pass out! Go in there to experience but don’t stay in too long.
In between and after your sauna sweat sessions, you can duck in to the ice room, which is essentially a giant freezer. It is SO refreshing after being in the sauna. It definitely revs up your heat to be switching back and forth between heat and cold, so if you have any heart troubles or health issues, be very careful.
When you’re not in a sauna, you can relax on one of the mats in the giant common area. People use these to hang out, have a snack, and even sleep (some of them spend the night on the mats). We like to visit the restaurant for some super salty Korean snacks. When you’re sweating like crazy, your body naturally wants you to take in more salt and electrolytes, so it’s not a bad thing! If you’re vegan or on a special diet, this may not be where you’ll want to dine. There are plenty of fun Korean restaurants in the area if this one doesn’t suit you. If you’re open to various types of eggs, meats, vegetables, seafood, you’ll love it. Lots of spicy kimchi!
When you’re ready to go, you can hit the showers, or just change and head out. I usually wash my face with my Emme Diane skincare products and then take a shower later when I get home.
When you’re done, you’ll probably feel SUPER relaxed and mellowed out. It’s a great way to sweat out those toxins, and give your muscles some deep, deep relaxation. Thinking about going to a Korean spa? Whether you’re a Los Angeles native, or just visiting, Wi Spa is a great one to check out. I also like Crystal Spa (another co-ed spa – they have cruelty free Aveda products and services!). If you’re in New York, I recommend Spa Castle (AKA the Disneyland of Korean spas!). If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below!