Hot for the Holidays: The Lure of a Korean Sauna
December 28, 2006
By Sheridan Prasso

ON the hot mat floor of the one of various saunas at the King Spa Sauna in Palisades Park, N.J., a dozen people are seated cross-legged in a circle under a low dome graced with a six-pointed star of mosaic stones and crystals. In the center are mineral rocks, which “radiate strong energy” left over from volcanic explosions, according to a sign that also promises “anti-aging as sweat sprouts and fresh energy comes out.”

And come out it does. Beads of sweat pool on patrons' foreheads and trickle from their temples; damp spots spread slowly across their T-shirts. When they have sat as long as they can stand it, they leave through a low door and rest for a while outside before moving on. Next is the Gold Pyramid Sauna. Lined with gold leaf, it is said, among many other things, to affect “nerve stability, poison counteraction and neurosis.”

On any given winter weekend day, the King Spa Sauna is mobbed. Open 365 days a year, the Korean bathhouse is particularly crowded at holiday time, when purification and restoration make their way onto many a New Year's resolution list. A $35 admission fee permits use of the facilities. For those who work up an appetite as well as a sweat, there is a restaurant serving inexpensive spicy Korean dishes and fresh-squeezed juice drinks.

Call it holiday detox, Korean-style. “When you come out, you feel 100 pounds lifted off you,” said Michelle Hong, 18, a freshman at University of California , San Diego, who was visiting her parents in Hackensack, N.J., for the holidays and fresh out of the Rock Salt Sauna. “You feel lighter. You feel so free. My aunt comes every day. She says it's supposed to cleanse bad stuff out of you.”

Her aunt isn't just glomming onto a new fad. The Korean jjimjilbang, a tradition of thermotherapy, purification and skin rejuvenation, dates back many centuries. Claims for the curative effects of some of these treatments can be found in the Dongeuibogam, an herbal medicine book written for a Korean king around 1600.

“Korean people like to sweat a lot,” said Ms. Hong's mother, Helen Hong, who emigrated to the United States from Korea. “They enjoy hot sauce, spicy food, hot tubs, hot saunas. During the holidays they come here a lot. They want to get sober.”

Young B. Cho, the manager of the three-year-old facility, said he knows of no other sauna of its kind in the United States. The clientele is predominantly Korean, drawn mostly from the sizable community in nearby Fort Lee, N.J. But patrons come from Manhattan (it's a 20-minute bus ride, with directions at ) and points as far away as Toronto.

Esther Kwon, 27, of Centreville, Va., for example, recently met up at the spa with her friend Erica Hung, 28, of Boston.

Many of the patrons are Japanese, who have a similar tradition of hot-springs bathing. “I like Japanese onsens better, but there are no onsens in New Jersey, so I have been coming here for two years,” said Tadao Kitanaka, 61, who works for a fresh fish wholesaler in Elizabeth, N.J.

Russians, also a spa-loving people, come, too. Maria Panaev, 43, and her husband drove all the way from Providence, R.I. “In the Russian bathhouses in Brooklyn, they serve alcohol,” she said. “Here it's about sauna. We can consume alcohol later.”

The Panaevses' friend, Leo Skabichevski, 46, who lives in Ashford, Conn., has been a spa regular for three years. “Here it is a very meditative atmosphere,” he said. “There's no such thing as people checking out each other. All of us need time to relax, and this is an incredible way to do it. There's no time limit here, so you can spend hours and hours going from one room to another.”

And that's just what they do. The spa's most popular sauna room, for women only, is the Bul Hanzung Mok, constructed of imported yellow loess soil, jade, ceramic, salt and granite. “These materials are known to emit plenty of long wavelengths of infrared rays that deeply penetrate into the skin,” a sign informs patrons.

Devotees are handed a jute potato sack to protect them from the extremely hot floor, which is heated by a fire of oak logs. Essentially the room is a kiln, offering a preview of eternal damnation while also creating an internal warming sensation that is like nothing this reporter has ever experienced. Eggs baked inside it every morning are for sale in the spa restaurant.

In addition to four coed saunas, women may indulge in the Mugwort Room, which, with its earthy mushroom odor and ceiling of dangling deer antlers, promises to increase white blood cells. Herbal steam saunas for both men and women, designed to combat muscle ache and fatigue, offer pebbles for walking on as a form of auto-reflexology.

For $70 more, there is traditional Korean massage, which includes deep pressing to reach the inner organs. Patrons first lie on the heated floor of the coed Bulgama sauna to loosen muscles. The Bulgama's central feature is a ceramic brick oven heated to 800 degrees to emit infrared rays. Mr. Cho said that sitting in the Bulgama for 20 minutes a day cured his back pain within a week. “Before that I used to do acupuncture twice a year, but after I did this, it's gone,” he said.

Several patrons, including a man who drives 30 miles to arrive promptly at 6:15 a.m., come to the Bulgama daily to rid themselves of body aches, he said.

After all that sweating, it is essential to get rid of the toxins that have been secreted onto the skin. That's where the whirlpool baths — with temperatures ranging from scalding to chilly — come in. In the separate men's and women's facilities, everyone is naked, and the sight of dozens of women of all ages and sizes scrubbing one another's soapy backs is a Bacchanalian scene right out of a classical painting. Typically, self-appointed matrons, ever-vigilant from long years of attendance, make sure uninitiated newcomers do it right.

Finally, the ultimate treatment after a day of sweating out impurities and soaking to soften the skin is a Korean body scrub ($65), a thorough exfoliation of virtually every body part. Middle-aged Korean women called ajuma, wearing black bras and panties (just as they do in Korea), wield Brillo-like scrub pads over the naked, who are as vulnerable as a chicken filet on a deli slab. Skin comes off in rolled sheets, leaving a softer, lighter complexion over the whole body. It is not for the sensitive.

Kyung-heui Piscopo, 40, a graphic designer in New Haven, comes for a body scrub at King Sauna several times a year, along with her husband, Armand Piscopo. He quickly became accustomed to this aspect of Korean culture. “She didn't know how I'd react being naked in the spa, but I went to boarding school, so it's the same as a locker room,” said Mr. Piscopo, 36, a heavy equipment salesman. “I like it.”

Ellen Lee, 21, drives over from her home in Little Neck, N.Y., every weekend with five members of her family. “If I miss a week, I feel very stressed,” she said. “When I come out of the sauna, I feel like all my stresses are gone. I feel so fresh. And then when I take a shower, I feel like all our impurities are gone, too.”