It took the worst flu/head cold/creeping crud I’ve had since college to drag my sorry ass to the Korean spa. A friend’s glowing recommendation had me thinking about the place for more than a year. She’d warned me that nudity was the rule in the women-only section, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. What held me back was the thought of entering a new world where everything from the language to rules of common courtesy would be completely foreign. I was sure I’d do something—probably a lot of things—to embarrass myself and offend others.
But after two weeks of feeling really lousy, of my sinuses producing mucus that was the color of nothing found in nature, I screwed up my courage and drove to King Spa Fitness in Palisades Park, NJ. My nervousness increased as I got within a few blocks of the place and noticed that nearly all the signs were in Korean. I had a lot of trouble understanding the parking lot attendant and was pretty sure I’d pissed him off. In the foyer of the enormous, warehouse-type building, a line of people who all seemed to be Korean stood waiting to pay the cashier. I looked around for other non-Koreans and saw two women yelling at each other in what sounded like Russian. But no one stared at me or seemed surprised that I was there. When the cashier asked if this was my first time and if I’d like a tour, I said yes even though I usually like to do things on my own. That turned out to be the second best decision I made that day.
The woman who was my tour guide seemed about my age, but had the skin of a 10-year-old. I hope I didn’t make her uncomfortable as I seized every opportunity to study her complexion, which was smooth and bright. She was anxious to make me feel at home by helping me understand how everything worked, from the full-body scrubs to the fabulous amethysts placed all around the building. She shared which facilities she liked to use and what their benefits were. By the time she finished, my insecurities were subsiding.
I learned that the women-only section was the aquatic part. Several signs made it clear that getting clean was the first order of business. Not a problem since the place was swimming in showers–both western-style ones and the Korean kind, which involve sitting on a stool and using a hand-held hose. I saw lots of women sitting side-by-side, taking turns scrubbing each other. There also were three hot tubs set at varying temperatures. I watched in amazement as a steady stream of women used a basin to pour water from the ice-cold tub over their bodies and then step in. I stayed in the warmest tub for a long time before heading to the steam bath, which was the hottest and steamiest I’ve ever stumbled upon.
In the women-only section you can get scrubbed down for an additional $50 plus tip. For a bit more money, you can follow that up with a massage that I’m told is world-class. I had the full-body scrub during my second visit and am pretty sure it changed my life. I was told to soak in a hot tub for 20 minutes before being summoned to a massage table covered with shiny, pink plastic. A woman dressed in a black bra and panties told me to lie down and then threw a basin of body-temp water over me. With a mitt and granulated soap, she scrubbed me in places that probably haven’t been scrubbed since my mother washed me in the kitchen sink. She scoured the skin off one side of me, hit me with more water, and then told me to roll over. The table’s pink plastic had become pretty slippery and I hung on for dear life as I rolled—something my lady in black thought was hilarious. I felt a bit uneasy, but also felt that I was in caring, capable hands. And then I realized that, for the first time in many years, someone was looking after my body. My muscles slowly relaxed and I settled in to enjoy the comforts of infancy.
From there, it was on to what I think of as the “dry area.” That’s the co-ed section where most of the saunas are located. When I paid my entrance fee ($28 with an online coupon that’s always available), I was given a pair of pink shorts and matching T-shirt, which must be worn in the communal areas. Two people my size could have fit into that outfit, but I pretended that I left my vanity at the door. I spent a couple of hours wandering through three floors of therapeutic treatments, saunas, relaxation rooms, and dining areas. Happily, the place is littered with signs, written in both Korean and somewhat awkward English, describing the history and benefits of each facility. One sauna was lined with turquoise, one was made out of mud, and one relied on gourds to work its magic. Inside each were mats to lie on and wooden headrests. Bunches of mugwort hung from the rafters, giving off a smell that was wholly unfamiliar at first but which now triggers feelings of happiness and health. There was even a “cold” sauna, which looked and felt like a walk-in refrigerator. I loved them all. My friend had told me that it’s easy to spend an entire day there and she’s right. It is, after all, open 24/7. But I had allotted only a few hours and left without investigating some of the areas that intrigued me the most. On my second visit I tried out a large sauna in which men lie on one side and women on the other. Every so often, hot cement blocks loaded onto a wagon are rolled out in the middle of the space to heat things up. According to the sign outside, you’re supposed to lie there for at least 20 minutes and then allow your sweat to air dry.
I suppose there’s plenty of research out there to prove or disprove the claims made for Korean saunas and their various therapies. Who cares about the research, I know how the place makes me feel. I had hoped to detox and feel healthier, but was completely unprepared for the rush of happiness the spa provided—a rush that lasted for days. I don’t know how or why, but the aura of peace and well-being that fills the place really sticks to your ribs. And when I look in the rear-view mirror on the drive home each time, my skin looks like a ten-year-old’s.