Annyong haseyo! Many pleasurable greetings!
Are you one who is wishing to travel abroad, yet lack the financial means to do this? Do you wish to experience a new cultures and traditions without need of a passport? If this one is you, please to join me! Gather under my umbrella, and together we will experience a fun, educational time in Korea!
Koreatown, that is.
My afternoon’s adventure began with an unexpected gift certificate from a friend to Crystal Spa, which is at the top of a big multiplex structure called City Center in the heart of Koreatown. The outside looks like your typical Aveda Store (the only products they use in the spa), but inside it’s a whole other world. $30 bucks gets you entry, though if you book a service they discount the spa fee. My lucky gift certificate also entitles me to a “body polishing.” I imagine the Tin Man and his Oz rub-down. Will they even dye my eyes to match my gown? Jolly good town!
|That’s me all over.|
The men’s locker room looks pretty standard, though very, very clean, which is a good thing, because if you’re going to be shvitzing naked in various heated rooms, you want it to feel as germ-negative as possible. When I say naked, I mean naked. No posh Egyptian cotton white robes or even a demure terry towel in this spa. It’s denizens are roaming the halls inglouriously and (mostly) unappetizingly, nude. Not that there are many people there at the moment; I’m here in the middle of the day and there are just a handful of Asian businessmen, a couple of old Asian dudes tottering in the showers and some sagging Eastern Europeans. Maybe all the hot guys who look like Jeremy Lin come in the evening. Somehow I doubt this. If you’re looking to entertain your sexy-Asians-in-a-hot tub fantasies, this may not be the place for you.
|Where am I going after I win the playoffs? Crystal Spa, of course!|
I’ve done the Russian baths in Chicago before, but this layout is new to me, so I turn to the man in the polo shirt, a wizened old guy with enormous earlobes and a profusion of moles dotting his face, for some guidance. He doesn’t speak English, but with a series of elaborate semaphors I get the lay of the land. Lockers here. Showers beyond that glass door. Scrubbing there. Then, put on these clothes, go out that door. Yes? Yes.
There are two types of showers, the traditional ones all in a row and a few half-showers, those with detachable shower heads close to the floor, a stool and a plastic basin, all for extra heavy duty scrubbing. This is where the old men seem to thrive, squatting and performing their ablutions like a holy rite: slowly and methodically lathering themselves, exfoliating and dousing themselves with regular baptisms of bucket water.
Beyond the showers are a the saunas (steam and dry) and the pool of very hot water and the pool of very very cold water. The idea is to travel from hot to cold to hot to cold, opening and closing your pores like some time-lapse video of flowers blooming and folding, blooming and folding. The cold pool is extremely difficult to coerce myself into doing, but I chide myself like the father I am and tell myself to “Just try it.” Blessedly, I am alone— I wince audibly. The shrinkage is alarming. Enough of that.
It’s time for my body polish. A man named Khan approaches, barefoot, clad only in a pair of tan cotton shorts. He gestures for me to enter the Scrubbing Room. This is not really a room, per se, but a little annexed area of the shower room with no door, right across from the towels. here I am instructed to lie supine on the table. I must look like an autopsy cadaver. A small towel sodden with warm water is placed delicately over my genitals and then I am carefully and most thoroughly scrubbed. First, Khan wields his loofah-padded hands to the front me. Suffice to say, he does not miss a spot. Parts are lifted, areas rarely seen by modern man are investigated and scrubbed. I turn over. After my backside is taken care of, buckets of warm water are poured over my body, and the process begins again, only with soap and water. Khan is casually familiar in his handling of me; there is nothing perfunctory, but there is no modesty, either. Even for someone who’s had more than their share of massages, this is an oddly intimate, even regressive, experience, Someone is washing me, and not clinically, without my participation, like I am a baby. I feel both vulnerable, and cared for. Unfortunately, there is no swaddling involved.
When it’s over, I head to the showers (this is reflexive; I mean, do I really need more bathing?) but when I turn back to ask Khan a question (are there really no sandals here?), I find him naked in the Scrubbing Room, dousing himself off with a bucket of water. This causes a fleeting moment of consternation: wait, did this guy actually work here, or was he a random stranger with a soapy fetish? But yes, indeed, the kindly Khan is indeed an employee, and he encourages me to put on my own pair of tan shorts and a T-shirt stocked on the shelves and join him in the common room for the foot massage.
The common room is slightly more populated, mostly due to the fact that it is occupied by both men and women. It resembles the atrium of a tiny mall, with tatami mats and dim lighting. There is a small café to get Korean food, large and muted TV screens silently blaring Korean financial TV, and, incongruously, people sprawled randomly on the floor, resting. I think of Japanese tsunami survivors, displaced and bedding in public spaces.
Along the back wall are a series of rooms, each with their own name. Here it’s like I’m entering a fairy tale. Three rooms, each hotter than the other, for resting in. The Mud Room, with huge terra cotta tiles on the ceiling and tomblike atmosphere. The serene but hotter Salt Room, with a floor covered with large pink salt crystals and a huge lit salt sculpture. And last, hottest of all, the Charcoal Room, where the walls and ceiling are completely covered in beautiful circular discs of charcoal, black and striated. While there were no dogs with eyes the size of saucers or mill stones, each room did have blankets for laying on, little carved wooden head rests, and a glass hourglass in a wooden frame for keeping track of time.
Between visits to these rooms there is also an Ice Room. This is the only disappointment, because not only does it not contain ice, but it has the exact look and temperature of my parents’ walk-in refrigerator in Denver. I don’t have much time, anyway, somehow the hours have frittered away and it will soon be time to pick up my son from school. So I shuttle between all rooms like I’m on speed: jumping in, lying down for half a minute, jumping up again, and leaving. It’s the OCD sauna tour! I’ll allow more time next time, but I don’t want to miss THE FOOD.
The great thing about City Center is that it has almost everything you’d want for an afternoon’s adventure. You never have to step outside the building and break the illusion that you’re somewhere foreign (albeit with English signage). The place is relatively new; it has a modern look and a few empty spaces on the top floors. The lack of people makes me feel like I’m traveling through Logan’s Run or some other post-apocalyptic world where mankind has been decimated.
Luckily, on the second floor the food court is thriving. It offers a tantalizing array of Far Eastern cuisine. Korean barbecue, Japanese noodle bowls, a Well-Being Char-broil! It is completely occupied by Asians, slurping their bowls of noodles and jabbing chopsticks into various meats. I’m sure for them this fare is about as authentic as Panda Express and California Sushi, but for me it is heaven. I get the bi bim bop for $8 and I’m given a feast of pickled vegetables, brown rice and soup to accompany it. And slim silver chopsticks!
|A bi bim bop after my own heart.|
After eating, I make a quick run around the various other shops, stopping, as I must, at Cake House. Really, how can anyone pass by something called Cake House and not buy one of those small cellophaned pastries? Never mind that Asian baked goods are always a bit disappointing, lacking in flavor and depth. Homage must be paid to the Cake House!
|I love how the video store is still hawking episodes of M*A*S*H!|
The Korean market will have to wait for another time. I descend into the dark, byzantine corridors of the parking garage and spend another half an hour negotiating the exit. I emerge into Los Angeles sunshine, scoured, rested and full.