Bi Bim Bath: Soaping up in the city’s Korean bathhouses
On 32nd Street, mixed in with the restaurants offering bi-bim-bop and Korean Barbeque, are several top-notch bathhouses, or Jjimjilbang. You can enjoy these bathhouses either as fast food—a quick scrub-a-dub-dub during your lunch hour—or as a long feast of steam and water at night (they’re all open late) or on the weekend.
What’s on the menu? Finnish style saunas, glassed-in steam rooms, as well as uniquely Korean inventions like saunas built with jade or lined in gold plate. Most offer pools for plunging and soaking, often laced with ginseng or seaweed, as well as snack bars and napping areas. The main course, however, is generally a full body scrub, an hour-long exfoliation in which every centimeter of your naked body, minus your face, is super-vigorously massaged with a sandpaper-like mitt. The scrub, which is a weekly bathhouse ritual in Korea, literally makes your skin pill, until buckets of hot water send the evidence of your exfoliation down the drain. Overseeing your scrub? A woman dressed for the job in a black bra and panty set and a few other scrubees sharing the room with you.
Why we love them this time of year? A trip to the Korean bath, where the thermostat of the saunas is set around 180 degrees, can meet the need for a quick winter fix when a Miami trip isn’t on the calendar. Also, Korean baths stay open late into the night–in one case all night–and treatments rarely require pre-booking. As for where to get warm, Well+Good tried out two Koreatown favorites, Juvenex and Hanyang (formerly Yi Pak), as well as two veritable bathing emporiums: the increasingly popular Spa Castle in Queens, and King Sauna just outside the city in New Jersey.
It’s open 24 hours, and because it caters primarily to Westerners, there’s some guidance from a gal who follows your steps (at a distance) around the bathhouse arena from jade igloo sauna to diamond-shaped all glass steam room and semi-private scrub room. Three soaking pools sit right in the middle, and upstairs is the spa floor with treatment rooms for “breast facials” (a first?) and more standard spa fare. During the day, Juvenex is a quiet sorority and you don’t need a swimsuit; after 5:00 p.m. the baths turn co-ed and swimsuits are required. It’s $65 for an all-you-can-bathe pass and $115 for the Basic Purification (read scrub) package.
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. women only; 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 a.m. co-ed
Juvenex, 25 W. 32nd Street, 5th Floor, 646-733-1330, www.juvenexspa.com
Formerly known as Yi Pak, this 32nd Street basic bathhouse now shares a floor with the men’s bath, but the facilities are separate. If you want a serious scrub without the crowds and don’t care about soaking and lounging, this is your place. Chances are you’ll be the only client during the day, or one of just three at night. Packages start with five minutes in a tiny sauna followed by a quick steam in a similarly claustrophobic room and time on the scrub table. That’s where, for the next 60+ minutes, you’ll be scrubbed until your skin turns red, lathered in mountains of Ivory soap, and slathered in vats of baby oil. (Korean bathhouses haven’t yet gotten the memo on bad-for-you sodium lauryl sulfate and mineral oil).
Hours: 8 a.m. – 12:00 a.m., daily
10W 32nd St., 3rd Floor, 212-868-0851, www.YiPakSpa.com
It resembles an office park on the outside, and aquatic funhouse on the inside. This self-proclaimed biggest bath in America is scrupulously clean—flip-flops are banned as germ-carriers. At check in, you don a neon orange and pink outfit to wear in the baths that will make you feel like a jailbird in a 1980’s music video. Scrubs are available (30 minutes for $50) though no one’s hawking them, so you can easily occupy hours bouncing between the seven specialized saunas (from gold placed to Icelandic ice sauna), the pools, the lounges, and the fitness center. Spa Castle’s been criticized for its family-friendliness and water-world vibe, so time your visit carefully. Don’t come on a Sunday afternoon expecting tranquility.
Hours: 6:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m., Admission: $45 on weekends; $35 on weekdays, kids under 2 are free
Spa Castle, 131-10 11th Ave, College Point, NY, 718-939-6300, www.nyspacastle.com
This New Jersey bathing behemoth has a Korea-meets-Vegas aesthetic—check out the Belle Époque style pink chairs in the dining room—and is popular with families (read: noisy children) and couples alike. Hop a bus from Port Authority and 35 minutes later find yourself in the super sanitized space, sweating in the rock salt sauna or the heated mugwort room. Their names, not ours, or Harry Potter’s for that matter. One sauna is so hot that the bathhouse cooks and sells hard-boiled eggs from it. Body scrubs are $50, and admission is $45.
Hours: 6:00 a.m. – 2:00 a.m., daily
King Sauna, 321 Commercial Ave., Palisades Park, NJ, 201-947-9955, www.kingsaunausa.com
Do you have a favorite Koreatown bathhouse? Ever visited one of the places mentioned in this story? Tell us, here!