I’ve never liked bathing. My parents like to tell stories of struggling to get me out of dirty diapers – apparently I would protest that even the stinkiest pair were clean and then run away screaming when they tried to drag me to bathroom. After a brief stint taking freakishly long baths as a ten year old, I took to literally jumping in and out of the shower. Soap and shampoo were largely ignored throughout college. I don’t think I’ve drawn myself a bath in at least a decade, possibly longer.
And that’s just private bathing. In the Bay Area, there’s an unusually high concentration of public bathing opportunities. Between Japantown’s Kabuki to the hippie hot springs that dot the Northern California coast, getting clean around here is a social opportunity. As a half-Turk, I’m familiar with Turkish baths, but I decided to stretch my bathing limits with a trio of distinct submersions into water of various temperatures. Let’s call it Extreme Bathing.
The location of Imperial Spa, the Korean bathhouse on Geary Street at the edge of Japantown, is not luxe. Sitting next to a dual Pizza Hut/Taco Bell, it seems quite possible that a happy ending massage waits inside the double doors of the squat concrete building, part of a mini-strip mall.
But Imperial’s interior belies its skuzzy environs, and the Korean spa is San Francisco’s answer to New York’s famous Russian bathhouses. Upon arriving and paying for a ($90) massage-and-scrub, I get a key and a robe.
Now, my reluctance for bathing, public and private, is not based on sheer prudery: I’ve been to many a Folsom Street Fair, I believe that bodies of all shapes and sizes are beautiful and body shame is a terrible thing and Americans should be more like Europeans and it’s all just skin, after all. Generally, though, I’m happier when clothing is not optional. I just am. But Imperial Spa was a wonderfully low-key kind of clothing optional situation.
Hanging my robe on the hook near the sinks, I walked into the main bathing area, lit by skylights and sat on a plastic stool. Following one set of the posted instructions, I turned on the shower head to wash before entering the hot tub and promptly doused myself in freezing cold water, then scalding water.
Before I could try out all the hot and cold tubs, it was time for the main event – a massage scrub. I had gone once before on the advice of a trusted friend, and remember whimpering as a woman in a matching lace bra and panty set took what felt like steel wool to my naked body. Then, I decided to go to the beach. My back still has a weird tan line where I fell asleep and seared it in the sun, failing to appreciate the effect of having ten layers of skin forcibly removed.
This time around was even more brutal. A woman in maroon underwear greeted me with a nod and motioned to a massage table, which I gracelessly climbed onto. Down came the loofah, and off came the dead skin. I flopped over and my front side got the same work up as my back side. Without getting gross, let’s just say that very little was deemed too sacred to be scoured by the scrub-cloth. Every now and then I’d open my eyes and see these little gray booger-like things: my excised skin. Good riddance, gray skin! After being scrubbed pink, I was instructed to stand up. Basins of warm water were heaved at me, front and back.
The massage portion commenced. The experience is intense yet methodical, from toes to scalp. I’m not sure about the technique – no hot stones, lots of elbows – but it was very, very vigorous and quite uncomfortable. At one point, the Imperial Spa professional jumped onto the table, ground down my back, and then hopped off, not missing a beat.
After a few rounds of massage, I opened my eyes to find myself covered in a milky-looking liquid, being squirted on me from plastic bottles. Huh. The facial was also a bit shocking: no token cucumber slices over the eyes, instead a mush of cold vegetables to my face. By the time I stood up for my final water-throw, I felt thoroughly stoned.
About an hour after I got home, the fog lifted and I felt fantastic. My skin was as soft as the proverbial baby’s bottom. Imperial Spa might not be for everyone, but after my muscles stopped aching and the epidermis grew back, returning seemed inevitable.
A few months after I moved to San Francisco in 2001, my friend organized a trip to some hot springs in Mendocino. “It’s very Northern California,” she said, “But I think you’ll like it.” At that point, I was so new to the area that I had no idea what she meant – what was Northern California like? Rainbow flags? Hilly streets?
On the car ride up with my friend and three other women, all of whom were very nice but I hadn’t ever met, I began to understand what going to hot springs meant: a communal kitchen, no TV, co-ed naked hot tubbing in the woods. Eager to prove myself to my new friends, I marched out in a towel to the water areas and flung it off dramatically, because I was just that cool with the whole thing. But after a few minutes of making conversation with an incredibly hairy guy in the big pool, all the while trying to ignore the couple sucking face (and more) in the adjacent small pool, I fled to the cabin to read a book. For five hours. Then, I just hung out in the kitchen. It was a very long weekend.
With that primal wound in mind, I went about looking for a cool hot springs experience. I happened upon the web site for Vichy Hot Springs, a national historic landmark that has a special “champagne” bath that has been curing the physical and metaphysical ills of everyone from Jack London to Nancy Pelosi. The price was right for an overnight trip to Ukiah, and my boyfriend and I jumped in the car.
Vichy Springs sits on a 700-acre bit of property a few miles out of Ukiah proper. We arrived on a lovely October afternoon and after an hour’s hike to a waterfall, I felt prepared to enter the lightly carbonated Vichy water. The tubs sit in a row: there are a series of private tubs in a wooden shed and then four out in the open. I opted for an open air one at the end of the row. The tub looked all of its 150 years. Rust colored and deeply grooved by the flow of water from one end to the other, it was turned on by removing a pipe from one end and jamming it down a hole in the other.
Like a little geyser, the Vichy water burst forth and quickly filled the area. I lowered myself in, surprised at the lukewarm temperature. According to the web site, the water’s chemical composition is similar to Alka Seltzer and it helps heal everything from cuts and abrasions to poison oak (“instantly”) and long-term circulation problems. And indeed, as the bubbles formed all over my body, my skin began to warm up. It was a very odd feeling: being warmed internally from increased blood flow.
After 20 minutes or so, I got out of the tub. My skin felt very soft and warm, even in the cool early evening air. The sensation was akin to being buzzed by the first glass of wine on an empty stomach, without actually, you know, being drunk. The larger, conventional hot tub was a few steps away and I jumped in, my nose turning a bit at the chemical smell of chlorine. Repeating this experience the next day, only for longer, I found myself wishing for a champagne bath closer to home. Once you go Vichy, it’s hard to go back.
A day at the beach in San Francisco is always a tease: you’re so close to the water, and yet so many Fahrenheit degrees away from comfortable swimming. But there are a small legion of hardy souls who brave the cold and the currents for a refreshing dive. I aimed to join their ranks.
Many go to the Aquatic Park near Fort Mason, the home of San Francisco’s Dolphin Club, a group dedicated to swimming with and without wet suits. On my frosty day of choice, I decided to go try out the beach near Crissy Field. (This decision, like so many in S.F., was based on parking.) My friend Jason was kind enough to bring me a wetsuit; since I was trying to bathe, be immersed in the water and the waves, I needed to not go into hypothermic shock. (Also, I’m a wimp.)
The first order of business was getting myself into the wetsuit, another first for me. It didn’t have any zippers. Ten minutes of tugging and hopping and the thing was on.
Like a fat scarecrow, I waded into the water. There was a kid who would periodically jump into a wave and then jump out, but besides him and a few dogs, the coast was clear. The wetsuit had an odd effect: immediately, my feet and hands were painfully cold but my torso seemed dry. I stood in the greenish water for a few seconds and then went a bit further out, to float on my back.
The currents, though, eliminated any real floating or bathing possibilities. I swam back until I could stand, and then hung out in the water. Not totally unpleasant, but not more fun than say, not being in the water. I watched a shaggy dog with a tennis ball paddle back to shore. Trudging up to the sand, my skin now suctioned to the sides of wetsuit, I wondered how long crawling out would take. After three encounters with warm and cold water, carbonated and saline, loofah'd and unscrubbed, I was finally ready for a long, hot shower.
Photo by visualpanic