I give $35 to the woman at the front desk and she hands me a shirt and shorts in convict orange and a key on a wristband with a number printed on it. “Don’t lose this key,” she says sternly. “It’s how we keep track of you.”
I take the key and nod. Then I stand there, waiting for more instructions. I’ve driven 90 miles from Baltimore to this strip mall in Centreville, Va., to experience the nation’s largest Korean spa, and I have no idea what to do. Finally another patron takes pity on me. “Down the hall is the women’s locker room,” she says.
In the locker room an attendant points to the locker with my number on it and I stow my bags. Since I’m not sure what to do next, I take off my clothes and put on my regulation orange shirt and shorts. I’m just shutting my locker when I notice that all the women going through the door into the water area are naked. So I take off the orange shirt and shorts and follow them.
What awaits on the other side is a cross between a Turkish bath, a Japanese onsen and a YMCA. There’s water—hot water, cold water, still water, moving water—and female flesh—old flesh, young flesh, hairy flesh and hairless flesh—everywhere. I approach a woman who looks friendly, explain that I’m a Spa World virgin and ask her to be my spirit guide. She leads me into the steam room, which smells wonderfully of chamomile. We luxuriate in the heat and moisture for about three minutes before she says, “You ready?”
I follow her to a miniature pool marked 64 degrees where I walk in, gasp and flee back to the steam room.
Twice more we do that before she deposits me in front of the centerpiece of the water area, the Bade Pool, with its nine different hydrotherapy massaging stations. One targets your feet. One the lower back. One the neck. The water comes out hard, like someone beating on you, but for your own good. I read on one of the many posted signs that the Bade Pool combines the healing properties of water and acupressure, relieving muscle tension as well as boosting the immune system. Some of my fellow bathers are in the pool for the long haul. But after five minutes at each station, I’m pruned up and ready for a new adventure.
Which I find at the corner of the water area, when I lie on a metal slab and subject myself to an exfoliation treatment from a middle-aged Korean woman wearing a bra and panty set. My spirit guide had warned me that several times she’d left Spa World with welts after being exfoliated a bit too … vigorously. So when I lie down, I utter two words: “Gentle. Please.”
My exfoliator nods, puts on her mitts and gets to work scrubbing my legs. It’s a funny feeling—ticklish and uncomfortable at the same time—but also weirdly satisfying. Does it hurt? No. Is it relaxing? No. My exfoliator’s mission is not to pamper. It’s to rid my body of its outer layer(s) of skin. She attacks her work—i.e., me—with militaristic dedication. Dead. Skin. Must. Go. When I open my eyes, I see little gray worms of skin raining down onto the floor. Every once in a while, my exfoliator dumps a bowl of warm water on me. Then she grunts “turn over” and starts scrubbing again.
After a half-hour, I’m released to rinse off the remaining gray worms in the shower. My skin is so smooth it doesn’t seem like my own. It feels foreign, like this place.
Now it’s time for the orange shirt and shorts. I put them on and walk out of the women’s locker room, past the men’s locker room and water area, down a hallway and into a huge open area. At about 50,000 square feet, Spa World is half the size of your average Walmart. There’s a restaurant, a nail salon, a massage area, men’s and women’s sleeping rooms (the spa is open 24 hours) and, at the heart of it, this vast open room covered with mats where men and women (all in orange pajamas) doze, read the paper, chat, play board games.
Bordering the open area are seven poultice rooms, which are freestanding chambers each constructed with a different element—amethyst, red clay, wood, onyx, salt—whose healing properties are said to aid in everything from preventing cancer and “female disorders” to “removing interior odor and molds” to eliminating migraines.
Walking into the amethyst room, I’m struck not only by the heat—the poultice room temperatures average about 150 degrees—but also by the beauty. The walls and ceilings are inlaid with glittering stones in beautiful mosaic designs. In contrast to the clinical impersonality of the spa itself, these chambers are miniature works of art.
But I’m so warm already from my stint in the water area—and my skinning—that I can tolerate each room for only a few minutes. (If I had it to do over again, I would have visited the poultice rooms before the water area. But, who knew?) My last stop is the ice room, where it’s a delightful 40 degrees. I stay for 10 minutes, sealing up my pores in preparation to leave Spa World and return to the real world.
As I drive back up I-95, I conclude that if I’d had more guidance, my experience at Spa World would not only have been interesting, it would have been relaxing. So, here’s your guidance. Now, go.