I have a case of wanderlust that would have impressed Henry Hudson. Sadly, I sport a wallet that barely gets me across his namesake river. But Newark Liberty International Airport isn’t the only Jersey portal for the would-be world traveler. One of the state’s most exotically foreign and thoroughly enjoyable experiences—with and without your clothes on—can be found in Palisades Park at the King Spa Sauna, a type of traditional Korean health club known as a jimjilbang.
On a recent visit, my wife and I found the staff welcoming and informative. That’s particularly encouraging because the first part of the spa treatment—separate communal bathhouses for men and women—requires the club’s biggest cultural leap and is not for the shy. After washing—there are both showers and Asian-style stalls with buckets and stools—I soaked naked in hot and cold tubs and jacuzzis, then broke the evening’s first sweat in the herbal-scented steam bath and sauna. Then, donning a shirt and shorts for the two additional coed floors, I rejoined my wife. The treatments and facilities include massages and aroma rooms, as well as a half-dozen different saunas shaped like stone igloos constructed variously with quartz, gold, mud, and amethyst. There’s also something called the ice sauna, essentially a walk-in freezer with stools cut from tree trunks.
I can’t vouch for the spa’s claims that the saunas promote “healthy blood circulation” or abate rheumatism and arthritis, but I can testify that the steady, soothing dry heat is absolutely relaxing. For the hardy, the showstopper is Bul Hanzung Mok, a two-story, stone beehive fired by oak wood with a layered floor of yellow soil and salt (to promote detoxification) that’s so hot—reputedly close to 300 degrees—you can’t stand or sit without a jute sack to dampen the heat of the floor.
You can go cheap—under $30 with a coupon from the spa’s web page—or expensive. I indulged in a foot massage (35 or 60 minutes, $1 per minute) that turned my brain to jook (Korean porridge). My wife had the combination body scrub and massage ($80 plus a recommended $25 tip for about 90 minutes). She was laid out on a table where a masseuse in black bra and panties—the traditional garb (the masseurs wear white shorts)—washed her head to toe with exfoliating mitts, dumped buckets of hot water without warning, and then kneaded, massaged, and applied a cucumber facial. She came out as squeaky and smooth as a squid, and about as limber. It’s an indulgence, but you get a real jimjilbang for your buck.
A restaurant serves Korean food; other features include a juice bar, lounges, computers with Internet, several TV rooms with oversized recliners for napping, and a fitness room with weights and a circuit of machines. The locker rooms, done in burnished wood, are new and immaculate, with ever-present attendants. They seem to have thought of everything—from barbershop and beauty parlor to special trays for clipping your toenails. Mostly Korean, the crowd also included Russians, more than a few Hasidic Jews, and assorted adventurous souls. By evening’s end, the foreign feeling was long gone, replaced by a mellow, sleepy yearning to never leave. That seems to be the desired effect: Open twenty hours a day, King Spa is clearly designed for languishing. They can stamp my passport anytime.
King Spa Sauna, located at 321 Commercial Avenue, Palisades Park, is open daily from 6 am to 2 am (201-947-9955; KingSaunaUSA.com).
Fred Goodman’s latest book, Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis, will be published this spring by Simon & Schuster.
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