My coworker was incredulous when she found out that I’d lived in Los Angeles and never set foot a Korean spa. I’ll admit, “they’re so cheap” was a huge selling point for me, but we all like to pamper ourselves with minimal strain on our budgets, right?
So you can imagine that I was happier than a bird with a French fry when I saw the glowing reviews for Pearl Spa, San Francisco’s Korean style spa which opened in Japantown in late 2016. At the time, owner Tracy Lee told Hoodline that she hoped Pearl would appeal to all populations as well as the Asian community familiar with their concept.
The rave reviews ranged from the friendliness of the staff to the “baby soft” skin they achieved from the scrub Pearl Spa offers – the holy grail of Korean spa treatments, and one that has been practiced for over a thousand years.
I found Pearl Spa to be a new experience and an interesting foray into Asian beauty routines. By now, many of us are familiar with the extensive rituals Korean women embark on daily to look their best; it’s something akin to an Olympic track event as a morning sprint. Reports of a 10-step beauty regime have popped up on the internet and in beauty magazines alike. Korea is also the country that gave us BB cream and exfoliating powder. Most of us here in the Bay Area struggle to wash our faces on a consistent basis. We’re a hoodie-happy city where athleisure almost passes for office attire. We’re the kings and queens of keeping it cas.
Well, the only thing casual about a K-spa is that you’ll be totally naked. You mostly accept this policy when you book. You’ll stand out more if you do try to sneak in a swimsuit. My advice is this: remember that nobody is looking, because they aren’t. They’re either Pearl Spa veterans who’ve seen more naked women than the bartenders at the Gold Club, or they’re new to it and too busy worrying about being in the buff themselves to give your bod a second glance.
Some may find this enlightening. Others may be too weirded out by this practice to give Pearl Spa a second try. It was eye-opening to see how nonchalant some visitors were about stripping down with their coworkers after work. Ladies come here for bridal showers and birthday outings. It doesn’t hurt that this is a women’s-only spa. Some K-spas have co-ed areas, but naturally clothing is required in those.
One thing that definitely makes a visit here worthwhile is that it takes you out of your comfort zone and exposes (sorry about the pun) you to a different cultural approach to the spa experience. In a city that prides itself on its cultural diversity and unique experiences, isn’t it worth giving something like this a shot? I think so.
Now, onto the treatments. You can get a day pass for $35, which grants you full access to the hot tub, cold plunge pool, sauna, steam room, clay room and salt room with a locker for your things. Or you can indulge in a seaweed wrap, massage, or scrub (be braver than I was) and have the spa amenities included.
The massages and scrubs are not for the faint of heart. The spa attendants use harder pressure than many people are used to on the massages. In a nutshell, they’re kind, but fiercer than Beyonce at Coachella. Those who’ve had an authentic Thai massage may be able to relate to the feeling of being cracked and possibly bruised slightly by a massage therapist in Chiang Mai. For the scrubs, you’ll be exfoliated in parts of your body you haven’t thought about in awhile. Check your humility at the door and think of the end result, because there are no candles or Enya tunes present in the treatment rooms here.
I arrived about 45 minutes early for my massage to soak up the hot tub and steam room. Parking was easy across the street at Japantown Plaza. I was checked in an assigned a locker number, which temporarily became my name when it came time for my spa attendant to fetch me for my massage. The spa provides slippers and a robe. Your locker key is worn around your wrist for easy toting and access. There’s a common area by the locker room where you can primp and blow dry your hair in preparation for your return to the outside world (it’ll feel a little bit like getting kicked out of Disneyland at midnight). The best part about this area? Snacks. Tea, cookies, and fruit are all available during your stay.
After your treatment, head upstairs and check out the salt and clay saunas. They’re basically saunas full of pink himalayan sea salt and balls of red clay. The pink himalayan sea salt helps flush toxins and clears sinus congestion. The red clay room relaxes muscles and joints, relieves rheumatism, and increases blood flow. On your way out, you’ll be given a parting gift of a Korean sheet mask so the fun can continue on a Netflix-packed Friday night at home.
Try Pearl Spa or another K-spa next time you have a chance. At best, you’ll have added a new routine to your beauty regime. At worst, you’ll get to laugh knowing Conan O’Brien has totally been through the same. Just kidding, he definitely had it worse than you will.
// Treatment prices range from $60-150. Pearl spa is located at 1654 Post Street, Japantown in San Francisco. Photography courtesy of Pearl’s Spa.