Friday, October 11, 2013

Olympic Spa: Honestly, I Want to See You Be Brave

"Say what you want to say, just let the words fall out - honestly, I want to see you be brave!" - Sara Bareilles, Brave

I've been very lucky these past 2 years. A job I enjoy, plenty of travel, a supportive boss who gives me room to show what I can do; time still to pursue my personal passion project (this blog - thanks for reading and making it possible! :)). I grew up a lot, and am grateful for the support from some amazing people that allow me to say that I'm good at what I do, and not feel guilty about it.

But 'perfect' does not exist - and there are still those days/weeks that make you feel like you just got rolled under the eighteen wheeler of life and tossed mercilessly from tire to tire...just another roadkill.

This has been one of those weeks. And I was just going to keep my head down and hope for this too, to pass. There are just certain areas of life that it's ok to buck the system, and others that you just, would not be smart to - I had decided.

And then Sara Bareilles' Brave came on. And I thought about a dear friend who had just been diagnosed with meningioma and is waiting for brain surgery: how every day is for her now a struggle and precious, and how unfair that it is that the rest of us get to go through life, 'frivolizing' our healthy days away. Stressing about things that don't really matter.

So I listened to Sara. Again and again.

Until I mustered enough courage to speak/stand up for myself. There was no grand victory to be had, but I had the small victory within myself that I did not stay silent.  So with that and my Sanity Preservation day secured - I decided to spend it at the spa, detoxing body and soul.

My choices: Terranea and its utterly out of my budget, singular splurge in an excess of predictable luxury ($375 a body treatment??) - or a spare, no frills spot in Koreatown that dangles promise of adventure - good or bad, it would promise to be an unforgettable experience ($15 facility fee / $130 max head to toe pampering). Tough choice.

As I headed down a less traveled stretch of Olympic Blvd, passing mom & pop auto shops, then into the parking lot with its laundromat style machines right outside by the entrance - I did have a moment of hesitation: what am I getting myself into? "Swimsuits not permitted"?  In this part of town? How the heck did my normally OCD germphobic and OG asian Conservative self allow this to get this far?

The feeling of unease continued through the staid decor of the lobby, and into the old school style locker sections, where the full meaning of Korean.Day.Spa really hit me not just conceptually, but full frontally - in all directions.  Swimsuits not permitted.  And this was not a Pacific Palisades crowd.  This was a $15 all-day, run-of-house crowd.

Treatments happened in open areas, next to three small pools - OG style, no private rooms, no marble rims or faux rock sculptures - with spa 'aestheticians' clad in black bikinis. (What did I just get myself into?!)

But as I settled into the warm mineral pool - I found myself beginning to love this...bathhouse.  This place was - perfectly imperfect - for the frame of mind I was in.  No bullsh*t, canned 'calming' music playing in the background, no Stepford wives to frown down at your unpleasantly big-pored pleibian presence, no fancy displays of skincare products to be pressure-upsold to you post treatment, no illusion that this facility does anything other than act as 'service station' for your ever deteriorating, corporal and inevitably mortal self.

I got up and waded into the steaming tea-colored herbal soak pool - with its informative, laminated overview sheet.  "Angelica" or "Mugwort" is used for this brew - which is said to boost immunity, promote circulation, balance female hormones and detoxify.  A fellow soaker tipped me off to control temperature and stimulate circulation by alternating between the hot mugwort and mineral pools, and the cold pool.  I was glad the receptionist had told to come at least 45 minutes before my appointment time, to enjoy the facilities beforehand!

Multiple sauna rooms are spread throughout the spa, and you can access them all along with the pools with the $15 facility fee (or free with most treatments).  My favorite was the Himalayan Salt & Binchotan sauna, a glowing, spare yet beautifully designed room with walls and floors made of pink Himalayan salt, and ceiling panels of binchotan (Japanese black charcoal), with their mesmerizing starburst log ends. 

Himalayan Salt is said to charge the air with negative ions to alleviate respiratory and skin issues, and stress.  Binchotan is said to purify the air to help with respiratory problems.  I loved laying down on in this room and just drifting in the gorgeousness of that chiaroscuro - no phones, no emails, no stress. Just.Breathe.

Then I was called for my treatment appointment.  Loved that this spa promotes natural therapies: no microderm, chemical peels or botox offered here (and no organic gluten free etc fussiness either). I 'splurged' on the Goddess package - 1 hour 45 minutes of head to toe rejuvenation at $130. The description online sounded awesome:

The ultimate moisturizing experience...full body Korean Scrub to exfoliate the skin, followed by an aromatic seaweed body shampoo...Darphin Aromatherapy Massage to melt all those knots away. A rejuvenating essential oil scalp massage...purifying facial mask is applied to refresh and tighten the pores....aromatherapy hair shampoo and rinse, a luxurious body emulsion...applied to hydrate and moisturize. 

But what this was, was definitely not a spa treatment in any familiar sense, and definitely not an experience for everyone.

It happens in a very industrial style four-quartered pen with bare minimum partitions.  In each quarter is a padded vinyl spa bed - three of which contained naked ladies in various stages of rub down by spa 'aestheticians', and trying to avoid eye contact with each other.  The spa beds are vinyl because the aestheticians wash you by throwing buckets of warm water over you while you are laying on the bed.  They pull on special mitts that they scrub with ruthless efficiency over every part of your body to exfoliate you within an inch of your life.  This isn't your standard issue, ocean-view room, body is beauty approach with a friendly aesthetician there to care about your day and help you relax.  The ladies are matter-of-fact, taciturn, and laser-focused on their job to purge you of all undesirables.

Several analogies came into my head during the experience:
  • This is like a scene from any medical / nuclear disaster movie - where the person returning from an infected area must be rigorously decontaminated, with people in faceless hazmat suits scraping the entire upper epidermis off of the Potentially Infected to ensure there's absolutely no trace of any possible contaminant left behind.  Or, the admission portion of any prison movie scene where someone has to scrub down before officially getting sent into lockup
  • Also like a whole hog being prepped for roasting - except the hog is still alive during the cleaning and oiling
  •  Like a whale washed up on the beach. riddled with barnacles that the crew must use 'tough love' to remove 
All these do NOT make this treatment sound pampering, I know.  Make no mistake, it was not relaxing and kind of surreal for a first-timer during the initial scrub phase - but you feel incredibly good after all the exfoliating - they really do get every last dead cell - and the ladies literally take care of every need thereafter from head to toe: scalp massage to facial to full body moisturizer and aromatherapy massage!  I found myself falling half asleep towards the end, in spite of the awkwardness of laying on a vinyl padded bed in a pen next to three other naked strangers.  At the end of the treatment did I feel rejuvenated? Renewed? Definitely, whole body.  Add: Catharsis achieved. This was exactly what I needed, that day - I felt purged, detoxified via external experience of what I had been put through emotionally in the past week.

Many spas have a dining area where you can stay on the wellness theme with egg white omelettes with spinach, whole grain whatever and such other BS that few people actually enjoy eating.  Olympic Spa has a cafe where you can balance out your bodily rejuvenation process by indulging your foodie soul in delicious grilled meats, bibimbap (flavorful stone pot rice with meat and veggies) and other Korean creations. 

All food is for purchase and not part of the spa facility fee or treatment fees.  Conveniently though, you don't have to bring your credit card or walk around with cash - your locker key ring has a barcode that the cafe hostess will scan to record your purchase, and you can simply take care of any charges for the day all at once at the front desk when you leave.  (You also get free WiFi at the cafe, so if you wanted to spend the whole day there whether to write or as necessary, to work - you can bring your laptop or tablet to use at the cafe).

My order: Fluffy Hot Steamed Egg (Gaeran Jjim) $4 Hot Stone Mixed Rice (Dolsot Bibimbap) $12. Loved the hot steamed egg - it's not as silky smooth as the chawanmushi you would get in a place like Farmshop, but it's still got good texture and flavor. Portion size was also big enough to be a filling snack or appetizer.  The bibimbap was delicious as well - and I love that despite the 'monopoly' that the cafe essentially has, they actually put effort into flavor, texture and presentation. They used black rice - nicely crisped at bottom from the real stone pot.  The bibimbap also came with seaweed soup, and a bit of kimchi and trio of banchan (side dishes).

I also loved the selection of drinks as well: the corn silk tea was a first time sighting for me, as well as Korean raisin tea.  Aloe is great for cleansing while being a refreshing drink.  There are also cans of Korean fruit juices and Izze.

Before heading out, I took a quick nap in the open sauna with heated jade floors. They provide quilted pads that you can use to lay out, and many ladies catch quick naps here between dips in the pools, saunas or pre/post treatment.

I brought my hair products and makeup, which I was able to fix at open vanity stations (hairdryer provided) before heading out to dinner.

All in all, an amazing time at Olympic Spa. I didn't save any lives, change the world for the better, or move the needle on anything today.  But "Do one thing that scares you, every day" (Eleanor Roosevelt)? Check. Doing what it takes to shake off the tire marks on my back so I can feel more like an effective person that cares about things that are real, and really matter, again? Check. 

I reached out to my friend and reconfirmed our plans to meet up, to do whatever she wants to do. To say that I can't even imagine what she is going through, but I will be there, every step of the way, for her time to be brave.

I will definitely be back to Olympic Spa soon, and regularly - for that hard to beat all day spa facility access for $15.  And maybe another full scrub down, the next time I feel the need to reaffirm / stave off mortality at the same time.


Olympic Spa
3915 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019
Ph: 323.857.0666

Open Daily 9am-10pm

Parking: free valet in back of spa

LADIES ONLY.  BYO reading materials.

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