The Chicago area’s premier Korean spa is located in an unassuming strip mall in Niles, next to a Super H Mart and across from a Subway, a dental clinic, and a handful of other typical suburban businesses. The entrance to King Spa & Sauna is flanked by stone lions gazing over a dreary landscape of parking lots and an apartment complex. But through its doors and down a long hallway with mirrors, fake plants, and canvas prints of Audrey Hepburn is an alternate dimension.
The spa is open 24 hours. You can sleep there if you want. Entry for a day is $40, but Groupon deals will cut that to $25, and the H Mart often has coupons if you ask at the register. For $2 to $5 extra, patrons can access the “Base Room” (more on that later). Inside, the building is divided into men’s and women’s baths and steam rooms, and a vast coed lounge with specialized dry saunas heated to temperatures ranging from 28 to 280 degrees Fahrenheit. I always recommend that people come early on a weekday morning, when the spa is at its calmest.
It’s unfortunate, but King Spa isn’t a friendly place for people resisting the gender binary and/or grappling with their own gender identity. The baths require total nudity. It is possible to bypass them, and after changing into one of the spa-provided uniforms (oversize cotton shorts and T-shirts, pink for women, gray for men) to enter the lounge. Some of the sleeping lounges on the second floor still separate into women-only and coed spaces, though. If being unerotically naked around other men or women is something you’re comfortable with or feel like exploring, however, the baths offer a splendid opportunity.
Like many people raised in cultures where communal bathing is practiced, I find the experience comforting. When our society is so fixated on body conformity and discipline, to be in a space with other naked women feeling free in their bodies is liberating. The judgmental gaze (from within and without) can relax, its piercing, harsh assessments fading out of focus. I’ve heard from darker-skinned women that being in the King Spa baths can be disconcerting because of objectifying stares from the older women staffing the space or from other patrons, so I don’t want to discount the possibility of such an experience. But on my last visit, early on a Friday morning, the Jacuzzis and shower stalls of the baths hosted women in their early 20s through at least late 60s, of all body types, and who were Black, white, Asian, and Latinx. One with a single mastectomy and sparse hair lounged by herself, apparently fully relaxed, in one of the bubbling pools. For an extra charge, patrons can book massages and body scrubs from women staff in uniforms of black bras and granny panties, “vaginal steaming” sessions, “ear candling,” hair waxing, and more. I saw all types of women receiving these services.
One thing that you will be judged upon is not following the rules, so here they are: No bathing suits or outside towels in the baths—the spa provides small orange towels for drying or modesty as one sees fit. You must shower before entering the pools and steam room. Tie up your hair if it’s long. After the steam room, shower again before reentering the pools. One of the central thrills of the spa is the experience of sudden temperature contrast, and it can be tempting to jump straight into the cold pool after heating to your limit in the steam room. Since you have to rinse off before doing so anyway, I recommend just blasting the cold shower and letting the endorphins course through your body.
The decor is eclectic and strange in the coed lounge. Pink-upholstered armchairs set in white-and-gold wood carved with rococo floral motifs line the center of the floor. Here people rest, read, sleep. A hodgepodge of decorations fills the walls and ledges—framed drums and dry gourds, a wooden elephant head and taxidermied tortoise, impressionistic oil paintings and faded sepia photographs of women weaving, antique chests and cabinets (some on sale starting as low as $500), giant crystals (yours for $18,000), a golden pot-bellied Buddha, wooden theater masks, posters of calligraphy, framed blades of grass. Topped by slowly spinning fans that look like boat propellers, the space gives the impression of a dry aquarium decorated for the swimming pleasure of tropical fish. Though it seems like the aesthetic is the antithesis of the energy the spa is supposed to produce, these decorations somehow don’t kill the vibe. All this stuff is just there to rest your eyes on. There’s also a screening room showing low-impact movies (The Karate Kid, If I Stay), massage and accupressure rooms, chessboards on low tables, and three types of sleeping lounges upstairs. Around the perimeter of the lounge the dry saunas are ensconced in walls or stand alone as little huts.
There’s the lukewarm Hinoki cypress-wood room, where you can bury yourself in mounds of tiny, smooth wooden cubes. It feels like an adult version of a ball pit (warning: do not throw the cubes at others). In the charcoal room the temperature seems to be in the 80s or 90s, and visitors are admonished not to touch the wavy walls. There’s a round hut, lined with Himalayan rock salt, where it’s dark and not very hot. The gold-plated pyramid creates the sensation of being on the beach on a perfect summer day. After lying in the heat for a while it’s nice to sit in the ice room, with its frozen walls illuminated by black lights, where the temperature hovers just below freezing.
The most intense of the saunas is the sudatorium, a giant dome heated by fire, where temperatures on the floor were at 170 degrees on the day I visited. You enter wrapped in a burlap shawl and sit on a burlap mat. You’re not allowed to lie down or stay there more than five minutes. It’s dark and so hot you can’t feel anything but your breathing. After one minute the sweat came in waterfalls, and, per the informational video, carried with it toxins clogging glands and pores.
When you get hungry, the cafe offers pan-Asian and standard American fare. It’s expensive. King Spa is clearly cashing in on a captive, relaxed customer base with $8 egg rolls. But the meals are generous. For $14.99 I got a large plate of japchae with beef, miso soup, rice in a little steel container, and four pickled-vegetable side dishes. I’d have never bought a $7.99 aloe juice if I’d seen the price before checkout, but it was so perfectly refreshing after hours of spa time that I had no regrets. After lunch I took a digestive nap in the oxygen room, a hushed, dusky space of pine wood with bubbling oxygen dispensers and stablelike spaces on the floor fitted with thick mats, wooden foot rests, and leather pillows.
I saved the “Base Room” for last. It’s advertised as a special attraction, one offered exclusively at spas in Chicago, Dallas, and Japan, and “not even available to South Korea.” Patrons who’ve paid for the experience receive a special green towel before entry. Inside, it’s dim; there are no sounds. The scalding walkway between the stones on which people lie is paved with large pebbles and covered with rugs. A little smoke fountain erupts silently at the center of the space. The wall is inlaid with charcoal pieces and rocks in the shapes of tree trunks. One side of the room is 140F, the other 130F. I picked the cooler side, laid down on my towel, and noted the time on a big round clock.
Invented by a Mr. Ono, the sauna is heated through a technology in the stone floors. After 20 minutes inside, “you’ll feel yourself start to melt,” an explanatory poster promised. Under the reddish-orange light and with the heat as thick as sauce, I felt like a rotisserie chicken. The sweat came after five minutes, first in rivulets crawling down like worms, then in sheets precipitating from large patches of skin. Thoughts glided through my mind like shadows projected by a child’s rotating night-light. When 20 minutes were up, I got up slowly and walked out and into the ice room, 100 degrees cooler. My body was abuzz, my mind euphoric. Several minutes went by before I began to feel the cold.
We make little time for and assign little value to fully corporeal experiences in our society, aside maybe from sex. And even that can often be an out-of-body trip. Being at this spa, though, forces one to inhabit the body in a refreshing way: feeling yourself heat and cool, your heart beating faster and slower, pupils adjusting to light and darkness. You experience texture with your skin, eyes, and ears. You can let your body sleep or idle. Even if you don’t believe in the medicinal properties of gold or salt or charcoal, these sauna spaces have a real effect. They connect you to the basic metabolic functioning of your body, its beautiful machinery that’s all too often either unnoticed or an annoyance.
Sure, even here, people are on their phones and computers (there’s free Wi-Fi), but not inside the saunas. There, all you can do is be. King Spa allows you to let go of both distraction and focus. And unlike exercising, unlike even yoga, there’s nothing to achieve. This experience doesn’t have to end until you’re good and ready. No one will wake you from Savasana or turn on the light too soon, or bring you a check reminding you that you’re on someone else’s clock. I can’t imagine $27 better spent or a better definition of vacation. v