While I live for spring and summer (basically warm weather days), I will never forget that fantastic winter day we accidentally killed six hours at a Korean spa. It started off with…
While I live for spring and summer (basically warm weather days), I will never forget that fantastic winter day we accidentally killed six hours at a Korean spa.
It started off with a little cabin fever. At this point in the winter season, we had nothing to look forward to for major travel, so the days seemed unbearable (a good problem to have.) Our solution bloomed organically: Michael and I both craved some comforting food to battle the bitter cold, Michael sought the bustling atmosphere where he once lived, and I wanted to replenish some beauty products I bought overseas. This brought us to explore the reputable Koreatown in Queens, New York. It was our first visit to this location, but I have to be honest. Ever since visiting Korea last year, and comparing to how it is done here in the U.S., I was pretty much expecting my socks to be knocked off.
We drove in from our friends’ apartment in Brooklyn, so it took us about 40 minutes to get through the city and find parking on a residential street. It didn’t take long, however, to be surrounded by familiar signage and exciting atmosphere. We had arrived! OK, on the outside, it’s a grittier Koreatown than what you’d find in the ritzy Jersey ‘burbs, but to be fair, it’s New York. Actually taking time to walk through the large malls and cute boutiques, the grit washed away and we were back in Korea again!
First, we explored the grocery, which was a mix of the always-impressive H-Mart and the Reading Terminal Market. Row after overflowing row fresh produce and seafood had my mouth watering and my imagination running wild with recipe ideas. As I inspected a large $2 bag of clementines, my eye caught Michael in line for a hot egg tart. Soon after, he found the line to enjoy freshly-pressed cream-filled pastries shaped like little fish, as seen on our travels. His snackmastery is nothing to scoff about.
We ducked in and out of clothing boutiques, too pricey for my wallet. I bemoan constantly that I didn’t buy as many cute and extremely affordable styles as I wanted to while in Seoul. Finally finding the trendy styles with incorrect grammar and spelling (not ironically) in the U.S., the prices shot up. “It’s from Korea,” the vendors would explain unapologetically. No, thanks.
One thing we didn’t compromise on that day was FOOD. After hitting a few beauty shops to grab a miracle hair product I adored (as well as some experimental “horse fat hand cream”), we grabbed lunch at Kimganae, a recommendation from a local-by-way-of-South-Korea friend. We went easy on breakfast — and by that I mean we split a gigantic egg/cheese/broccoli rabe bagel just a few hours before — so it just made sense that we easily battled the bitter January cold with some nostalgic staples: cheesy ramen (I learned that Koreans love their processed cheese), beef kimbap, cheesy dukbokki (thinly-sliced fish cakes and chewy rice noodles cylinders, drowning in chili pepper sauce), and hot, delicious barley tea. Michael has introduced me to many good things, but I say Korean street food is high up there!
We left soon after lunch. I passed out in the car, emitting chili sweats, and woke up to the parking lot Island Spa in Edison, NJ, a Yelp find. It’s fairly new, and on that day we reaped the benefits. The place was practically empty!
When I visited Seoul last year, I enjoyed the amazing experience of Dragon Hill Spa, a jjimjilbang (Korean spa) that some locals actually scoffed at as “unimpressive”! I’d gone to a jjimjilbang in Northeast Philly before the trip; based off of that comparison in my head, I didn’t think I could find one that could genuinely remind me of Korea. I’m happy to say that Island Spa is the real deal!
I didn’t get a full naked body scrub, though I’ve been jonesing for one! It’s much pricier here. I was happy to pay my Winter Deal admission to the facility of $28. That gave us access to the split gender hot/cold tubs, showers, and steam rooms (naked here, clothed in the common space), as well as the communal area’s relaxation area, restaurant, multiple hot saunas, study cubbies, sports TV room, movie theater room, sleeping area (HEATED FLOORS)…takes deep breath…I’m pretty sure that’s it. I love a bargain, and it seems that in any part of the world, the jjimjilbang is something I can’t turn down.
Aside from the price, it’s the history of the jjimjilbang that I love. Korean bathhouses once existed as a public need — not every family had a bathing facility. A public bathhouse was an affordable necessity that has transformed into a bigger luxury, indeed; yet even so, in Korea, our payment was $12 for the evening, and something absurd like $30 extra for a full-body scrub. The lingering scene of nudity and of family and peers scrubbing each others’ bodies without hesitation is a beautiful reminder of the history, tradition, and community.
We spent six hours in that paradise of memories and warm, fuzzy feelings. We read books, took naps, and baked in the saunas. We each bought a bowl of spicy tofu soup and rice, and shared an amazing dish of shaved ice cream, which was pretty much shaved ice, layered with fresh fruit and beans, and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Kind of like the Vietnamese che ba mau, my childhood treat.
There’s no denying it, this find is definitely a keeper. I foresee multiple visits back throughout the year (maybe they have a spring special price, or summer, or fall…) I never thought I’d be a spa person, but take my money and take my clothes, and I’ll be set for six+ hours. Did I mention it’s 24 hours? We’ve definitely thought about pulling an all-nighter…
BEST. WEEKEND. EVER! If you’re looking to experience a world away from home without shelling out a $2k and vacation time, just go to Queens and Jersey with your BFF. That’s my professional recommendation.