Small Talk

Korean day spas

March 26th, 2012

I've had my first experience at a Korean day spa, and it was very interesting. I liked it, but it sure was different.

Having worked in Kalihi for 13 years, I passed Loess Day Spa just about every day on my way to and from the station. On the outside, it's not much to speak of, and frankly, I thought it was a hostess bar.

Recently, I read an article about how great Korean day spas are, and I was talking about it at my new job. I now work with a lot of Asians who have strong ties to Japan and Korea, and my coworkers reassured me it was fabulous, and they go, too.

They warned me about the nudity. The concept of communal (emphasis on communal) bathing is common in Asia, where cleansing is a social experience.

Here is my personal experience: Upon check in, I received a locker and a terrycloth robe, then was ushered into a large, open room where it all happens. I was shown the showers and instructed to bathe with soap then soak in a hot tub to prepare the body for a massage. I had hung my key on the hook with the robe, but the clerk was nervous about theft and told me to keep it around my wrist at all times.

There is a steam room, sauna, and cold plunge tub; I'm sure they are all nice, but I am not fond of any of those amenities, so I sat in the very large hot tub letting my pores open and my muscles relax. There were women of all ages and races (mostly Korean national, though) at the time I went, including a very old Korean woman who was showering with the help of an assistant, because she couldn't stand up well on her own.

After about 20 minutes, my masseuse called my name, and then told me to follow her. One area of this room has half a dozen plastic-covered massage tables on it, side by side, upon which you lie down while a Korean grandmother dressed in black bra and panties rubs and scrubs you down.

At first I did not understand why it had to be done in undergarments, but now I realize they sweat so much doing this, they scoop cold water onto their bodies to cool off. Black is just their uniform color. The undergarments should be viewed as more like a swim suit.

Next to the massage table is a grey plastic garbage can filled with hot water. She used a smaller bucket to scoop this water onto my back, then she used one of those Japanese scrubby cloths (the kind you get at Longs), a bar of soap, and she rubbed me down top to bottom, front and back and sides.

Because my skin was softened by the hot tub, it came peeling off in long, grey noodles. Like, seriously. I have never been exfoliated like this. I liked the idea of all that old and dead skin coming off but it was also a tad gross to see as it fell off by my face.

Don't take this as a complaint. It's just me marveling at the stuff happening to me. Periodically, she threw water on me to wash the surface clean.

Here are more differences between the efficiency of the Asian experience and the fru-fru, modest, American experience: 1) Draping - what draping? 2) She gets the washcloth right in there. Like, she is as thorough as possible while remaining maternally clinical.

After this, she had me shower off briefly and then return to the table, for the massage. She poured oil on me and went to town.

First she did my back, then she had me turn over. While she was rubbing this side, she also applied a cucumber mask to my face. Decadent!

To finish it, she shampooed and conditioned my hair. I was not expecting this. Aside from my hairdresser, nobody has done this to me since I was a kid, and I loved it.

The whole thing- the way she scrubbed me, the brief and familiar way she communicated with me, the way she washed my hair - reminded me of being coddled like a child, and I enjoyed it. It felt very assuring and comfortable.

I should clarify that I am part Asian, and I am used to being spoken to by my Chinese relatives in short, brusque, commanding tones. I think other cultures sometimes interpret it as rude, but to me, it's just the way it is. If this is not your orientation, you might not receive it as I did.

After it was over, she told me to shower again, and sit in the hot tub. I did not want to, but she insisted. I don't totally know why, because she only knew enough English to get by, but I'm guessing there is some theraputic reason.

When it was finished, I dried off and asked the front desk clerk, who did speak English, what else there was to do or see. She showed me the other rooms, which were heated and were made of certain elements believed to boost health - charcoal, jade, and mud rooms.

She suggested I lie down in a room, so I laid on the floor in the jade room. It was warm and pleasant, but I was soon bored, so I left.

There is a kitchen area where you can buy food to eat, but I didn't have time to try it.

I paid for my scrub+massage package and left, with the hopes of returning one day soon!

When I went to work the next week, I told my coworkers about the massage. They were happy I liked it - but we agreed to warn each other before our next visit so as to avoid awkward encounters!

16 Responses to “Korean day spas”

  1. daniel yang:

    Diane, I am happy to hear that. My father had cleanend then-hostess bar for about 15 years. He hated that place was used as a bar. When I was in high school, I used to hate it also by getting up at 0400 am and helped my father by sweeping the bar floor. That was about 30 years ago. Whenever I have been passing by, that place has reminded me for my father and my eyes are full of tears. I am confident My father in Heaven also enjoys whenever he sees many people like you are using that place for R&R.

  2. Ken Conklin:

    That was very interesting. Amazing, actually. Thanks for sharing. Sorry I wasn't there to see your adventure. Really sorry.

  3. che:

    Interesting. I was looking for a massage place and when a friend recommended a Thai massage place. She assured me it wasn't an illegal massage place because when she was looking for a massage place she accidentally stumbled on a place that. Anyway it wasn't what I was used to, the atmosphere was more asian in decore and it wasn't as luxurious as day spas. I wondered if it was an illegal massage place but it wasn't. Bottom line the massage was good, it was only $50 an hour and been back a few times.

  4. theDman:

    Wow, so that's what happens in those spas...fascinating.

    "She gets the washcloth right in there" ??? hmmm, but probably not for me...

  5. Julie:

    thanks for the really detailed write up on your Korean day spa experience! I have been talking about it with a friend (and it wasn't you), wondering if I could deal with the communal environment and "rough talking" mamas. 🙂 Now I'm sold! Can't wait....

  6. Masako:

    I always wondered about that place, thanks for sharing your experience. Which package did you get? I think I might check it out. Have you been to an onsen in Japan? I was wondering if its similar.

  7. Nesmith:

    In New York? New Jersey? Can't remember. My sister goes to a Korean Spa there and totally LOVES it. From the pictures it looks like a palace, many different spa rooms, Korean Food and leisures all day. I went to one in San Diego recently - loved my soft skin and feeling totally clean from top to bottom. People have a year membership and go weekly. Wish I could afford even monthly. Rule #1: no can be shame, or you won't enjoy it

  8. Nesmith:

    I been meaning to go to the one on Kawaiaha'o Street. Waiting for a Groupon.

  9. Kristiann:

    I've always wanted to try a Korean spa, but I've never gone. Your story reminds of when I was in Budapest. My sister and I went to a spa there. We got pedicures, and they totally went to town scrapping the dry skin off your heels. There was huge piles of dead skin in the corners of the room... a little gross to see, but our feet felt so good and clean!

  10. sven:

    Diane, what is the average cost of this type experience?

  11. Diane Ako:


  12. Judy:

    Many people prefer Korean Spa's and your story is quiet entertaining. You should try mud rooms next time, it did wonders for me!

  13. Sandra:

    This all sounds intriguing but is the place sanitary if it's so communal?

  14. Diane Ako:

    Sandra- I thought it was sanitary.

  15. Mabe:

    Please clarify ... clientele is women only?

  16. Diane Ako:


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