Korean Spas: The Ultimate Escape
Published Feb 04, 2014
It was early December, and it was half-snowing, half-sleeting outside. The sky was grey. The slush on the street was grey. My heart was grey. It had been like that for weeks in Chicago—grey everything, sodden trash peeking through piles of dirty snow next to the El station. I just—I couldn’t do it anymore.
I took a day off. It was time to go to King Spa. King Spa fixes everything.
King Spa is a Korean spa, and if you’ve never been to a Korean spa before, you are missing out. Korean spas are basically giant public bathhouses separated by gender, with endless pools, warrens of rooms, massage spaces, and usually a snack or tea room. King Spa is open—get this—24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You pay once ($30) and you can stay for an entire 24 hours if you like. Pay often enough, and you could live there. Think about it.
Walking in through the front doors, you’re immediately overwhelmed by glamour. There are massive marble lions guarding the front entrance. The floors and columns are solid marble. There are chandeliers! And this is just the front lobby. From here you check in, slip your locker key that’s on a spiral neon plastic cord onto your wrist, and get handed your new outfit, a set of oversized pink cotton scrubs. You head down the marble hallway toward the (in my case) women’s locker room to find your locker, take off your clothes, quickly wrapping a towel around yourself as you avoid eye contact with anyone else who’s changing.
You open the door to the pool room, take in the solid marble tubs, marble floors, and gorgeous skylight, and get your first shock: everyone is naked, and it’s weird. If you’re not used to seeing naked women on a regular basis, walking into a roomful of them—some old, some young, some fit, some not, all hanging out—can be a bit jarring. (But also kind of awesome and refreshing.) But you don’t look around and think, “That woman is heading for the showers.” You think, “That woman is naked. OMG so is that woman. Whoa look at her tattoo. Oh no, she saw me looking. Augghhh now she thinks I’m a creep, I’m a weird, stare-y creep in a bathhouse.”
And then, 20 seconds later, you acclimate. Everyone is naked in public together, and you are naked, too. It’s okay. Nobody cares.
The first thing your naked self has to do, upon entering the pool room, is take a shower in an open stall, next to other showering spa-goers. Soap, shampoo, and conditioner are provided in push-button dispensers. The staff at every Korean spa I’ve ever been to is serious—really serious—about enforcing the shower-before-pool policy. There are signs posted everywhere in both English and Korean, stating the rule, even encouraging you to rat out anyone who tries to skip the shower.
After you’re clean, you head to a watery wonderland of pools: steaming hot pools and lukewarm pools and icy cold pools—King Spa even has a waterfall. Everyone sits and soaks, hopping from warm to hot to cold water and then back again, and no one really talks. The spa experience is supposed to be relaxing, and that means you don’t get to do a lot of chatting. If you must say something, you whisper, or one of the staffers tells you to be quiet. Adjacent to the pools are the scrub rooms, where you can pay extra for a vigorous full-body scrub sessions ($70 for 45 minutes) with a staffer wearing a swimsuit.
And then there are the other spa rooms. Each is designed with a special, specific purpose in mind (to detoxify, to help you breathe easier, to relax you, etc.), and shared by both men and women—so you wear your pink scrubs, and the men wear their grey ones. These rooms are what Korean spas are famous for, and at King Spa, you’re spoiled with choice. There are dry saunas and steam-heat eucalyptus saunas, rooms where the walls are lined with charcoal (to draw out toxins), and rooms lined with amethyst stones (I don’t know what this does). Clay rooms. Rooms with radiant heated floors. Dark, warm rooms with wooden headrests on the floor, made so you can lay down and fall asleep with neck support; a chilly “ice” room, designed to cool you down post-sauna. When you open the door to any of these, you’ll usually encounter a few people inside, spread out on the floor in silence. Silence is the key. You don’t talk or even move around much in these rooms. You’re there to take a break from the world, and the world feels far away.
Until you go to the movie theater. Yep. King Spa has a free theater, as do many other Korean spas, complete with a full-size screen and several rows of leather recliners that tip all the way back, so you can watch mid-’90s movies or sitcoms in total air-conditioned darkness, 24/7. Relaxed, with warm, steaming skin, you fall asleep in your leather chair.
It’s here that you really start to realize that no one ever bothers you at the Korean spa. You wake up to what feels like several hours later, still fully reclined in the chair, having had one of the most satisfying naps of your life. Little time may have elapse, but it will feel as if you’ve been here for several years, and also as if you’ve only seen maybe a quarter of the spa’s rooms. You stretch. You have no idea what time it is. It’s probably time to eat.
Barefoot, you wander over to the tea room and snack room, where you order fresh-squeezed beet, carrot, and orange juice and mochi ice cream. Other spa-goers sit quietly eating rice and kimchi and talking in low voices. The tag on your locker-room wristband charges everything you order to your account, which you’ll settle up when you finally check out. Outside the tea room, there’s a common area with elaborately tufted couches and chairs, where a few patrons are playing chess. It’s more than a little like being a long-term patient at a very relaxing hospital—everyone is quiet, everyone is wearing baggy, unflattering clothes, no one is busy, and no one has shoes.
This is where time begins to seem fluid. There are no clocks, but you estimate you’ve been at the spa for around three hours. You could leave, but you could also book a massage. Or a reflexology session. Or you could go back to the pool rooms and start the whole cycle over again. Maybe add a session in the gender-specific mediation rooms. You could spend a few more hours here, certainly. I mean, there’s even a dedicated nap room upstairs. And food! Why would you ever leave?
Eight more hours later, you stumble out the front doors of the Korean spa. It’s dark out, which is confusing because you vaguely recall checking in around 10 a.m. What time is it? How long did you spend in there? What were you even doing? Only one thing is certain: You’ve had a full day of dedicated time to yourself, and you’ve never been more relaxed in your life.