Put plainly, I’m a prude. it took years for my friends to convince me that baggy t-shirts and shorts weren’t proper swimwear. Before that, I was a floating parachute of fabric inside every swimming pool gracious enough to allow a teenager—scared of skin exposure—onto the premises. But my real genius surfaced when I managed to maneuver t-shirt changes prior to gym class in such a way that no patch of skin would ever see daylight.
Imagine the extent of my alarm, then, when I entered King Spa & Sauna, a Korean-inspired bathhouse located just off I-35 on Royal Lane, and found myself face to face with 12 naked women traipsing around a locker room. First came shock, followed by curiosity, and then, toward the end of my visit, the unthinkable happened.
People from as far away as Houston and Louisiana will drive to visit this bizarre Dallas landmark, where assistant manager Chong Kim will explain that King Spa & Sauna is split into a wet (unclothed) and dry (clothed, unisex) area. After receiving a numbered bracelet key from the front desk, customers enter a gender-specific locker room, where they shed their clothes and modesty. Either they shower before dipping into the purifying whirlpools or don a freshly laundered uniform for a visit to the sauna rooms.
I made a beeline for one of the steam rooms, hoping to leave with fewer blood clots, sharper vision, and healthier hair, as the sign outside promised. For now, there are 10 sauna rooms in total, but in the coming months, manager Hyun Kim assured me, another room will open as they beef up the facilities and add a water park (debuting in March 2013) to compete with the new Spa Castle that just opened in Carrollton. The temperature in every room differs, ranging from the Fire Sudatorium that can get as high as 210 degrees, to the coldest sauna, the Ice Room, which “makes you feel as though you are in the North Pole.” Each room claims a specific health benefit, and Chong and Hyun say that customers come back repeatedly after their first visit.
Couples, like the mid-30s Caucasian pair who sat with me in the Salt Room, return to King Spa once every two to three weeks for a relaxing “daycation,” as Chong likes to call it. They’ve been here so many times before that they have perfected their routine, beginning with the Pyramid Room and finishing in the Ice Room to bring their temperatures down. Bags of salt hung from the ceiling of the cave, releasing subtle scents of mint, wormwood, and other herbs as we sat across from (or arguably on top of) each other. A searing bamboo mat that could barely provide enough surface area for 10 average-size people blanketed the floor. It was impossible not to strike up a conversation.
“At first, it’s a culture shock,” the woman said, hydrating herself by sipping from a water bottle as her husband dripped sweat like a mop. We’d only been in here for five minutes, but he already looked as though he’d run a marathon and a half. He said they once brought his younger brother, a Marine, to the spa, and he was basking in the 103-degree cleansing pool when a naked young boy jumped in with him. The Marine, feeling uncomfortable, quickly scuttled out of the spa area to put his clothes back on.
One of King Spa’s priorities is to protect the children and elderly who come here. Manager Hyun Kim says the current owner, Donald Kim, chose the name King Spa & Sauna because “Donald treats everybody like a king.” What Donald intended as a family-friendly business venture similar to the jjimjilbangs (public bathhouses treated as weekend getaways) of North and South Korea was greeted warily by a Dallas crowd when the spa opened doors in October 2008. Hyun hired a watchful staff to guard over the locker room areas to make sure there weren’t any lewd acts. So when Dallas police ran a sting operation in March 2012 and arrested Duncanville City Councilman Scott Cannon III for indecent behavior, the management was just as surprised as the customers. Rarely do such instances occur.
It’s not unusual for people to spend an entire weekend lounging in King Spa’s movie theater seating, taking naps between massage appointments and body scrub treatments. Hyun told me that last Easter an entire family visited for three days and hardly left the premises. She expressed shock when I asked her if that was considered an overly long stay. “It’s a good deal. People can enjoy spa treatment and a place to stay overnight for a $27 admission fee,” she said.
Customers of all colors and sizes sprawl across faux Victorian couches that give way to little tables where night-owl ajimas (Korean grandmothers) sit cross-legged on the floor with orange towels twisted around their heads into Princess Leia buns, picking unabashedly at their teeth. Grad students, prone to pull all-nighters, bury their noses in laptops and textbooks inside the food court, where they can get 24-hour access to free wi-fi and order traditional Korean dishes like maekbanseok gyeran, specialty eggs that are baked on Elvan stone in the Fire Sudatorium. Pair the eggs with a Korean rice drink called shik hae, and even the weary will be geared up to try anything new—including the formidable body scrub and massage combo for $85.
The nice couple from the Salt Room warned me about the body scrub, but that warning also came with an enthusiastic you-must-try-this pitch that intrigued me. I signed up for the 9:30 pm slot, a little concerned about my sanity. This body scrub, as harmless as it sounded, meant that I had to bare all.
After I braved the shower and whirlpools in the nude, a Korean woman, clad only in a plain black bra and underwear, beckoned me to a massage table behind a frosted wall. She proceeded to rub so much dead skin off me that I finally reached my “shine potential,” as the website claims, and felt my skin breathing for the first time in several years. My masseuse didn’t shy away from red flag areas, either. As she rubbed soothing oils over my skin to facilitate the massage, her hands inched over places that no stranger in her right mind would ever cross.
But commonplace boundaries don’t apply inside King Spa & Sauna, a place where—if you’re willing to leave your reservations behind and immerse yourself in a cultural experience—you can enjoy leaving your comfort zone. That’s exactly what happened to this prude. And for this I am glad, because I really do need to put the eight King Spa Groupons I just bought to good use.
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