Welcome to Sauna Valley (Labor Day IV)

Last weekend, to round out the long holiday, Aron and I finally made our way out to Queens on the seven train for a visit to Spa Castle! Spa Castle, a Korean day spa, is a giant complex of saunas, hot and cold pools—some with jets, some without—and massage rooms. It would seem like a playground for adults except that there are actually a lot of children there, too. Certain parts in particular were very relaxing, others were more curious; our overall impression was that we had been on a bit of an adventure.

After riding the subway to the Flushing stop, we walked around the block to a parking lot where we tried to surmise whether the people waiting by the fence were, indeed, also going for a day at the spa. Luckily we guessed right and soon the spa van pulled up to drive us all to the complex—about 20 minutes away. After getting our little bracelets—pink for me, blue for Aron—we split up to head into our respective locker rooms to change into our uniforms. Each little bracelet is linked to your account; you use it to open your lockers and you can charge lunch, or anything else you might require with a wonder-woman-like swipe of the wrist. Of course, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that I needed to find the locker matching the number on the bracelet. Instead, I went around pulling on multiple doors and pointing my bracelet until I set off an alarm. A woman appeared quickly, but kindly ignored the ringing and instead politely pointed to where I should leave my shoes before handing me a bright orange uniform and a new toothbrush (but of course!) and sending me on to the next set of lockers where I was to place my clothes.

I took note of the “naked room” (as I can’t help but call the unisex sauna/pool room) and the women napping on the leather couches and then made my way upstairs to look for a very tall man dressed in a baby blue uniform. We had decided that our first requirement was food and ordered sushi. About 45 minutes later, still waiting, we wished we had opted for the salad bar, but we took turns checking out “Sauna Valley” (this is the actual name), and sharing our impressions of the locker room in the interim. Apparently, there is a sign when one leaves the men’s room asking: “Do you have your clothes on?”

Deciding to spend time on the upper-most deck first, we stripped down to our bathing suits and joined quite a crowd in testing out a variety of jets and whirlpools at the Bade Pools. One particular wall of jets was so powerful that I was actually ejected from them into a young boy—then I learned to hold onto submerged rails. With red backs, we moved into the Jacuzzi (the Hinoki bath) and then into a fairly benign dry sauna. Our favorite was the foot and back massage pool—a row of beds, so to speak, with aqua jets.

“Sauna Valley” was next—we skipped the TV room (where more people seemed to be napping than watching TV), the traditional hot and cold floor sleeping area (is there something in the air?), and the massage chairs. Each little sauna dome had a temperature reading posted at the door, which seemed more relevant to us than whether the dome was lined with gold, LED lights, infrared beams, or salt, as it may have been. We alternated between each of the seven saunas and the Iceland cold sauna room; Aron would usually want to return to Iceland sooner than I, but we did our best to stick together as we spent the next two or so hours trying each one. Our favorite was actually the hottest: the Loess Soil sauna. It was also the largest and smelled of the straw mats lining its floor. We agreed it was pretty pleasant.

What wasn’t completely pleasant was the crowd. Perhaps because we had gone on a public holiday, the spaces were pretty crowded—and occasionally too loud.

However, the unisex spas were a different story, and we both agreed that we really enjoyed the time we spent apart—in the naked room. I think modesty prevented these areas from becoming too crowded and so they were so much more, well, spa-like—calm. In the center of the room are four heated mineral pools, in varying temperatures of hot. On the sides are the massage pools (more acqua jets), cold pools, wet and dry saunas, standing showers, seated showers, and scrub tables where woman in lingerie exfoliate customers.

Wearing nothing but my charge-card-bracelet, I made my way around to each of the attractions and did my best not to stare at the vigorous scrubbing taking place in the far corner. It actually looked a little painful. And as democratic as it felt to all be wearing out little pajama-like uniforms upstairs, this felt more so. There was something very sweet, too, about the mothers and daughters and friends scrubbing each other’s backs, washing each other’s hair, chatting away. One young girl did melt into tears when she tried to wear her bathing suit into the pools and was then told she would need to remove it. She was about 13—I can imagine being horrified at that age, too. We both observed that the naked rooms were dominated by Korean patrons, whereas the rest of the complex was more diverse.

In a sort of well-washed, bleary-eyed haze, I eventually rejoined Aron to catch the 7:15 shuttle back to our parking lot and the subway back to Grand Central. From there, we decided it would only be appropriate to end the day with Korean BBQ at our favorite spot (thus far) from among those on 32nd street.

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