Saturday, December 28, 2013

More Korean Spa Fun: King Spa in Palisades Park, NJ

Kind of looks like some sort of occult ritual, doesn't it? But it's all in good health!

[This is adapted from my Yelp review-- the most popular Yelp review I have written to date!]

I'm going to tell you the whole story. Pop some popcorn, have a seat.

Despite being a waegukin (read: white chick), I have been to Korean saunas many times. Here in DC, I go to Spa World about five times a year, and I've also been to Juvenex in NYC, though that one is tiny. On my recent trip to NYC I had a decision to make between King Sauna and Spa Castle, and I decided on this one because it has a reputation for being more authentic-- no swimsuits. I devoted a whole day of my two-day trip to this experience, and showed up at the shuttle pickup spot in Manhattan an hour ahead of the 9:30 AM pickup time.

It was a Monday. As the hour approached, a couple other people showed up: a shy young Korean woman (around 20-22) and a gregarious Korean man (53, as I found out later). Once the bus was ten minutes late, the guy used the girl's phone to call them and demand to know where the shuttle was. Long story short, he ended up talking to/yelling at them three times-- all in Korean-- and finally announced to me, "Come on, they said they'd pay for a taxi to take us there. Follow me."

I'm a 37-year-old mom of four from the suburbs. I have a college degree and two teenagers whom I harp on about safety. Thankfully, none of this prevented me from getting in a hired car with these two strangers and the Korean driver and hightailing it to New Jersey. With ALL my stuff, I might add, since I'd be going straight to Penn Station after my spa day-- laptop, clothes, fancy camera, you name it. As we drove along the guy asked me where I was from, and I said DC. The guy and the driver then resumed their conversation in Korean, and I began hearing the words "Chesapeake" and "Jamestown" interspersed into their sentences. I texted my husband and let him know where they might want to look for my body.

About half an hour later we arrived at the spa. Suddenly the staff seemed very unhappy with this deal they had supposedly struck with my buddy, and about five minutes of energetic arguing ensued in Korean. At last someone at the desk handed him a pile of money with great annoyance, and he went off to pay the driver, and I paid my entrance fee.

So all of that is to say, beware the wiles of the shuttle service. You may want to find yourself a confident Korean businessman to handle the situation in the event they don't show up.

The gold-lined sauna. Fit for a very sweaty king.

Here are my overall impressions of King Sauna itself:

- The sauna facilities are excellent, though a couple are repetitive. There are two Mineral Salt igloos and two Mud ones (sadly, the mud is on the walls, not in the form of a fun mud bath). But the Amethyst, Gold Pyramid, and Cold ones are unique and very nicely designed. The Infrared one is wonderful-- cooler than the others, with a fake fireplace inside-- just like cuddling up by the coziest hearth you can imagine. I have read reviews where people complain that they are all basically the same, just with different surroundings, and to that I say, WHO CARES. The different rooms keep things interesting as you sweat out the city filth from your pores. There are baskets and large teabags of mugwort (or something) in almost all of them, and I liked that. Interesting, distinctive smell.

- Unlike at Spa World, where the saunas are unisex, at King Sauna they're single-sex (or at least appear to be). If you come here with someone of the opposite sex, call ahead and make sure you will be able to hang out with them for SOME amount of time.

If you want to pull off an amethyst heist, bring a crowbar. Of course, it will be difficult to get very far in the pink prison-like scrubs they assign you.

- The water areas are similar to a Roman bath. I am used to Spa World, which has a huge "bade pool" with tons of different jacuzzi jets, and smaller pools and steam/dry saunas all around it. That is not how King Sauna works at all. At this place, in the women's area, there are NO JETTED TUBS. Instead there is one tepid-warm tub, one tepid-cool tub, one cold tub, one gorgeous ice-cold tub with a rainfall shower dispensing frigid water, and one tub that is so hot that I felt I was being prepared for canning. Let me tell you, I am a hot water junkie; the main reason I could never go on "Survivor" is not because I wouldn't eat bugs, but because I wouldn't give up my hot showers. And this tub was too hot for ME. I mean seriously, that's some hot hotness.

- Water areas are, of course, naked. Again a comparison with Spa World: there are plenty of "foreigners" at my home spa-- lots of white people and black people, people of all shapes and sizes, tattoos on display everywhere. Not quite so at King Sauna, at least not the day I was there. It was about 85% Korean, which meant I had more ink and more body fat than the vast majority of naked bathers. *I* didn't care, but if you're a self-conscious person, heads up.

- Beautiful decor, lots of game tables with games awaiting, and space to just hang out. Super relaxing and beautiful environment, but confusing floor plan (prob due to additions over time).

Pardon the blurriness, but I had to be sneaky with my photography. Though this area was clothed, there's a general no-photos policy in a facility catering to naked people.

- Shuttle trip back was smooth/uneventful. ~30 mins back to Manhattan.

Now here's the part I didn't have room to mention in my Yelp review (I ran out of characters). While in one of the gemstone saunas, I saw a Korean woman, about the same age as me, looking at me anxiously. We were the only two in the sauna, so I struck up a conversation with her. She told me she lived in New Jersey but was native-born Korean-- a fact I had discerned from her accent and real struggle to speak English. Her English was competent, but slow, and she was clearly self-conscious about it. She told me this was only the second time she had been to a Korean spa herself, despite being native-born, and her teenage daughter was utterly horrified by the fact that you have to take your clothes off in the pool section. It was interesting to me that I was more experienced with spa-going than she, and she seemed put off by aspects of it, asking me questions about whether I was comfortable with this or that.

Finally she asked me if I was feeling all right. Puzzled, I told her I felt fine-- why did she ask? Haltingly, she explained to me that "Asians are made to sweat," while "people like [me]" are not, and she was concerned that it might be dangerous for me to be in such a hot room. Now, of course I realize how racist this sounds, but the lady meant no harm, and her obvious concern for me was kind of charming. I assured her that I felt perfectly fine and was drinking plenty of water. She seemed vaguely reassured. And then she bailed out of the room before I did.

The cold room. Like being in the beer fridge from the '70s your parents kept in the garage. Smells the same, too.

The King Sauna experience was dramatically different from that of Spa World... and I'd be happy to go back. Overall I have to say I prefer my "local" (one hour away) Korean spa, but they're both pretty great, and I can't wait to return to NYC so I can try Spa Castle. The fact that you have to wear a swimsuit there is disappointing, but I suppose it will make for a different kind of Korean spa experience. And when I get there, I'll be sure to share all the details!