For months now, I've been reading Pseudo's Travel Tip Thursday posts, and I always think "Gee, maybe if I ever actually travel anywhere, I will finally be able to contribute to Travel Tip Thursday." But it has suddenly occurred to me that I live in Los Angeles, which to millions of people a year is considered to be a vacation destination. Duh! So I'm going to start sharing a few of my favorite weird and wonderful Things To Do In L.A.
Jimmy asked me what I wanted to do for Mother's Day. After thinking on this for a while, I realized that the thing I most wanted to do was...nothing. Doesn't that sound blissful? Doing nothing. Ahhhh.
So after church on Mother's Day, I headed off BY MYSELF to one of my most favorite places, the Olympic Spa, to do absolutely nothing for as long as I could stand it.
One of the best things about living in the enormous ethnic melting pot of Los Angeles is being able to explore other countries' cultural experiences without having to actually...go the the country. And one of my best discoveries is the Olympic Spa, a Korean bathhouse right in the heart of L.A.
From what I understand (and granted, my knowledge of Korean culture is minimal), the whole public bath experience is big in Korea, not just a special spa treat kind of thing, more of a weekly ritual. It's considered a bonding experience for women (friends, sisters, mothers/daughters) to go together and actually bathe each other.
When I first started going to Olympic Spa, the place was little known, and I was almost always the only non-Asian woman in the place. Nowadays, word has spread, so it's pretty crowded on the weekends with non-Koreans. But weekdays, you'll still find the hardcore Korean bather ladies. They've also, recently, fancied the place up a little, repainted and made it a little brighter and less cavelike. Personally, I liked the cave look, but it does now seem a little...cleaner. Which is a good thing. Check out their website here. They seem to have also recently fancied up the website, making the place look kind of chi-chi and spalike. But really? It's still pretty no-frills.
Two important warnings regarding the Olympic Spa experience -
- You will be nude the entire time in front of many other nude strangers. They don't even allow you to wear a bathing suit. You must be naked.
- You need to be willing to try everything once, and go with the flow, even if no one is speaking your language. Just smile and nod and do what the other naked ladies do.
NOTE ON NUDITY: Years of modeling and theater have left me rather immodest. I suspect that many women would not feel this way. But what's rather lovely about going to this spa, is that there really are women of EVERY shape and size. And the interesting thing is that everyone looks about the same naked. I mean, no one has a perfect body. And actually, women with a few more curves look better naked, they manage to achieve that Rubenesque thing. I'm afraid I find myself looking at other women's bodies quite a bit. Not in a sexual way, just objectively. Breasts are funny things, aren't they?
It only costs $15 to get in and use the facilities for as long as you want. They call this the Simple Soak. But it's not really simple at all. For considerably more money, you can also get "treatments", which are a TRIP, and I will describe later.
When you first walk in, you tell the women at the front desk what you would like, and they will hand you a locker key and show you where to go. As you enter the spa area, you must take your shoes off immediately. It's considered extremely rude not to.
When you get to the main dressing/relaxing area, you find your assigned locker. In it, you will find a couple of towels and a light bathrobe. The bathrobe can only be worn in the dressing area. For modesty. Because everybody didn't just already see you naked for HOURS. But anyway. Strip down, and head on into the spa area.
Here is where the cultural Wonderland gets even trippier. After a quick rinse off in the Western-style showers (large signs everywhere tell you "USE THE SHOWER BEFORE GO IN THE TUB". They used to have this wonderful sign outside the dry sauna that read "NO EGG!! NO OILS!!! I'm still not sure why.) you can settle into either a boring old standard hot tub, or, much better, the Mugwort Bath. Every time I see this, I think "Hogwarts Bath", which makes me giggle. The Mugwort Bath is this freaky hot tub filled with what appears to be black tea. It sort of looks like a black witches brew, only it smells like herbs - I'm guessing...Mugwort, which is an herb often used in Chinese medicine. It is known to improve circulation as well as skin problems. It was also, apparently, considered a magical protective herb during the Middle Ages, and it's still used in witchcraft to intensify dreams and aid with astral projection. Kind of makes the whole witches brew imagery even cooler, right? Unfortunately, I'm thinking that you have to actually ingest the stuff to achieve the astral projection bit, and there is no way in hell I'm gonna drink any of this stuff that everybody and their sister has been soaking naked in. On the other hand, they keep it so INCREDIBLY HOT, that germs would die immediately. I mean it's so hot that you can't take it for more than about 5 minutes.
After boiling yourself alive in the Mugwort Bath, you can plunge into the Cold Tub for a bit, and then go into the Jade Stone Steamroom. This steamroom is the coolest one I've ever been in. They seem to have some herbs cooking in there too, though I'm not sure what. But it smells strangely nice. I learned a trick from watching the Korean ladies - bring in a plastic bowl of cold water from the Cold Tub, and keep pouring it over your head, and you can stay in the steam for a longer time with out becoming a steamed dumpling.
And speaking of the plastic bowls...one of my favorite parts of the whole experience takes place in the large open area in the center of the spa. There you'll find a long, low trough with water faucets along it where the ritual bathing takes place. You grab a little plastic stool and a large plastic bowl, then sit yourself down next to the trough. Everybody sort of looks like they're squatting next to a river or something. At the front desk, you can buy a scrubber mitt, which you use to scrub your entire body. Women will often sit and scrub each other. Once, about a year ago, I was squatting on my tiny stool trying to reach the far corners of my back, when an old Korean woman kind of smacked me on the shoulder and gestured that I should turn around. When I did, she proceeded to scrub my back for me, rather enthusiastically. It was really, very strange. But what the hell. My back was silky smooth.
Which brings me to the "treatments". In an open area to the side of the main spa room is the treatment area, a large room filled with massage tables which have what appear to be plastic tablecloths staple gunned over them. The women who do the treatments are inexplicably dressed in these black bikinis. Which, to most men, would sound pretty hot, but is, in fact, not. These women are not necessarily particularly attractive, nor do they have what I generally think of as a "bikini bod". But they have a certain disconcerting relaxation in their bodies that comes when women spend their days walking around in their underwear. It's what I imagine women in a whorehouse carry themselves like.
Anyway, when it's time for your treatment, your bikini clad lady walks through the spa area calling out your number in an incredibly heavy Korean accent. You need to stay frosty so as not to miss your appointment. This can prove difficult while boiling in mugwort broth. She leads you into the treatment area, and tells you to get on the little table. "Tells" is a loose term, because none of these women speak much English, so much of the communication is through pointing and cryptic phrases like "You go down."
The most fabulous of the treatments is the Milk and Honey Scrub. It starts with the lady pouring warm milk all over you, she then scrubs your skin EXTREMELY vigorously with a silk mitt, I mean this lady essentially takes the outer layer of your skin off. She then covers your body with a blend of oil and honey, and gives you a full body massage, which feels incredible, but be warned, these ladies are thorough, they will rub absolutely every part of your body except for the actual interior of your vagina. They flip you back and forth on the little plastic covered table, and believe me, when you're naked and lubed up with oil and honey, you are one slippery little devil, and staying on the table can prove challenging. After a cucumber mask and a shampoo, she hoses you off with a hose and you're done.
Your skin is now, truly, as soft as a baby's bottom. I swear to God. It's kind of shocking.
After all this fabulousness, you still have time for one last treat. Back out in the dressing room area, you can put on your bathrobe and enjoy my very favorite element of the Olympic Spa. The Warm Floor. Which is a...warm floor. A jade tile platform which is kept at a toasty temperature. You can get a little pallet and a blankie, lie down on the warm floor and take a little nap. It's just like naptime in kindergarten, except that you're naked and surrounded by women chatting in Korean.
And for a worn out old Mama, the ideal Mother's Day treat. A hot bath and a nap. The perfect nothing.
Okay, head on over to the Pseudonymous High School Teacher for more Travel Tips.