The Bath House, the Banya and the Harem Wench

On Sunday I had the heavenly pleasure of discovering another one of those LA places you won’t hear of too often. Olympic Spa is a women-only retreat in an otherwise barren stretch of Koreatown. Believe it or not, I’d never been to a spa unless you wish to count trips to the banya as a kid growing up in Russia.

Banya is one of those unforgettable [read: traumatic] quintessentially Russian experiences I’ll always treasure. At its core a bath house/steam room, the banya employs some interesting props and tactics, beyond the expected towel or, perhaps, loofah. Take, for instance, the venik. This is a bunch of actual fresh n’ leafy twigs with which one is expected to self-flagellate in order to achieve some ultimate softness. You have not known true confusion until you’ve seen a nude 70 year old babushka operate one of these things inside a packed steam room. An impressive explanation of banyas can be found on Wikipedia, where I chuckle at the writers’ innocent explanation of the term “podjopnik” as “something to sit on”. Pdjopnik, literally, translates to “under-ass-nik”. I’ve never actually heard anyone use it. But I digress.

Russkaya Venera [Russian Venus] by Boris Kustodiev

My banya experiences left me comfortable with the idea of a hall filled with nude wet women of all shapes, sizes and ages. Once the initial panic subsides, it all becomes relaxing and comforting in a primal way, as was the case at Olympic Spa. I began with a proper dry steaming, followed by a dip in a glorious tea pool, then a mineral pool and salt steam room. A very small lady called me from the salty vapor to begin the main event. As I followed her to the massage table my cobalt hair and tattoos earned a few sideways glances, but just a few – everyone was much too busy luxuriating to concern themselves with my towel-staining.

For the next two hours this tiny hurricane of a lady did things, things unlike any I’d experienced until that point. This involved an extremely vigorous scrub, buckets of seaweed water, what felt like at least a gallon of oil and more. I don’t want to spoil the actual magic of what their signature Goddess Treatment entails, but take my word for it – so worth it. Suffice to say within 20 minutes I was convinced I was in a harem filled with beautiful slave girls, being prepared for the Sheik [really]. And no, there was no happy ending, you perverts – just a very intense massage and exfoliating treatment that left even my elbows and knees velvet-soft. It would have been criminal not to share this place with the good women of Coilhouse and I fully intend to drag a few friends next time I go. Velvet-flesh for all!

14 Responses to “The Bath House, the Banya and the Harem Wench”

  1. Vivacious G Says:

    Great article, Zoe, very interesting about the Banya. I totally want to go!

  2. Tanya Says:

    My grandma had her own banya, detached from the main house. She had a big estate and a farm, although she wasnt wealthy. Just a hard working farmer, very self sufficient. And they had a banya, with the entry way where everyone disrobed, and a big steaming stove, and lots of veniki hanging off hooks. I think I used to hate going into it, though. I still don’t handle hot temperatures or steam or stuffy environments well. But it’s definitely such a Russian staple, and sometimes I would get bemused looks from people when trying to explain to them one of the major plot elements in “Ironiya Sudbi.”

  3. Nadya Says:

    Ah yes… I remember “Ironiya Sudbi!” Only I always called it “S Lyogkim Parom.” A great tradition for New Year’s Eve.

    And yes… the banya. All those naked babushkas! Zoe, do you remember those funny felt hats that everyone used to wear? I think you were suppoed to wear them to prevent yourself from fainting in the steam room. Or keeping steam out of your eyes? I don’t remember why, but they made everyone look like mushrooms.

    Mushrooms… another Russian topic. Zoe, Tanya, did your families go mushroom-picking?

  4. Zoetica Says:

    Oh yes! One of my fondest childhood memories was wandering though forests behind dachas whether with family or alone, picking the good ones, a.k.a. the non-poisonous ones. Paradoxically, eating them wasn’t nearly as exciting as the gathering process itself!

    Now berry picking – that was a fun AND delicious process. Very few actually made it back home with me.

  5. Nadya Says:

    “I found a mushroom!!! Is this a good mushroom or a bad one?”
    “That’s a bad one. It looks like a beloi grib, but it’s actually a paganka.”
    “Can I step on it?”


    Ah, memories.

  6. Jerem Morrow Says:

    So we men get fight clubs (hell ja, they exist), und you lot get these?

  7. Zoetica Says:

    Nay, you lot get these too.
    In Russia the banya is divided into men’s and women’s section.
    And of course the bath house d’homme can be found around these parts, San Francisco even more so, har har.

  8. Tanya Says:

    Oh yes, the mushroom picking definitely took place. I remember, and maybe it’s an exaggerated childhood recollection, that we had this huge grey plastic picnic basket that we had filled with mushrooms. The basket seemed to me the size of a baby’s crib. I’m sure it wasn’t that big at all. Then the mushrooms would get fried up, with a little bit of onion and lots of salt and butter, and served with sour cream.

    We went mushroom picking a lot, during the summer. And actually, a Russian girlfriend & I used to go mushroom picking in the fall near our apartment building here in SF, when we were still in high school. Lots of masleniki, or as she called them, “oilies.”

  9. Nadya Says:

    MUSHROOMS AND BUTTER YES. Masleniki were always my favorite mushrooms. Except for “Babushkena Pechka” – the kind that blew “smoke” when you squeezed them. Those were a rare find and so fun.

    Sour Cream… another obsession of the Russian people.

    I’m hungry.

  10. Saturn Says:

    In Rotterdam there is a spa called Elysium that several saunas, including a banya (they spell it with a ‘j’ but claim it is Russian style) and it’s quite small but amazing. There was no self-flagellation but the spa attendant created the most intense heat by swirling large bundles of twigs in the air. I can still remember the sensation in my lungs. Totally invigorating!

    Elysium is co-ed… so that was something else to, um, add to the experience. Actually… I wondered if it would get weird at any point, but it wasn’t. The Dutch are all pretty chilled out about co-ed nakedness ;-)

    Your spa experience sounds DIVINE! I recently booked an day at hammam spa (turkish style) in Toronto… i can’t wait!!!

  11. Zoetica Says:

    Saturn! That sounds fantastic – I’ve been to a co-ed banya in Russia, when I was but a wee cosmonomad in training. It was all very curious at the time. But YES – I wonder if there is anything like a hammam spa in Angel City. Something to investigate, definitely.

  12. Kevin from Home Sauna Talk Says:

    According to the Lonely Planet guide, the Russian steam room or Parilka gets so hot it “makes the Finnish sauna look like a warm room.” The steam seems near scalding when it explodes off the rocks, all the more invigorating when you stand up to whip the person next to you with a bunch of birch branches. Oh the joy! And followed by a plunge in a lake or snow bank! Assuming you survive the Banya, you can then treat yourself to a nip of vodka.

  13. Kevin from Home Saunas Talk Says:

    How does a Banya differ from the Finnish sauna? It seems the Russians try to make theirs hotter, like a steam sauna on steroids. They use a massive brick oven (more like a furnace) that encases the stones, rather than leave them open sitting on top of the stove.

  14. Kimmo T Says:

    There are many different kinds of banyas and saunas. There isn’t just one typical sauna or banya. Lonely Planet guide doesn’t however tell the only truth there is. For excample the smokesaunas in Finland may be even hotter than russian versions of “steambathhouses”. It isn’t unusual having over 120C heat when having a bath in properly done smokesauna. There is many types of saunaovens and the biggest are using the wood about one square meter per time. You usually bath in this kind of saunas two days with one burning. Large public saunas used to be like that. Nowadays electric sauna is more common. And whipping=)? There may be a proper word for using the “vihta” or “vasta” which brings also the good odour to the steamroom. Usage of vihtas is from the time there was no soap. It cleanses the body together with steam and sweat. There is available many sites with the proper info of sauna. Wiki or saunaseura are among them.