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.
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 thereapeutic 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 Café and Commissary, are all within a short walk.
From Crystal, head northwest a few blocks, where you’ll find, behind a battered door, what looks like a convenience store counter. This is Daengki Spa, one of Koreatown’s oldest spas, women-only, named for a cloth hair ribbon. The baths are smaller and hotter — the steep and cure here more intense — the changing room a wall of lockers near a group of silent women resting on mats, watching a news show. In the corner: a vat of hot barley tea. In the dry sauna, a blue cardboard carton of eggs cooked on the heated rocks; you can buy them on your way out, still warm, knotted up in plastic take-away bags.
Hopscotch due north to another of the older spas and the only one in town fed by actual mineral springs. Beverly Hot Springs has one of the larger hot soaking pools in town, so big that you can almost swim across it, surrounded by ferns and statues of frogs and Buddha. Sit in the figure-eight pool, the walls like caves, your book shut in the dim light; the cure works up from your feet. The spa has neither restaurant nor sauna-cooked eggs, so detour to a nearby strip mall for a bowl of jjolmyeon, a nest of cold noodles and vegetables stained red with gochujang, at Western Doma Noodles, a little family-owned shop that’s been feeding folks from the bathhouse for the almost two decades it’s been open.
Jog southwest, past the landmark Wiltern Theatre, a swimming pool-colored blue-green, more squat banks and office buildings and a Peruvian chicken joint built like a woodcutter’s shack, into the concrete expanse of another parking lot, where you’ll find Myung In, a popular dumpling house. (This is where Hankook Spa was once, for months shuttered like Neddy Merrill’s abandoned house; in October, the space reopened as the bar Hite Kwang Jang.) At Myung In, pull up a metal chair under the bright lights and order a plate of wang mandu, enormous steamed buns, stuffed with pork and kimchi, the color and texture of bars of Dove soap. Fortified by fermented cabbage and relentless cups of barley tea, head across Olympic Boulevard into the southwestern corner of Koreatown, where two bathhouses sit a few blocks from each other like bookends. Duck into Olympic Spa — an oxygen room, a mugwort bath — for another reprieve, the warmth from the heated jade floor a slow fuse of comfort.
Across a side street from the spa sits the little corner restaurant Soban, where the banchan fill the small tables, repeating bowls of turnips and kimchi and bitter greens, and you order a plate of ganjang gaejang, a raw blue crab, bathed in sauce and chile and roe. The crack of the shells sounds geologic, the tang from the slight fermentation a reminder of how time works in a kitchen, an evolution of flavor. And then, finally, onto Century Day and Night Spa: an industrialist complex with a produce stand in the parking lot, a golf driving range buttressed against one side of the building, the jimjilbang like a community center, an entire swimming pool in the basement.
The lights outside the sauna are bright enough to finish reading: the precision of Cheever’s prose absolving his characters, restoring to them a peace they can’t find themselves. And after traversing the city by water, through heated baths, vats of tea and repeating bowls of porridge, you open the last spa door to the enormous blue Los Angeles sky and find the world at rest.
Wi Spa, 2700 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 487-2700, www.wispausa.com. Open 24 hours.
Grand Spa, 2999 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 380-8889, grandspala.com. In-spa restaurant, jimjilbang, karaoke room, open 24 hours.
Natura Spa, 3240 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 381-2288, natura-spa.com. In-spa restaurant.
Hugh Spa, 1101 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 365-1268, hughspa.com. Women only, in-spa restaurant.
Crystal Spa, 3500 W. Sixth St. #321, Los Angeles, (213) 487-5600, www.crystalspala.com. In-spa restaurant, jimjilbang.
Daengki Spa, 4245 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 381-3780, daengkispa.com. Women only.
Beverly Hot Springs, 308 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 734-7000, www.beverlyhotsprings.com.
Olympic Spa, 3915 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-0666, olympicspala.com. Women only, in-spa restaurant.
Century Day & Night Spa, 4120 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 954-1020, www.centurydayandnightspa.com. Jimjilbang, outdoor driving range.