While there are different kinds of Korean spas — from amusement park-like multiplexes for the whole fam to soothing, low-lit spaces where everyone speaks in hushed tones — one thing remains constant: You will eventually be naked in front of many other naked (mostly Asian) women.
The K-Spa or jjimjilbang is a part of life in Korea (and Koreatowns everywhere). Even though I didn’t grow up in Seoul, whenever I’m there, I always ask my friends or my mom to take me to the jjimjilbang so I can sauna and soak away my jet lag and knotted muscles. When you’re used to the Western way of spa-ing — private, adults-only, expensive — a giant K-spa can feel jarring. The brightly-lit co-ed areas, where the saunas (clay room, jade room, salt room, ice room), restaurant and gym are located, welcome both kids and adults. The atmosphere is convivial and almost camp-like, especially because everyone’s wearing the same uniform, a shorts-and-tee set that’s handed to you when you pay your entry fee. Though everyone keeps to themselves and the group they came with, there’s an easy vibe because everyone has the same goal: To chill.
About that naked part
Once you’re done with the co-ed space, you head to the gender-segregated wet rooms, which have hot and cold pools, steam rooms, showers, and treatment stations. This is where your only cover is a small, scratchy bath towel… so you may as well let your naked flag fly. You have no choice; bathing suits aren’t allowed. Only the treatment therapists wear black maternity-style bras and granny panties.
When I bring newbies to the K-Spa or if I haven’t been in a long time myself, I forget how astonishing it is to see so many naked bodies on display. Because when it comes to nudity, we usually only observe our own, our partner’s or our kids’. We catch glimpses of the flawless figures of actors, models, influencers and, if you’re like me, get rueful about how imperfect our own bodies are in comparison.
Unless you’re a naturist or live in Germany, you’ve probably never been confronted with this much natural nudity. No filters or Photoshop. It’s regular bodies — wrinkles, cellulite, sagging, asymmetry, shaved, unshaven, young, old, and in between — and the nonchalant honesty is refreshing and liberating. No one’s comparing, though it’s fine to be curious (try not to stare!), and being able to just belly breathe and not worry about sucking it in may be part of the thorough relaxation at a K-Spa. Freeing your mind of what you look like to others creates so much peace in the body and the brain.
The endless assault of what we’re supposed to look, feel, and be like and how we’re not measuring up has led to an alarming upshot of anxiety and depression. Six in ten Americans say social media negatively affects their mental health, according to studies, with over 50% of social media users experiencing depression and body image issues.
The K-Spa may not be a cure-all to social media’s ills, but it’s a place to feel more at ease with our naked selves, and stop the internal and external judgment we’re all sometimes guilty of. That kind of mental repose is priceless.
Don’t miss the Korean body scrub
You can enjoy the K-Spa for an admission fee of anywhere from $15-50, which is a bargain because you can stay as long as you want and some of the big K-Spas are open 24/7. But you’d be remiss in not trying a Korean body scrub. The aforementioned therapists in their black underwear will call you to a massage table after you’ve soaked in the tubs. There, they scrub you, hard, with exfoliating mitts and soap (or salt, depending on the spa) for at least half an hour.
While your therapist gets up close and personal with every pore and crevice — channel all that body acceptance because this is no time to get embarrassed — you’ll see clumps of dead, gray skin peeling off. It’s a little gross but also satisfying. Leftover tan lines and rough, bumpy skin? All of that gets sanded away and your skin has probably never felt so clean and soft. There’s an obligatory cucumber facial and scalp-tingling hair wash and you can add other treatments like an oil massage or facial.
Be sure to bring your own skincare, like Sunday Riley C.E.O. Glow Vitamin C + Turmeric Face Oil and Sunday Riley C.E.O. Afterglow Brightening Vitamin C Gel Cream. The products are going to soak right into your already glowing skin.
You can go back to the restaurant for authentic Korean food, take a nap in the heated-floor sleeping area, or read in one of the lounges. Or you can simply float out of the K-Spa, a more relaxed version of the person who walked in a few hours before.
Best Korean Spas Across the Country
New York and New Jersey
Low-key and traditional, you can find the full K-Spa experience here.
College Point, NY
The K-Spa multiplex with four pools, eight saunas, a hot tub, sun deck, restaurant, and bar.
With views of the New York skyline from their rooftop pool, this high-end spa is seven stories and has a volcanic sand bath.
A 24-hour establishment with four floors, including a rooftop terrace, women’s floor, men’s floor, and a co-ed floor with a kids zone. (It’s my kids’ fave!)
A women’s-only spa with several pools, saunas, lounges, and an oxygen therapy room.
With the only natural hot spring in Los Angeles, this smaller spa also has a cold plunge mineral pool, steam and dry herbal saunas, lounge area, and treatments.
Seven different “poultice” rooms — jade, amethyst, red clay, and more — and a bade pool with all kinds of hydro jets.
South Riding, VA
In a 62,500 sq. ft building, it’s Greater Washington’s largest Korean spa with all the saunas and treatments you could want.
The purified Bulgama (fire) rooms are the only two of their kind in the country. There’s also an entire foot pool and individual topaz rooms (most Korean spas only offer communal rooms).
Another outpost of the giant K-Spa franchise, it has all the usual spas and saunas along with golf, karaoke, and an indoor, immersive kids’ playground with supervising staff so parents can get some pampering time.
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