Magical Thinking in Korean Spas

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I don’t like magical thinking. I don’t like getting my hopes up for something that isn’t feasible or attainable. I value action steps. I believe in possibility but don’t like wishing on a star. I want to wish on a business plan. You can blame this on me being a Capricorn at heart, though my astrological chart is complicated.

But there’s one place in the world where I suspend my disbelief and buy into everything I’m promised: Korean spas. I go crazy for Korean spas.

The first Korean spa I went to was King Spa in Niles, IL. The immediate thing that’s great about Korean spas is their use of medieval terminology. Be it King Spa in Illinois and New Jersey or the multiple Spa Castle establishments in New York, the name transports you to the Middle Ages, promising a pampering fit for a Queen.

I pulled up into King Spa’s parking lot on a cold February Tuesday afternoon in 2011, feeling disheveled, body begging for relaxation. My friend Thrisa (yes, that’s spelled correctly) had told me of the wonders inside King Spa — a temple of rejuvenation for the tired and weary. Now, my Groupon in hand, I approached the entrance where two stone lions resembling those outside the downtown Chicago Public Library guarded it.

I checked in at the front desk with a lady I would discover as the only person who spoke fluent English in the establishment. She gave me a numbered wristband with an electronic code imprinted in it — this would scan and open my two lockers (one for my shoes, one for the rest) and allow me to make purchases while on-premises. I’d just pay up when I checked out. And I could stay…as long as I wanted. “Even overnight,” she muttered, without a wink or smile or anything but an effort to move me along.

I had come all by myself. There was a reason for this. In my pre-visit research, I’d discovered that King Spa was divided into two halves — a co-ed dry sauna and a same-sex wet sauna where I’d be buck-ass naked with my fellow gentlemen. Maybe it’s because I’m gay and attracted to men, but I had no wish to bring along my real life guy friends on this first visit. I wanted to experience it safely with strangers, so if — God forbid — I got a hard-on in the steam room, I’d never have to see any potential onlookers again in my life.

I undressed, self-conscious of my less-than-fit body. The specimens of men in the same-sex sauna could not have varied more: all body shapes and types, and many different ethnicities. There were Koreans, of course, including father and sons engaging in the custom of hanging out naked together and bonding (something my Dad and I never would have even thought of doing). There were Russians, Turkish, and Polish men of a certain age pow wowing in the nude, enjoying their after-work excursion. There were black guys, mostly ignoring everyone else. And there were the self-conscious white boys like me, eyes darting around the room.

It was overwhelming. Eye contact was death. I did everything I could to slow my breathing and retreat inside myself. To enter the wet sauna, you must first scrub your entire body down (as the staff casually looks on nearby, ensuring that no one bathes without showering first) with the provided wash cloths and soap from a dispenser. Men near me sat on plastic buckets and scoured their every nook and cranny. I considered the advertisements for a professional body scrub for $60 promising to remove an entire layer of your skin. The facilities — to my eye — seemed super hygienic and startlingly modern and clean. My friend Annie, who I forced to go with me on my 30th birthday, thinks I’m disturbed and the place was teaming with VD. There were little buttons positioned around the pools that you could press if you wanted to activate high-powered water jets that blasted the knots out of your muscles. The temperature in each pool ranged from scalding to freezing, and you could see people’s expressions explode each time they took the plunge into ice cold water, their pores tightening and mouths agape.

I adjusted and began to enjoy myself. I made up a hydrotherapy circuit. Start with the medium-temp pool => hot pool => scalding pool => lukewarm pool => ice bath with high-powered jets => steam room => rinse and repeat. I decided to shave my face not once but twice, to feel like a newborn baby. I brushed my teeth four times. I wanted to feel remade. I started to believe this was possible. I started to think I wouldn’t leave this spa ever. And so I stayed there for 15 hours, overnight.

Finishing up in the wet sauna, I went to get a uniform for the co-ed dry one. Men must wear oversized blue shorts and shirts branded with the King Spa logo in order to enter. Women must wear pink, and kids must wear yellow. It felt like a Willy Wonka concentration camp.

I entered the dry “Sauna valley.” It was wonderland of miniature saunas, each with their own magical properties to heal. I began to explore.

In every corner of the main room were massive blocks of amethyst crystals and totem statues “for sale” for thousands of dollars. I couldn’t imagine anything had ever actually been purchased.

The first room I entered was the pyramid-shaped Gold Room. It promised that it was truly made of 24K Gold, which would channel metaphysical energy into my body.

Onto the Amethyst Room, which would use the absorptive nature of the crystal to extract toxins from my body.

Speaking of toxins, one need only visit the Charcoal room to have them removed via negative ions.

I was getting overheated at this point, so I visited the Ice room for a brisk, cold treatment to stimulate my blood flow.

Then onto some stretching and yoga in the oversized Bulgama room containing unique “living” stone called elvan. My Lord of The Rings fantasy addled brain went nuts at the idea of elvan stones.

My favorite room was the Ocher yellow-soil room. It wasn’t too hot, so you could take your phone or read your Kindle in there instead of relaxing.

The Salt room was pretty swell also. The rocks were 350 million years old and would give you new skin.

There was an extra fee for the Base Rock room because a woman swore she had cured her cancer in there. I waited for the attendants to rotate shifts and snuck in without paying.

Most intense of all was the Fire Sudatorium. This was a room so hot they literally bake eggs in a basket on the ceiling in it. You can purchase the eggs at the kitchen. A tiny Korean woman presided over the entrance which was a small door sized for a little person. It forced you to duck down to enter as low to the ground as possible to avoid being singed alive. The gatekeeper woman gave me a burlap sack and muttered some incomprehensible instructions. I was supposed to sit on the burlap sack but instead I put it over my head like a Burka, thinking it would keep me cool. All the Korean women inside laughed at me when I did this.

This was the no bullshit sauna. Within 15 seconds my entire body was covered in sweat. No matter what mood commanded you before you entered, you were purged clean and whole in a quarter of a minute. It burned your fear. You faced your demons and could see through time. I lasted maybe a minute in there.

After wringing myself clean and completing the Sauna valley circuit, I visited the authentic Korean kitchen, where I ordered (via my bracelet) spicy tofu stew and an overpriced salad and an Aloe Vera drink with real Aloe Vera gel chunks in it. It was delicious through and through. Stomach full, I purchased a face mask, agonizing between choices from green tea to collagen to charcoal based. I let myself digest food while the green tea mask did it’s work. Then, I got a back massage — and I can report it was just OK. And then I got a foot massage —and I can report it was excruciating. The man giving it found a spot so painful I began to cry. “What’s wrong,” he said, then adding, “is your pee-pee bad?” He pointed to my penis. “Pee-pee no work?” he asked, digging into the agony-spot on my foot. “This your pee-pee,” he said. I assured him my dick worked just fine, ended the massage early, and thanked him for his efforts.

And then I settled in one of the upstairs lounge chairs and dove into reading a new book at the time called Cloud 9. I devoured the book, focused and engrossed and reading for hours. At one point, I considered taking a break to visit the in-house movie theater on the first floor showing Monsters, INC. but sleep took hold of me and I drifted into bliss. At some point a lady draped a blanket over my supine body, and I woke up at 8 AM the next morning, feeling more refreshed than I’ve ever felt in my life.

Fast forward five years, I’m still visiting Korean Spas in NYC, including the East coast chapter of King Spa located in Palisades Park, Jersey. But I’ve since found an upgraded experience: The Spa Castle, located far out in College Point, Queens (there’s also a smaller brand-new facility on the Upper East Side in Manhattan). If King Spa is a medieval fort, then Spa Castle truly is what it says it is. Four floors of opulence, including an outdoor co-ed aqua park connected to a bar you can literally swim up to order a beer for $12 and up. And there are no discounts or cheaper drinks than that, not even when it’s your 30th birthday and you ask nicely.

All must hail the overpriced, gouging fortress! It contains nearly all the same rooms as King Spa, plus two rooms blasting you with rays that may or may not give you cancer.

And a room dedicated entirely to sitting in different colors to change your “energy” within your mind.

Useless! And so fun. Because it’s all a game to me. Whereas I experience every idle moment in life as serious time to worry about, Korean Spas transport me to an alternate reality. Like a Miyazaki film. They are like a cross between an up-scale county fair funhouse and a poorly translated version of Chicken Soup For The Soul. I suspend my disbelief. I embrace the ridiculous. I feel alive.

And between all that hot and cold therapy, I leave having equalized myself and calmed down my manic mind. I leave believing in magic again…if only for a short time before reality returns and I plan another visit to the Korean spa.