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.
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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.
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