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In LA, spa days can stretch into night

Amy Scattergood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

LOS ANGELES -- The landscape of the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, a concrete universe of slightly less than three square miles in Mid-City, is a bilingual-signed jigsaw of strip malls and squat high-rises, barbecue restaurants and porridge joints. It's about as far away from John Cheever's Westchester County, the setting for many of the writer's stories of mid-20th century East Coast suburban ennui, as his mannered cocktail parties are from L.A.'s soju-fueled karaoke bars. Unlike Cheevertown, L.A.'s Koreatown is an oddly soothing quadrant of the city if you open the right doors -- a neighborhood filled not with angst but with a network of spas that cater to locals in need of a soak and a scrub, maybe a nap on a heated floor. And if you traverse Koreatown for palliative reasons, from strip-mall sauna to underground bathhouse, you'll find it possible to link up the neighborhood much like Neddy Merrill did in Cheever's masterwork of a story, "The Swimmer."

As Neddy swam from pool to pool, he navigated his disintegrating life, awash in chlorine and gin. The journey from spa to spa is instead one of restoration: a slow mineral cure. Steeped in barley tea instead of alcohol and pathos, a bathhouse tour is not only a way to explore a city, but to get home rejuvenated, cleansed of whatever toxins you're susceptible to. Inside the rooms you can submerge yourself in mugwort baths, stretch out along heated floors, bake in wood-paneled kilns and doze off in rooms built of salt, while the outside world continues on without you. And to go from bath to bath through the network of the city, detouring for equally restorative bowls of juk and plates of kimchi dumplings, is both physical therapy and pilgrimage.

Koreatown's bathhouses are mostly workmanlike in appearance, insulated boxes stacked along the main thoroughfares of the city, many strung along Olympic and Wilshire Boulevards like a series of hidden hot tubs. If you start in the east, you'll find yourself at Wi Spa, a massive complex on Wilshire Boulevard near MacArthur Park and downtown L.A. that from the outside looks disconcertingly like a DMV office. Go through the doors and begin the ritual: You'll pay a small entrance fee, add on whatever services you want (scrub, acupressure, maybe a foot massage), get a wristband with a number on it and exchange your clothes for a towel in a room that will likely remind you of a high school gym locker.

From this point, it's a process that can take a few hours or a whole day -- many spas are open 24 hours, and there's no time limit on how long you stay. Inside is a small, self-contained world: one floor for women, another for men, each filled with hot and cold baths and saunas; another co-ed floor, called a jimjilbang (rough translation: heated room) with a restaurant and various rooms lined with clay or salt, their heated floors covered with a hopscotch of mats and pillows; there are sleeping rooms, even a library. In the clay room there's a flat-screen television on the wall, and you watch a cooking show where a woman makes ice noodles with a broth made from chicken feet. You soak in the warm bath, then the hot bath, and if you are reading, as I was -- a paperback copy of "The Stories of John Cheever" -- the pages curl in the damp heat.

A few blocks northeast from Wi, Grand Spa is another 24-hour spot, a giant yellow building that rises out of a nondescript parking lot. Go past some small shops, up the elevator to the third floor (second for men) and another network of baths and steam rooms, a dining room like a small-scale cafeteria, another room filled with lounge chairs like an airport waiting room. On one TV in the sauna, there's a cook demonstrating noodle-making; on another screen near the baths, there's a show about Korean pizza. (Why are spa televisions so often turned to food channels?) Partially submerged in the small pools, a half dozen of us -- naked, maybe a towel wrapped like a turban over damp hair -- watch the cooking shows in comfortable silence, the only sounds the voices on the television, the slap of bare feet, the movement of water.

To get to Natura Spa, you take an elevator to the basement of what was once the I. Magnin department store, a stately if somewhat defunct Art Deco building on Wilshire Boulevard. Go past the desk and the locker rooms, the little nail salon and tiny restaurant -- serviceable bibimbap, grilled mackerel -- and get into the hot tub in the center of the collection of rooms. There's a steam room, a dry sauna with a television showing a Korean soap opera and a system of tables where women dressed in black bras and underwear will scrub the layers of the world from your skin.

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Hours later, come back up to the city, walk around the block and into a strip mall where you'll find Kobawoo House, a restaurant that's been serving plates of bossam and bubbling cauldrons of soybean paste stew since the 1980s. Although most of Koreatown's bathhouses have little restaurants, this neighborhood has long owned some of the best food in the city: homey soon tofu houses, smoky halls devoted to table-top barbecue, a few nationally lauded restaurants where chefs experiment with blending timeworn and modern techniques. The tiny bowls of banchan that invariably introduce your meal are testaments to the art of curing and fermenting that is central to Korean cooking -- and a fitting remedy for any hunger that comes while you're curing yourself. Because if hot water and acupressure do not solve your ills, then gochujang -- the addictive condiment made from fermented soybeans, glutenous rice and chile paste that's as ubiquitous in Korean restaurants as barley tea -- surely will.

Detour a few blocks south to Hugh Spa, on the second floor of another worn strip mall. Hugh is women-only, a compact collection of rooms including one equipped with therapeutic infrared light boxes and magnets inside the walls. There's a little room built from Himalayan salt and another where you can lie in shallow wooden boxes filled with clay balls -- lying there, you're reminded of a graveyard or maybe a raised garden bed, the heat coming from below, the balls moving like marbles under your spine. A tiny kitchen makes dumplings, tofu stew and ramyeon (the Korean version of ramen).

Head diagonally northwest into the heart of Koreatown and you'll find the newish Crystal Spa, on the third floor of a modern shopping center. Here you can park for free in the lower realms of the massive building, then head up, past a big, bustling grocery store (stacked bags of rice, tables laid with produce, an aisle of gochujang), to the Aveda shop that functions as the gateway into the spa, like a holistic portal. Maybe because Aveda products stock the counters inside as well, Crystal smells of jasmine and citrus rather than towels and chlorine. Upstairs, pad around men and women resting on mats in the common room, the flat-screen TV again showing a cooking show. (A small counter offers drinks and a short list of dishes.) Later, a woman walks across your back, digging her palms and then her heels into the landscape of your body.

After one restoration, another: a bowl of abalone juk at Mountain Cafe, a checkerboard of banchan stretching across the table. You could eat meal after glorious meal and never have to move your car, still parked in the subterranean lot beneath the shopping center, as two barbecue specialists, one noodle shop, another juk shop and the Line hotel, housing Roy Choi's restaurants Pot Caf e and Commissary, are all within a short walk.


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