If you thrive on rules, you will savor your arrival at King Spa. Footwear is prohibited, so the first step after paying your $70 day rate ($80 on weekends) is to slip your shoes into a locker. No phones or cameras are permitted inside the spa, which is probably a good idea, due to the next dictum: no outside clothes.
Inside the gender-separated shower and soaking-pool areas, no garments are permitted at all. Swimsuits (which must be nylon or spandex) are reserved for the outdoor swimming pools. Even for Americans who are comfortable with a little nudity, leaving nothing between you and the eyes of your fellow patrons can be an unusual ask.
But besides license to cavort sans culottes, what exactly does your $70 get you? The goal is extreme relaxation. You have from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m.—or midnight on weekends—to play under manmade waterfalls, eat in the cafeteria, and relax in the nine different saunas. The idea is to bring the concept of a Korean jjimjilbang to the United States.
The Kim family, which owns the small chain of bathhouses that also includes locations in Chicago and Dallas, is approximating saunas that first became gathering places in Korea in the 15th century. Steaming and bathing is an all-day affair, conceptual miles from American-made day spas, where guests get a massage and then leave.
As of press time, massages aren’t yet available at King Spa, but vaginal steaming (paging Gwyneth Paltrow!) and Korean body scrubs are, for additional fees ranging from $80 to upward of $100. In my case, a woman at the desk in the ladies’ locker room took my reservation for a body scrub. Twenty minutes later, we met again.
After a compulsory shower, I was enjoying the languor of a heated pool, without a stitch of clothing on my body. She had changed into a bathing suit herself, and she led me to a table that looked suspiciously like it belonged on an autopsy TV show. She filled a receptacle the size of a small kiddie pool with warm water and poured it onto me. I felt myself tense as if I were being plunged underwater. In a way, I was.
Sporting a yellow mitten with the texture of sandpaper on one hand, she proceeded to scrub dead skin off of me for 40 minutes, alternately pouring on more water. I would be lying if I said this procedure was relaxing. I found myself thinking of the whole thing as an extended play at being a baby. My body was hers to coddle or abuse; it was up to me to decide which it really was.
Once complete, she led me to the shower, where I rinsed off once again before returning to the locker rooms to moisturize and put on my spa loaner clothes—a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. I explored the saunas, first heating up in the bul ga ma room, set at more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and then cooling down in the aptly named ice room. I tried to let a pyramid-shaped room with 23-karat gold inlay work its purifying magic before attempting to nap in the igloo-shaped rock salt sauna.
Did I leave feeling healthier? Not really, but perhaps if I made jjimjilbangs a regular part of my routine, I would. Although I never relaxed as much as I’d hoped to, I considered it a successful day at work.