A Korean Spa Offers Saunas, Bibimbap and a Taste of Home in New Jersey

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PALISADES PARK, N.J. — Sitting naked in a two-feet-deep, ice-cold pool, Ángel Meléndez, 24, a track coach, stretched his left leg so that his thigh was flush against his abs. Across the room, William Leung, 23, a banker, sat in a steaming and overflowing hot tub. Elsewhere in the building, Olivia Wright, 22, a teacher, was taking a nap in a cheongito, a fragrant sauna made of clay.

The three friends from Boston had made a four-hour drive to King Spa & Fitness, a 40,000-square-foot oasis of serenity and relaxation here that has become a popular destination for those seeking Korean-style pampering.

Many visitors, like the three who had come from Massachusetts, stay overnight at the spa, which is open year-round, 24 hours a day. “It’s something different,” Mr. Meléndez said of his visit. “Who doesn’t want something different for once?”

Sauna culture is common around the world — including the Finnish sauna, Guatemalan and Mexican temazcal, Japanese onsen, Persian sonaa-ye khoshk, Russian banya, Turkish hammam and Park Avenue Equinox — but the South Korean variety, a jjimjilbang, is an entire industry unto itself. Describing the spas as “a mini vacation spot in the city,” a South Korean government-run website counted 1,800 such locations across the country.

“They’re everywhere there — in train stations, malls, hotels,” said Justin Kakuda, 29, a flight attendant based in Newark who became familiar with saunas when he was in the Air Force and was stationed at a base in South Korea. “It’s like their Starbucks.”

The tradition of Korean saunas is rooted in the Donguibogam, a medicine guide, written for a king in 1613, that promoted the use of herbs as remedies and for skin care.

Jjimjilbangs have been transplanted to the United States as the Korean-American population has grown in recent decades. New York City has a large and vibrant Korean community, and New Jersey has also seen a significant influx. In Palisades Park, which is about 10 miles west of Manhattan, more than half the population of about 21,000 is Asian, with the vast majority of them Korean.

After a year of urging by his Korean fiancée, Ilan Reznikov, 25, a Russian Jew from Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, finally visited King Spa. That was all it took for him to abandon Russian saunas. “In a banya, you wait to sweat,’’ he said. “Here you sweat immediately.”

King Spa opened here in 2003 in a converted warehouse and office building. The current owner took over in 2005 and the spa became a round-the-clock operation.

“This is a 500-year tradition for Korean people,” said Grace Park, King Spa’s marketing manager. “It’s for health, energy, healing therapy, all the things that make life strong.”

Many visitors come from Koreatown in Manhattan or Flushing in Queens, traveling on free shuttles provided by the spa. Once they arrive, they have a buffet of options, including a clay sauna, a steam room, an ice sauna, salt saunas and a traditional bulhanjeungmak sweat lodge. There is also a barber shop, a massage parlor and a station for “cupping,” a therapy using suction cups that was made popular by the decorated swimmer Michael Phelps at last summer’s Olympic Games.

Though the official cost of admission is $45, the spa offers a discount through Groupon that keeps prices below $30 and in some cases as low as $18. Guests who stay past 2 a.m. have to pay a $10 surcharge. That is still a relatively inexpensive night’s lodging in the New York City area.

For immigrants and Americans of Korean descent, such as Andrew Lee, 24, a business analyst from New Jersey, the spa’s free shuttles offer a kind of escape from the tourism and gaudiness of Koreatown’s barbecue joints, karaoke bars and soju spots.

“I just forgot this side of my culture,” Mr. Lee said. “It felt like home.” Not his ideal home, though. “It’s not the best place to sleep, honestly,” he said. “But you don’t pay $10 for an amazing bed. You pay $10 to wake up in another world.”

Such transporting places are increasingly rare in an area that can feel homogeneous as fewer places offer something unexpected or special. But that is the crux of King Spa’s appeal: its inimitable otherworldliness.

There are signs warning visitors not to use the spa while under the influence of hypnotics. The plastic ferns are sprinkled with glitter. A framed cover of Newsweek from 1998 showing a Korean golfer is as likely a decoration as a life-size wooden statue of an ancient Korean warrior on horseback. Televisions are tuned to the Golf Channel or Korean game shows and soap operas. The sound system may jump from Muzak-style versions of “Fields of Gold’’ by Sting, to “Memory’’ from the Broadway production of “Cats” or “Greensleeves,” a 16th-century ballad. The cafeteria sells bibimbap and bulgogi, a traditional Korean beef dish, as well as jalapeño octopus and patsingbu, a heap of sweets — fruits, syrups, condensed milk and sweet beans — atop shaved ice.

“Today’s Special Power Combo” juice is the same every day: strawberry, kiwi, banana, homemade sautéed yellow bean powder, imported yogurt, brown sugar and crushed ice. The bubble-gum baroque furniture looks like Carmela Soprano collaborated with Willy Wonka. The Egyptian-style pyramid sauna, flanked by sphinxes and the busts of pharaohs, is lined with 23-karat “genuine gold leaves imported from Germany,” according to a placard. At night, the sweat lodge doubles as a kiln for baking eggs served in the cafeteria; when the lodge reopens for customers, around 10:30 a.m., it swelters at a blistering 392 degrees Fahrenheit — workers advise guests to wear several layers of heavy burlap protective coverings. Mr. Kakuda, the Air Force veteran, withstood 15 seconds.

King Spa franchises have also opened in Chicago and Dallas, which Mr. Kakuda has visited. But the New Jersey location, he said, “is the only one that reminds me of living in Korea.”

“I don’t just come here,’’ he added. “I travel here.”

Troy Curtis, 35, an actor, singer and producer who was a member of the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, has stayed at King Spa for as long as two months at a time, he said. “Why not? I live like a king here,” he said, sitting in a steam room. The sauna’s healing properties, he said, had served him well after he injected frog poison into his forearms as a form of alternative medicine. (“I have a frog guy in Brooklyn,” he explained.)

The spa brims with such Runyonesque characters. On a recent night, a group of young Orthodox Jews stayed up until 5 a.m. in the men’s lounge, debating in Hebrew and Yiddish, it seemed, the finer points of, well, everything. Older Korean men, naked, shuffled around them.

“I haven’t hung out with naked Hasidic dudes since I was a kid learning to swim at the J.C.C. in Pittsburgh,” said Yosef Munro, 32, a music producer from Ridgewood, Queens, who recently spent the night at the sauna with his girlfriend. “To hear that familiar Yiddish cadence echoing through the locker-room walls and hallways of a baffling jungle-y Korean spa in New Jersey was somehow both nostalgic and novel.”

Eating the spa’s tart frozen yogurt, Mr. Munro’s girlfriend, Hannah Jegart, 26, a production manager from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, had a more pragmatic assessment. “This place would be perfect for my next birthday,” she said. “Well, birthday recovery.”