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Gardena Women's Sauna - a Refreshing Experience

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If you search “Korean massage” or “Korean women’s spa” on the internet, hundreds of sites pop up about prostitution and modern slavery rings. Because of the “ambiguity” of massage terminology, I have always been nervous about wandering into strange spas for fear of accidentally stumbling into the wrong kind of place. Luckily, my friend Lori is in the know, and she took me to the Gardena Women’s Sauna last weekend.

FYI: Places that are called “women’s saunas” or "health spas" and are “for women only” are a safe bet. Men, if you are looking for a spa, you’re on your own. But you are probably not trying as hard as I am to avoid the happy ending.

There are a number of massages and skin care treatments available, during which you are completely naked and in partial view of the spa area. Uncomfortable with other people seeing you naked? Uncomfortable with lots of naked bodies all over the place? Then stay home. You will not be able to handle this. If you choose not to take advantage of any of their special treatments, the fee at Gardena Women’s Spa is $16 for use of the facilities. For that 16 bucks you can stay there all day if you like.

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Lori and I changed into our robes in the locker room, and I was tripping out on all of the signs that said things like, “Do not bring milk into the spa.” Women gossiped and chatted in Korean as they passed by. A voice behind me said, “Yutahl.” I was busy reading a sign that appeared to be about all of the horrible things salt can do to your skin. Finally the voice said intensely, “Tahhhl!” It snapped me out of my daze. I turned around to discover a woman staring at me like I was crazy. “You forgot your tahhhl,” she drawled with a strong southern accent. Oh. My towel. I said, “I’m sorry. I thought you were speaking Korean.” She laughed and spontaneously hugged me. Which kind of freaked me out, because she was completely naked and dripping wet. It seemed that I was going to have to adjust my personal boundaries a little here.

Pics of the sauna area from their website

We entered the spa area, which was very similar to something you would find at a gym or a resort spa. Except for a low wall lined with shower nozzles that stood in the center of the room. A line of women were perched on low stools with their backs to us and their hair tied up, scrubbing themselves with loofahs and rinsing off with the shower nozzles. For a moment it reminded me of a Monet, and I was struck with an urge to paint the beautiful tableaux. Then I noticed that their skin was bright red. They were scrubbing the top layer of epidermis right off. Lori told me that she had tried doing this once, and an elderly woman decided she was not exfoliating vigorously enough. The woman took the loofah right out of her hand and started feverishly scrubbing Lori's back for her.

We went up a few stairs to the jacuzzis. One was labeled hot, one was cold, and one was warm. There was also a mineral bath with a long, complicated sign in broken English about skin conditions. The hot was kind of hot, and the cold was freezing cold. The warm was just cold. I was told that the temperature is relative, and varies on any given day.

Most people ignored each other's nudity, and did not meet each other's eyes. Except for one older woman in the hot jacuzzi, who was openly admiring everyone's scars and bruises. It was Lori's lucky day, because she had a giant rib-to-hip bruise that was just turning from purple to yellow, so she impressed the hell out of this lady.

There was an L-shaped pond of water, almost like a trough, on the main level. You could dip a large plastic bowl in the pond/trough to pour water over yourself. It was a very splashy business, and I had to adjust my boundaries to accept water splashing off of strange naked bodies onto my naked body as being OK.

I wandered into the steam room and discovered that there was a television permanently affixed to the wall. As I relaxed, I was assaulted by hysterically excited schoolgirl voices extolling the wonders of product after product on some Korean cable channel. I went over to the dry sauna and felt like what it must be like to be in an oven. I know that sounds cliché, but I have been in some hot places, and this room seriously wanted to cook me.

I found another room with a bunch of scary-looking nozzles protruding from the tile. I asked Lori about it, and she said, "I don't go in there. That is where they interrogate you". I overheard an employee speaking Spanish, so I asked in Spanish, "Can I go in here?" She said, "Push this button. But it's really cold". Lori stood in the doorway, holding the door open as she watched with curiosity. I pressed the button and a dozen heavy-duty firehose-strength sprays of water shot into the center of the room from all angles. They were all focused on one spot in the very middle. On the floor in the very middle was an overturned bucket. A bucket? Were you supposed to sit on the bucket? Was the bucket perhaps blocking an upward jet that would really, really surprise you? I closed my eyes and stepped right into the spray, with one foot on either side of the bucket, which I was not about to move. Hard, cold jets of water hit me from every direction. But the really weird one was the jet of water coming from the ceiling that hit me really hard right in the top of my skull. It was such a funny and surprising sensation that I squealed like a five-year-old and started laughing hysterically. Since the door was propped open, my squeals disrupted the entire spa. The row of exfoliating Korean women who had been studiously ignoring me all day couldn't resist and all burst into laughter.

Lori and I dried off and went upstairs. I went into the "rock room". It was a dry sauna with a wall of back-lit rose quartz, and another of big salt rocks. There were tatami mats on the floor and little wooden head-rests. I remember feeling sorry for the girl in Memoirs of a Geisha because she had to use a wooden pillow so as not to muss her hair, but they are really very comfortable.

Next-door there was a sign saying, "Sleeping Room. Please refrain from talking." I peeked in, and sure enough, two women were curled up sleeping on mats in the large room. It suddenly hit me what a wonderful place this must be for housewives. If our mothers had only had a relaxing place like this to come hang out and sleep in peace for a few hours a week, maybe they wouldn't have all been on valium.

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Upstairs there was an area to get your hair done, pedicures, facials, and even a little deli that served noodles, dumplings, soups, and something called "sizzle". The women caught me checking out their perfect little plates of kimchi and pointed away, insisting "Kuruku" or "Kuluku". I repeated it, and they repeated it, and we kept repeating this word back and forth until they were satisfied. I got the message that it meant, "We are closed. But there is a good place across the street whose name you still can't pronounce correctly." Later, as we were leaving, I scanned the neighboring businesses. My friend caught it first. It was a soba house. We'll save that for next time.

Photo By Elise Thompson for LAist

Gardena Sauna 15435 S. Western Ave. Suite 107 Gardena, CA 90249 (310) 538-2229

Other Saunas:

A-Ju Health Spa 12000 S. Crenshaw Blvd. #116 Gardena CA 90249 hours 9am-10pm.

Olympic Spa: Asian Spa and Retreat 3915 W. Olympic Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90019 (They have a jade steam room)