Read, Write, Run, Roam

Beauty, gangnam-style: navigating the Korean-Virginian Spa World

Getting beauty treatments abroad is a unique way of exploring other cultures. It may not be field anthropology, but there’s something about going to a Turkish hamam, Hungarian public bath, or simply getting manicures in Belgrade that offers insight into how people like to relax and look their best. My opportunities for European beauty treatments are more limited these days, but I have a little secret for getting my culture-through-beauty fix: Spa World.

Spa World is a Korean Day spa, or jimjilbang, in Centreville, Virginia. Stepping into Spa World is probably not like stepping into Korea, but it’s a far cry from your average American spa. The most difficult–and interesting–part of Spa World is the rules. There’s a semi-secret code of conduct that can make people think, “where am I?” in an uncomfortable way, or “where am I?” in an adventurous way.  You can guess which side I come down on, but I’ll explain the rules anyway.

The most relaxing prison ever. Image from Washington Post.

Upon arrival, pay the entrance fee and get your locker key. Lock your shoes in the small lockers in the entrance, or risk the wrath of a tiny Korean lady at the cash register. Once you’re barefoot (or in slippers, if you brought them), go to the locker room and proceed to wear the orange outfit in your locker. Ignore the fact that you look like a prisoner and proceed to the sauna rooms. Gangnam dance moves are optional.

Chilling, I mean, heating, in the gem room

There are several super-hot sauna rooms with special properties like gemstones, clay, and charcoal. There’s also an ice room to cool you down. Between sauna treatments, people hang out in the main room featuring free wireless, woven lounge mats and K-pop music videos. There’s a Korean restaurant on premises where you can order by pointing to photos along the wall. Most of the patrons are Korean but make others feel welcome.

If that’s not enough of a new experience for you, get ready for the pools. Actually, get ready for what it takes to get into the gender-segregated pools: absolutely nothing. This is probably the most awkward thing for newcomers. Lose the jumpsuit and–this is important–shower and wash your hair before going into the hot baths and whirlpools. Don’t dip your head or towel in the water; it’s meant to be as hygenic as possible. Sign up for the body scrub, if you dare. There are also more “American” spa services, like massages and nail services.

All this can take several hours, so I reserve at least a half-day to take in the sauna, pools, restaurant, and lounge area. It’s not international travel, but it’s an easy, relaxing way to get that “Seoul glow,” slurp up mandu, and dream about my next trip–in half the time it would take to fly to Korea. Now that’s worth dancing about.


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