Oldest Japantown grocery becomes a new Korean spa

The new Pearl Spa is located in Japantown at 1656 Post Street.

The new Pearl Spa is located at 1656 Post Street in Japantown.

BODY & SOUL | BARBARA KATE REPA

There was a message on my phone marked urgent: “There’s a new spa in the neighborhood — and it looks really, really nice.”

The alert came from Melody Sams, a friend who had spied the newly opened Pearl Spa & Sauna on Post Street, just a few doors down from her acupuncture clinic. In addition to practicing Chinese medicine and massage on her own, Melody has worked as a masseuse at both the neighboring Kabuki Springs & Spa and the Nob Hill Spa. She knows spas.

We made appointments to try out the new place together. At 1656 Post Street, jammed into a block of disconnected retail shops and restaurants, it’s an unlikely locale for an oasis. But the spot also has a venerable act to follow: It’s in the former home of Uoki K. Sakai, the oldest grocery store in Japantown, which closed its doors at the end of 2011 after 105 years in business.

An amazing transformation has occurred. The fish market and aisles of tall metal racks stacked with groceries have been replaced by gleaming marble and tile and whimsical light fixtures. The space has been reconfigured as a classy, immaculate, modern day spa for women. Owners Ray and Tracy Giron have spared no detail.

Tracy greets Melody and me in the entry room and hands us waterproof key fobs, then leads us into the dressing room to demonstrate how easily they open the locker doors without a key or code. “Like James Bond!” she says, giggling with glee, though you suspect it’s not the first giggle she’s had over this very thing. Inside the lockers are jacquard robes that look a little small at first, but easily accommodate us.

Tracy then takes us on a spirited tour. A huge room on the main floor includes a bank of showers along one wall, a dry sauna, a wet sauna and cold and hot pools. Upstairs there’s a large open room with wide leather couches for relaxing after treatments, a bit oddly equipped with a flat screen TV.

There’s also a Clay Room — an enclosed heated area with a floor filled with marble-sized balls of red clay. Spending time lolling atop them is said to produce a number of therapeutic effects — including relaxing muscles and joints, relieving rheumatism and increasing blood flow to the muscles. She cautions about the proper approach to the heated balls. “Lie down, but do not stand up on them,” she says, demonstrating with great exuberance a nimble roll and crawl combo to get to the center of the room.

The Clay Room is filled with marble-sized balls of red clay.

The Clay Room is filled with marble-sized balls of red clay.

Next door is a Himalayan Salt Room — a large room heated a bit more intensely than the Clay Room, lined in beautiful rosy pink salt slabs with charcoal insets. A sign outside the door heralds its benefits: It regulates water content, flushes toxins, clears sinus congestion, increases endurance and improves blood flow.

But Tracy says it’s imbued with a sort of magic, too. “It’s so strange, this room — so mystical,” she says, recounting how the Salt Room helped cure one spa-goer’s allergies and another’s arthritis.

There are thoughtful feminine touches throughout the place: queenly upholstered chairs in the waiting room, bright pink mugs on shelves and tables, tea and tangerines for the taking and an array of Aveda bath and beauty products for the trying.

Melody asks about the women-only policy. “Why only women? Men stink! They would sweat up the place,” Tracy says.

The tour complete, it’s time to get down to business. Tracy gives us each a bottle of cool water and issues a dictate of sorts: “Have you been in the dry sauna yet? Go now.”

Ray Giron had earlier sent an email explaining Pearl’s offerings: “We believe what really sets us apart from other spas is our moderately priced exfoliating body scrub treatment,” he wrote. “This is a beauty ritual practiced by Korean women for over 1,000 years.”

The prices do seem moderate by San Francisco spa standards, ranging from a $25 general admission pass for use of the facilities without a treatment, to $60 for a 30-minute scrub, up to $150 for a 100-minute “Pearl Special” that includes applying a 24-carat gold mineral extract.

Primping near us in the spacious dressing area is Jessica Reeves, who describes herself as “half-black and half-Korean,” and verifies that spas are a vital part of Korean life. “People go with their grandmas and kids and stay all day,” she says. She and her mother visit Pearl Spa together every 10 days or so. She says they get full scrub treatments about once a month and in between come to use the saunas, pools and clay and salt rooms.

“This is the only place in the city I know that offers all that,” she says.

Photographs of Pearl Spa by Angus Porter Photography

Photographs of Pearl Spa by Angus Porter Photography

The treatments appear to be working for her. “I’m 42, but everyone makes fun of me because my skin is so supple,” she says. She also offers a couple of tips for newcomers to Korean spas. “It’s best to use the steam sauna before a scrubbing, because it helps soften your skin the most.” And: “Wear a paper facial masque into the dry rooms. You won’t believe how it helps.”

After some time in the saunas, a soaking in the hot pool and a brave dredge through the cold one, Melody and I are summoned for our treatments by attendants who call us by our locker key numbers and lead us into the main treatment rooms.

I am greeted by a Korean woman who manages to be both friendly and no-nonsense at the same time. She is my “auntie,” and I can’t help but notice that her skin seems to glow. Auntie directs me to lie face down on a bed covered in pink vinyl. The bed is narrow, leaving no room for modesty. I am naked and my auntie is clad only in a black lace bra and panties, which is not as sexy as it might sound.

She douses me with pans of deliciously warm water and speaks very little, though no words are needed to know I’m getting the scrubbing of my life with the abrasive mitts on her hands. She then directs me to take a shower and come back to the pink table, where I’m swaddled in towels, massaged and pummeled in a manner not for sissies, my face covered in gauze and painted with a masque. As finishing touches, the auntie douses me with warm milk — to nourish the skin — and washes my hair, then ties it up tightly in a towel.

Pearl Spa’s website promises “the exfoliating body scrub will remove rolls of dark grey skin, revealing fresh pink skin.” Mercifully, I have not read this before the scrub, noting only the fresh pink after-effects. Melody also marvels that her scrubbing has left her skin feeling soft and renewed. She is glowing like my auntie.

We adjourn to the Clay Room, dutifully tucking and rolling and then lying on the small clay balls.

The Himalayan Salt Room is lined in rosy pink salt slabs.

The Himalayan Salt Room is lined in rosy pink salt slabs.

And finally we venture into the Salt Room. We have been in there for a while — talking softly, despite the spa signs instructing “Keep Silence Please,” about topics ranging from politics to UFOs to why some husbands don’t want to travel. I’m about to signal that the heat in the room is getting to me, toxins flushed or not, when Tracy mystically appears with cold wet towels for our heads.

Pearl spa-goers are limited to four-hour stays, and Melody had earlier been disappointed by that.

“That time will just zip by,” she lamented.

I told her that’s crazy: “Have you ever stayed at a spa longer than that?”

Turns out, I’m the one who’s daft. After steaming, saunaing, dipping, being scrubbed and pummeled and absorbing the benefits of the clay and salt rooms, we’ve worn out our welcome. It’s been nearly five hours.

Before we reluctantly leave, we make appointments to come back again, noting that a gift certificate to Pearl would make a lovely gift for any female valentine — even if she doesn’t have any rolls of dark grey skin.

Pearl Spa & Sauna is located at 1656 Post Street in Japantown.

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