Imperial Health Spa–Garden Grove, Orange County, CA

After my indoctrination into the world of Korean scrubs at Yi Pak Spa, I was hooked.  Unfortunately, the spas that offer these scrubs are pretty pricy in New York CIty, about $100 or so for a basic scrub.  Plus tip. Ouch.

While doing research for my trip to Los Angeles, I decided to look up Korean spas on a whim.  Holy crap, there were several very highly rated places to go, and THEY COST HALF OF WHAT I PAY HERE IN NYC!!  There was one place in LA’s Koreatown/downtown that seemed very popular and I added that spa to my itinerary.  But once I landed and had time to relax with BFF, I decided I didn’t want to drive from Long Beach (where he lives and where I was staying) up to K-town JUST for a scrub, and I wasn’t looking forward to getting stuck in traffic.  I mean, if you’ve ever driven in LA or NYC traffic, you’ll understand precisely why I was suddenly hesitating to go.  So I looked online and found Imperial Health Spa in Garden Grove in Orange County.

One of the weirdest things about this place is how unassuming it is.  It’s in a nondescript strip mall on Garden Grove Boulevard and it’s in the middle of a huge Korean community.  The upside is there’s LOADS of parking, or at least there was the day I visited Imperial on a sunny Thursday afternoon.  I did not make an appointment, which is not required, though you might want to do so if you plan to visit on the weekend and get a scrub.

The men’s spa, by the way, is on the left at the end.  Don’t ask me how I figured this out.  Let it suffice to say that there are no signs to alert the innocent.

The lobby is clean, quiet, and houses a couch where one can wait for one’s party to finish their ablutions.  To the immediate left of the entrance is a counter where you tell the attendant whether you are there to use the hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms only, or if you are also interested in getting a scrub. Get this, folks:  it costs only $15 to use the facilities, and an additional $30 to add on a scrub.  Only $45 for WAY more than I can get at my beloved Yi Pak!  You pick a time for your scrub and assign you a numbered locker.  That’s also the number the ajumma will quietly call out when it’s your turn to get the crap scrubbed out of you. I scheduled mine for an hour into my visit so I’d have time to explore and try out the various rooms and pools, and walked away from the registration desk armed with a cotton robe, a toothbrush, the key to my assigned locker, and three towels.

As I walked into the nicely-but-not-luxuriously appointed locker room and after taking my shoes off at the door (it’s incredibly rude to walk into a Korean spa while wearing shoes, so be prepared to go barefoot), I noticed there was one smallish vanity nearest the locker door, and around the corner, a larger L-shaped one, both stocked with hair dryers, body lotion, tissues, cotton swabs, hairspray (Aquanet!), etc.  There were also some Korean facial products, but as I can’t read Korean and therefore had no way of knowing what was in these products, I decided to stick with the supplies I brought.  And yes, feel free to bring your own beauty products.

I must emphasize that Korean spas are NAKED spas.  Nude. Au naturel.  NAKIE.  If you’re not comfortable seeing other ladies’ bits and bobs or exposing yours to other women, a Korean spa is not the place for you.  Seriously.  It’s not like I dance around with jazz hands, but you really have to leave your modesty at the door when you go to these spas.  The provided robe is the only nod to modesty you’ll get, and it’s actually more of a hindrance than a boon in the wet zone because they have to come off before you walk into any of the rooms.  Wear the robe in the dry zone.

The wet zone is where the soaking tubs, steam room, and showers are located.  This is also where the scrub rooms are found, though those are through an inner doorway.  The soaking tubs are located to the left of the wet room entrance, with shower stations in the center and along the wall on the right.  Directly ahead is the entrance to the steam room.  The center shower stations are all equipped with hand-held shower heads and are set at about waist height.  Shower gel, shampoo and conditioner are provided, but again, if you have your favorite products, bring your own.

After I took a shower (you need to do this before getting into any of the tubs), I checked out the hot tub first.  This thing is big enough to float in, y’all, and HOT.  I’m a dumb ass and didn’t know how to turn on the jets or that it was even supposed to bubble until a couple other ladies got into the tub with me and one of them turned the jets on.  Derp.  As I soaked, I covertly and curiously watched as a younger woman scrubbed her mom’s back for her.  There was something so endearing and tender about this to me.  These two ladies quietly talked and acted as if this mutual grooming was something they did all the time, which I suspect they do.

I’m the quintessential New Yorker and felt compelled to rush to the next pool, this time the cold soaking tub.  I was in there for all of six seconds before I leaped out and nearly dove back into the hot tub.  I’m not too proud to admit I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold!

Next:  the salt room.  I didn’t actually see any salt; I read later that I was supposed to ask for a thing of salt, except I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.  Are you supposed to rub it on yourself?  Sniff it?  It was just a really hot and dry room with an LCD TV set in the wall.  Not sure what the benefit of a dry, salty sauna is supposed to provide but maybe I’m just a spa philistine.

You know what I did really enjoy?  The red clay ball room.  Also a dry sauna, it contains about a dozen shallow pits filled with red clay marble-sized balls that are heated from below with infrared (?) and are freaking amazing to lie in.  So much nicer than just sitting in a hot room!  I imagine this is sort of like hot stone massage, only without the massage.  The warmth these little balls imparted was super soothing and felt wonderful to my travel-weary muscles.   I could have fallen asleep in this room, and almost did.   They also made quite a bit of noise with every move I made.  Clack-clack-clack.

Photo: lepetitex2.com

By this time, I was starting to feel a pang or two of hunger, no thanks to the snack bar that was serving yummy bulgogi and other meals.  Cash only for this part of the spa, and as usual, I had none on me, so all I could do was sniff the air longingly.

I headed back for another soak in the hot tub to get my skin soft again for my scrub.  Before I knew it, Ajumma called my number and off I went through the inner doorway and into the scrub area.  I actually felt a little nervous about this because something about the room, which had a half-dozen or so large cubicles sectioned off by six-foot high walls, reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for some reason; it was very utilitarian-looking with tiled walls and steel partitions.  I was a little terrified that Ajumma was really Nurse Ratched disguised as a Korean woman.   I got over the nervousness pretty fast after I reminded myself Korean spas are not meant to be like Dorit Baxter or Great Jones Day Spa.  Remember, no frills at a Korean spa!

At Imperial, there’s no towel across your face while you’re being skinned, so for the first time, I actually got to see what Ajumma was scrubbing off my body.  I can’t believe how gross it is to see rolls of gray skin go flying off in all directions.

I think maybe I prefer being blindfolded.

Scrubs are typically accompanied by little mini-massages, which really consist of a minute or two of flesh-smacking.  Not the kinky kind, you gutter-minds!  At one point, I was asked to sit up so Ajumma could rinse skin bits off my back and she gave my back a hearty smack.  So hearty, in fact, the Ajumma in the facing cubicle looked up in alarm.  There was something so absurd about my sitting there butt-naked and being smacked around by an ajumma of indeterminate age that I busted up laughing.  Both ajummas laughed too, and we all continued with our regularly scheduled program.

For obvious reasons I did not take any pictures.  The outer trappings aren’t what anyone would consider luxurious, but it’s clean, quiet, respectful (everyone keeps their eyes to themselves–no one is gawking or pointing and laughing), and you can spend the whole day there if you like.  The proprietors clearly put a lot of money into the amenities rather than sink money into the non-nakie areas and I’m okay with that.  If I hadn’t had plans for the evening, I would have hung out in the clay ball room all day!

Korean spas have this uncanny knack for reminding me that we ought to celebrate our bodies, not just with cleanliness but also by treating it and our spirits well.  I felt this more intensely at Imperial Health Spa than I do at Yi Pak, maybe because Yi Pak’s main focus is on the scrub and not on the other amenities, which they don’t provide.  You can’t spend all day indulging yourself at Yi Pak the way you can at Imperial.  For $45 plus tip, I walked out of Imperial feeling like a new woman with a newly rejuvenated spirit.  You will too.

Imperial Health Spa
8251 Garden Grove Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92844
(714) 530-0055

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