Glendale College's Student Magazine
Tuesday October 24th 2017

Wi Spa: Where Naked is the New Black

salt-saunaI’ve been pummeled, slapped and soaked Korean Spas over the years. They’re mostly quaint, intimate places, where dimmed lights and generic Asian-elevator-music soothe the client into evanescent tranquility. Where the hot and cold herb baths are steaming, and the sauna rooms, offering clay or jade mineral healing properties, are mellow and inviting. Where notices threatening expulsion from premises due to “voices louder than whisper” are posted about the bathhouse walls. Where, at closing time, no later than midnight, everyone goes home.

Enter Wi Spa. A 24 hour Korean jjimjilbang (or Korean bathhouse) on Wilshire Blvd in the heart of Koreatown. Let’s just say, if your average Korean spa is an elegant boutique blip on Olympic Blvd, then Wi Spa is the Westfield Shopping Mall of bathhouses. Located inside a monolithic white cement slab of a building, offering valet parking, and five floors of spa splendor.

This spot is the Mother Load of Korean Spas.

It’s 11 a.m. on a Friday, family day at the spa. A pair of towering glass doors push open into a pristine lobby where classical tunes spill from invisible speakers. Giant ceramic vases filled with dried reeds stand at either end of a robin-egg-blue velveteen sofa. Gold-framed Z Gallery type prints decorate the walls. Behind a shiny wood veneer reception desk, three polished Korean millennials, wearing black, or white, or a combination of both, meet and greet a steady stream of clientele.

After a semi-smiley exchange, a receptionist wearing a leather choker swipes my credit card. She hands me a neatly folded pile that includes a brown towel, a yellow t-shirt and a clear plastic Swatch type watch. She explains the details of where to go, what to wear, or what not to wear, where. “No clothes in the pool areas,” she says. “T-shirts and shorts in the co-ed areas.” She points around a corner to where the shorts can be retrieved. And upstairs to the co-ed floor.

For a $25 entrance fee, one can use the facilities, which in addition to pools, spas, saunas and steam rooms, include a gym, restaurant and numerous lounging/sleeping areas. An additional “overnight charge” of $10 is applied should one decide to stay past 4 a.m. Wait, past 4 a.m.? Like overnight? The mind races.

spa3An elaborately scripted poster describes the treatments available at Wi Spa. There’s acupressure, oil massages, salt scrubs, cucumber facials, manicures and pedicures. Prices start at $30 for a 30-minute foot massage and end at $200 for a 120-minute buff and mud treatment. I book a 70-minute buff and massage for $70, and my $25 entrance fee drops to $15.

Affordable.

A pair of female patrons wearing beige shorts and canary yellow crew neck t-shirts saunter by. Clones. The uniformity seems almost preposterous. Alas, I smile and consider matching black and white Nikes. Heaven’s Gate. The Hale-Bopp comet crew. But, predisposed to drink the Kool Aid (or in this case the probiotic drink I’m handed after check in), I fasten my identification watch to my wrist. The face reads, 703. My watch will open my locker and pay for my food.

Beam me up, Scotty.

The ladies locker room is shiny and clean. Polished wood details, lots of chrome and rows and rows of lockers. It’s alive with the whirl of hair drier and naked women quaffing fresh hairstyles. Half-naked women. Women in clone uniforms giggling at the unattractive factor. “Taking one for the team,” laughs a woman in a fedora as she holds up a pair of oversized beige shorts. Her fellow bachelorette members giggle in agreement.

It’s funny how the idea of perfection, of an unattainable body image, goes out the window in the presence of other naked women. Insecurities played like cards across a poker table. Fat women, skinny women, sagging women, mastectomy-ed women. Hairy women, shaved women. I secure my belongings, say hello to my nakedness, and hit the steamy pool area.

A dozen women in different stages of pamper amble about. Some scrubbing, others soaking, steaming or showering. Fleshy Korean women sit on stools at small, mirrored station. Between douses of water from plastic bins they scrub their bodies with exfoliating sponges. Aggressively. Habitually. Inch by inch.

Shiny white shower stalls stack up on one side of the room. An Asian shower-er has cupping marks polka dotting her back. Dispensers of body wash, shampoo and conditioner dispensers furnish the stalls. Shelves of brown towels stand off in the distance. After soaking in all three pools, first hot, then warm and finally cold, my only complaint is that they use chlorine in place of “healing herbs.”

The lighting inside Wi Spa is brighter than other places. But with no restrictions on speaking above a whisper, conversations with strangers are encouraged. Adriana, a big, jovial, red headed black woman from the Bay Area, says she adores this place. She works hard as a paralegal during the week, and tries to come down once a month for few days at Wi. She appreciates that they offer toothbrushes because she often forgets hers. She points to a basket of blue disposable brushes. “You really should come at night,” she says. It’s a really different, mellow vibe.”

Just a hunch, but I’m guessing Adriana’s spa weekends in Los Angeles may not include a hotel room.

The dry sauna is huge, and hot. A television with Korean kids eating lunch with chop sticks plays through a glass window in the room. A fellow Caucasian woman and I share a giggle. The steam room next door is television-less, but not to worry, outside another huge screen boasting a soccer match in it’s blaring high definition details.

A high pitched, “number 703” shrills from across the room. I raise my hand as Jessica, my ajumma, which roughly translates to pushy aunty, waddles in my direction. Her fluffy white belly sticks out between her black lace bra and panties–the female massage staff uniform. A pair of silver rimmed glasses sit high on her nose. She motions me to follow her across the room, over the tiles, past the pools, to an empty pink massage table in the treatment area.

Jessica’s English is minimal, at best. After a series of “face-down,” “face-up,” and “on your side”s she scrubs my skin till it is pilled into tiny brown/grey piles about the table. She pries my legs and arms open, straddles my head between her hefty thighs, and massages me roughly with her fists. Between chuckles with her lace-pantied pal, who works on a naked brunette beside me, Jessica pours buckets of warm water over me. Slipping off the vinyl seems probable as I go from face-up to face-down, but I somehow make it to the cucumber mask without sliding to the tile floor. My neck hurts from being creaked and tweaked, but my skin is smoother (and whiter) than ever.

It’s 2 p.m. Time for lunch. I don my shorts and t-shirt, complete with poop-brown slippers, and head up to the co-ed area. Couples (the men wear the same uniform but with a white t-shirt) walk hand in hand across the heated marble floor. The uniformity is creepy (and intoxicating). Did I mention my penchant for the odd?

Duos and individuals rest on floral matting about the room. Some sleeping, others reading, watching one of the three 60 inch television screens, or working on their laptops. Wifi is available, as is a library of Korean books, and a bank of desktop computers. Sauna rooms, varying from 208 degrees to 40 degrees are positioned about the perimeter of the room. As is a colorful children’s playroom (complete with two very well behaved Korean children) and a screen mounted to the exterior doorway which allows parents to monitor said “well behaved” Korean kids, without having to enter their vibrant kingdom.

Uniformed patrons sit with their feet crossed at communal tables in the dining area. The menu, which includes green and pink health smoothies, frappuccinos and shaved iced desserts, is some kind of Asian-Korean fusion with a wink to Western fare. The dishes are numbered 1 though 30. Full color replications include kimchi stew, spicy pork bulgogi, galbi, spicy cold noodle or romaine chicken salad.

My choice, number 7, the hot stone bibimbap, is excellent. A well proportioned rice bowl covered with braised vegetables including seaweed, sprouts and carrots. I opt for tofu instead of meat. The dish is topped with a fried egg. Well spiced and served in a heated bowl that sizzles as I eat and promises a delicious chewy crust, which combined with the spicy sauce and bites of kimchi and pickled vegetables, is delightful. At $11.93 (not to be confused with $12.84 for beef stew, or $13.76 for beef paddy and pasta) it’s not cheap, but not overly expensive either.

After lunch I post up on a mat on the heated tile floor. A few women from my earlier pool time make it up to the co-ed floor. They lay about, wait in line to order food, or walk the room’s perimeter checking out the saunas.

The Bulgama clay oven sauna at 208 degrees is a surreal experience. You know the rush of eyelash tingeing heat that escapes from the oven on Turkey Day? Well, it’s like that. Whoosh. I drop to the floor where it’s cooler, squatting with my head between my thighs. The heat radiates through my slippers onto the soles of my feet. I am alone. There are no seats or benches. I breathe deeply and wonder how long one might be able to stay in this kind of heat. Hell, Lucifer, double headed dogs come to mind. My hair changes from slick-wet to fluffy over-dry, drips of sweat form between my clavicles. After two minutes I’m out.

Later, I learn a couple of valuable facts. The world record for sitting in this kind of dry sauna is thirty minutes, and was set by a man from Finland. And, eggs for sale in the Wi Spa restaurant, are roasted inside the Bulgama clay oven.

Next the jade, salt, clay and ice saunas. All with promises of cleansing, regeneration, brain functioning powers and hormone balancing. I’m coming back for these. The clay sauna in particular–an acceptable 126 degrees, with a floor blanketed six inches deep in heated clay pebbles about the size of tapioca balls. According to Wi Spa’s brochure, the clay is imported from Korea, and “allows your body to breathe by assisting in the heavy metal detoxification.” Quicksand like at first, but once settled in (and by that I mean lying butt down in snow angel position) being in there feels very much like a warm and fuzzy adult ball room. Wiggle and laze. Toss a few balls at unsuspecting strangers.

Upstairs, the fifth floor roof patio is almost as special as the shaved ice desserts for sale in the restaurant. With redwood decking, linen upholstered day beds, tables, chairs, umbrellas, and yes (I don’t like this, but assume it necessary) a smoking section. Complete with towering King Tut Cyprus grass and horsetail, what zen garden would be complete without water trickling from cement lion heads? I laze about on a bed, partially covered with a cream blanket, and marvel at the towering palm trees along Wilshire.

4 p.m.

Back in downstairs in the locker room I peel off my sweaty uniform. I buzz my locker open with my watch, and as I reluctantly pull on my personal blue jean and sweatshirt uniform, I gather a few thoughts in conclusion.

Run, don’t walk, to Wi Spa on Wilshire Blvd. It’s weird and wonderful, all at once. Be prepared to enter a fully immersive Korean spa experience, and not want to leave. (The good news is, you don’t have to.) If you want a perfect massage experience or herb infused bathing experience then this place may not be for you. But, go anyway!

Wi Spa is so much more than pools, massage and sauna. It’s a little slice of Korea, which, short of jumping aboard a 747 and flying across the planet, should be a must on every Angeleno’s bucket list.

I know I’m going back, and next time, I’m making it a sleepover.

Wi Spa, 2700 Wilshire Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90057

(213) 487-2700

 

About Vicky Deger
Vicky left her home in Australia at seventeen. She traveled and worked her way around the world until settling in to a life in New York’s, East Village where she dyed her hair pink, rode a bicycle, wrote short stories, and assisted directors for a hundred bucks a day. These days, not much has changed–except her day rate. Vicky has accomplished most things she’s dreamed of, bar living in a tree house and getting a college degree (which she is working on). Her short stories have appeared in The Coachella Review, Ducts, The Grove Review, Golf Stream magazine, and RA mag.

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