VACATION IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD: KOREAN BATH HOUSE
Fifteen minutes north of Chicago O’Hare Airport, inside the walls of a strip mall storefront next to a Home Depot, we are transported to a different world. The King Spa is a Korean Bath House located in Niles, Illinois, and one of four bathhouses in the U.S. that offers a traditional Korean spa experience.
I was there to celebrate my birthday with my boyfriend who was in Chicago for business. I heard about King Spa from my Belarusian girlfriend who loves a good pampering and all things Korean. Other Madison friends swore by it as the perfect place to relax and have a cheap place to crash after a night-out in Chicago. For an extra $10 entrance fee you can spend the night on fully reclined loungers.
After a short video introduction in the entry lobby, I say goodbye to my partner and we are led into the separate sex zones of the bath. An attendant schedules me the spa’s signature treatment, the 90-minute Golden Aroma therapy that includes a full body scrub and massage. I’m advised to strip bare and dip in the hot baths for 20 minutes before my appointment.
The first part of the spa experience seems familiar enough with lockers for storing your belongings, and I mean ALL belongings. This is a naked zone: no slippers, no bathing suit or panties, not even a body-sized towel or robe to hide any part of you. I look around and take my cue from the others, feeling childlike liberation to strip all my clothes off and just be butt-naked and free.
From the locker room you enter a steamy bathhouse chamber. Central pools of differing temperatures are surrounded by a traditional steam room and open stall showers of the Western stand-up and Eastern sit-down variety (what I thought at first glance were small phone booths). Once showered, I step into one of the hot pools and begin letting my body relax and my mind and gaze wander.
I realize that I am surrounded by women, the complete and beautiful bareness of each in her own shape, size and color. We are so bombarded in our culture with the media’s limited version of beauty and female form that it’s easy to forget the incredible variety and natural beauty of the regular humans around us. There was something very precious and sacred about being in the presence of these women, in an environment that invited us all to be completely at ease in our own skin.
THE GOLDEN AROMA TREATMENT
At 5:20 on the dot I’m summoned for my scrub and rub appointment and beckoned behind a breast height partition in the main bath to a row of glossy, Barbie pink massage tables spaced just feet apart from each other. The names of the masseurs are pasted on the wall above their table: Suzy, Sally, Lily, Mary, Barbie and Young. All of them are middle-aged Korean women, speaking little English. Their uniform was a black lace bra and panty set….I’m not kidding, I spied an entire wall of hanging ready-to-wear sets when an attendant slipped behind the employee-only curtain.
The Golden Aroma treatment began with a 40-minute long exfoliating scrub down with special mittens that felt slightly like a cat’s tongue. Young rubbed every inch of my body—on my back, stomach and side, between the toes, behind the ears, between my legs and inside my belly button. Months of dead skin pilled off me in little putty balls that she’d periodically douse away with warm water onto the floor. Young moved with the hands and skill of a seasoned professional: confident, caring and continuous—I don’t think she paused a second from this memorized 90-minute routine.
Between the scrub down and massage, I was asked to shower again and wash my face, after which Young towel-dried me and placed me back on the table face down to begin the acupressure massage. She used her elbows, hands and knees without timidity, pushing firmly down and in to the pressure points from the underside of my head and down my spine. At some point, I was aware of her little body perched on top of mine, her knees gently digging into the backs of my thighs.
Flipped now on my back, Young began lathering my face with what felt like cold pudding, and at one point my entire body was covered in such a slippery coating of either soap or oil that I felt I could easily slide off the table. To my surprise, Young worked my hair loose, and massaged, shampooed and conditioned my hair. The touch to my head reminded me of the gentle care of my amah, Virginia, and all of a sudden I’m transported back to our apartment in Singapore, eleven years old, and sitting on the floor in the maid’s room between her knees.
As the finale, Young peeled off my facemask with one rubber pull and wrapped my hair in a tight pink bun on top my head. I was glowing from the inside out, my skin soft and pink, and the mirror reflected the most relaxed and happy face I’ve seen on myself in a very long time.
THE GREAT BANQUET HALL
I slipped into the required spa guest uniform— a blousy pink t-shirt and elastic-wasted gym shorts (blue for males)—to enter the next part of the Korean Bath House experience and join my partner in the Great Banquet Hall. I was excited to see the look on my man’s face when he saw me in my ridiculous pink outfit and tight-fitting top bun, and wanted to hear all about his experience on the other side of the spa. During the massage I kept imagining myself in his skin, his kindergarten smile on my face, trying to imagine what he was feeling.
His male masseuse sounded both rougher and gentler than Young. My man’s neck was raw from where he tried to scrub the Texican out of his skin, but in contrast he was very gentle about placing his body parts down: his arms, and legs, even his junk! It was my guy’s first time ever receiving a massage, and when I found him sunken into one of the Great Banquet Hall’s polyester upholstered chairs, he was simultaneously delirious with relaxation and confused about how to process what had just happened to him.
Now starving, we padded over barefoot to the food court (yes food court!) to check out the menu, a mixture of Korean and Japanese specialties: bimbimbap, tempura udon, shaved ice. Customers can charge food and beverages (or additional services) to their account with a chipped bracelet and pay at the end of their spa visit. We ordered a spicy kimchi tofu soup and grilled pork chop dish, and found a table under an artificial fir tree and ready-to-pounce life-sized tiger. The food was boiling-cauldron hot, comforting and delicious. We washed it down with a sweet barley rice beverage that’s supposedly a powerful antioxidant and cure for hangovers.
The Great Banquet Hall is a two-story space furnished on the interior with ornate pink sofas and flanked on one side with the food court. The remaining perimeter is elaborately set with a series of unique relaxation chambers: a 24-karat gold pyramid, a dome made of 20,000 year old salt blocks, and rooms whose walls are decorated fully with crystals, stones, and charcoal. I was amazed at the abundance and size of the amethyst displays, the price tag of a seven-foot tall slender geode asked for $12,000. The entire setting inspired childlike wonder and invitation to enter the interior worlds of these jeweled forts.
If that wasn’t enough going on, the spa also houses a movie theatre and a quiet, dimmed upstairs lounge with reclining chairs for resting. Romantic activity is strictly prohibited. Unlike in the West where the spa is a rare luxury for the individual or a romantic experience for couples, at the Korean spa, the whole family is invited. Signs are posted throughout the spa forbidding ‘cuddling, hugging and kissing’ (although confusingly placed next to photo of a cuddling and hugging family). We decided to keep any displays of affection secretive and discreet, and felt a bit like pre-teens on a field trip.
Six hours later, we emerged back to the reality of the ice-cold Chicago night in the strip mall parking lot in a more rejuvenated state; relaxed, younger, and still vibrating with the joy and wonder of the magical Korean kingdom we had just discovered.