Navigating Koreatown’s spas

“Number 15. Number 15, please.” The old woman in black-lace bra and panties navigates around the lounging bodies and loofah sponges. She is looking for me.
I’m Number 15. It’s mid-day at a brightly lit Korean spa in the basement of a historic building on Wilshire Boulevard, and I have checked my identity at the door.

For at least an hour or two, everyone who enters this little spa becomes, blissfully, just another number. Not a spouse, not a mother, not a daughter. Not a payer of bills, not even someone who needs to keep track of the car keys.
Spa Week has come and gone, but the dozens of Koreatown spas remain as an inexpensive and easy way to relax and detox in Los Angeles. At most of them, $15 or $20 gets you access to multiple Jacuzzis (hot, icy plunge, herbal tea and mugwort), sauna steams, and DIY body scrubbing equipment. For an extra $20 or $30, that nice woman in black bra and panties will scrub about a pound of dead skin from your body, wash and condition your hair, and send you off with a motherly pat.

I discovered Koreatown spas about two years ago while doing research for my book, Peaceful Places: Los Angeles. I disappeared into Beverly Hot Springs Spa on a Saturday afternoon and emerged a couple of hours later with a reinvigorated body and ready to tackle another chaotic dinner-bath-bed ritual with unusual relish.

I often get asked how it all works, so here’s a brief rundown on what to expect (followed by a couple of my favorite spas):
You check in at the front desk. A reservation is good if you’d like a massage or other service, but not usually necessary. You will be given a key and locker number. You will be told to shower and hang out in the sauna or Jacuzzi area until your number is called. Afterward, you can return to the Jacuzzis, or nap on a lounge chair (most spas have small quiet areas).

A few other things to know:
*You will probably see more naked women in one place than you ever have in your life.
*The massage/body scrub tables are spaced as close together as the tables at Starbucks.
*Expect unlimited quantities of cucumber water, hot barley tea, hair dryers, combs, and lotions.
*It’s not just for women. Most spas have separate facilities for men.

Here are two of my favorites:
Natura Spa, 3240 Wilshire Blvd. (213) 381-2288, www.natura-spa.com. Super clean, very bright, with a large (free) parking lot and a café on premise. The $80 body scrub and massage is terrific.
Beverly Hot Springs, 308 North Oxford Ave., (323) 734-7000,  www.beverlyhotsprings.com.  The Jacuzzi area is a little dark with a Costa Rica-meets-Gilligan’s Island waterfall, but the massage rooms are private, unlike most other Koreatown spas.

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