Winter Relaxation: Pure Bathing Culture

These Korean Spas Will Heal Everything That Ails You

I-5 North: unlikely route to serenity.

By Margaret Seiler and Amy Martin December 20, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Clockwise from top: Olympus Spa’s soaking room, cold-plunge pool, and salt therapy chamber

Step one: Call in sick.

Step two: Get on I-5 north and don’t get off till exit 127.

Zip into a monitored parking lot that looks ready for its next drug drop. Step inside the Olympus Spa (8615 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood, Washington, 253-588-3355; Mon–Thu 9 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri–Sat 9 a.m.–midnight; $35 day-use fee), though, and South Tacoma’s rubbly off-ramp despair is forgotten. For $35, women can hop, naked, between dry and steam saunas and five tubs (a cold pool with a waterfall, and four that get progressively hotter); get an exfoliating Korean body scrub (an additional $69 for 40 minutes); and then don a spa-issued robe to recline in a series of heated therapy rooms lined with sand, salt, or jade.

Posted signs say exposure to these materials can melt fat, calm blood pressure, even minimize freckles. The claims may be dubious. But as you lie sweating to an ocean-beach soundtrack while you digest your pajeon vegetable pancake from the on-site restaurant, you stop caring about empirical data, and understand why a weekly or monthly visit to the jimjilbang (public bathhouse) is a Korean national tradition.

Dudes are out of luck at the Olympus, whose owner opted for a single-sex business when she opened in 1997, in part to avoid any appearance of prostitution. A little farther north in Federal Way, the three-story, coed Palace Spa (1727 S 316th St, Federal Way, Washington, 253-946-7777; Daily 9 a.m.–midnight; $25 for six hours ($20 before noon weekdays) more approximates the full jimjilbang experience, with people of any gender sprawled in the larger therapy rooms. (The naked tub-and-scrub rooms are still single-sex, but guests are issued what look like prison scrubs to wear in public areas.) Lounge on the inviting couches. Bask in Korean-language television.

Plan your next sick day.

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