I can't say I hadn't been forewarned. "Aromatherapy in Korea and China isn't like it is in the U.S., or even in Japan, " a well-traveled aromatherapist friend told me, "It's more of a theme park atmosphere, and they hardly ever use real essential oils."
This still didn't prepare me for my visit to King Spa, a Korean bathhouse that is the hottest place in Dallas for a quick rejuvenative getaway. For a mere $20, you can spend as long as you like wandering through the baths and assorted sauna rooms of this gigantic spa. For a little extra, they'll throw in bodywork and some "aromatherapy." That is, if your senses can handle it, and if your idea of quiet time includes lots of distractions.
I'm used to Japanese-style or authentic Japanese bathhouses, where the emphasis is on clean and simple surroundings, absolute quiet and respect for other guests. Spend a mere hour in one of these places (such as the famed Kabuki Gardens in San Francisco) and you'll float out in a state of Zen-like bliss.
The first thing one encounters upon driving up to King Spa is a giant archway topped with life-size giraffes covered in Christmas lights. Right away, I understand that Koreans definitely have a different idea about Zen.
Enter the lobby, and in true Asian style, you are asked to remove your shoes. Unlike other spas, you are not issued sanitized spa sandals, but are told you must walk barefoot through the entire facility, including the wetrooms. When I politely protested on grounds of sanitation, the unfriendly front desk employees did not bother to inform me that for a small fee, guests may purchase disposable pedicure slippers inside the locker rooms (A pointless purchase as they pretty much fall apart on exposure to water, but the slippers will serve you well in the dry sauna rooms).
The women's wetroom consists of regular and Asian-syle seated showers, 3 hot baths of varying temperature, a cold dip, steam sauna and handicap jacuzzi. A half wall sections off an open massage area, where for an additional fee, you may purchase an aromatherapy body scrub or massage. A choice of body scrubs is displayed in the locker room, and these are purchased in small, brightly coloured packets that are prepped by your therapist. The "aromatherapy" fragrances offered are along the lines of green tea, raspberry, charcoal, mango and lavender... obviously not the real deal. Customer receive their scrubs or massages in a public area without draping, semi-screened by glass panels featuring leering images of Homer and Bart Simpson. The massage therapists are attired in black lace bras and leopard skin briefs (yes, underwear), and appear to be giving guests a flogging rather than a massage. If this is starting to sound very surreal, you have yet to be immersed in the true King Spa experience.
I know many people who frequent the facility, and they rave about its cleanliness. I did not see evidence of that on either of my 2 forays, although admittedly, King Spa was cleaner during a weekday versus a weekend visit. On both days, I stepped in globs of hair on the wetroom floor, and used tissues were left resting on the hot tub surrounds. Although guests are asked to shower before entering the baths, only shared bar soap is provided, which is highly unsanitary. Very young children are permitted in the wetroom, which is strictly against the rules at other bathhouses due to sanitation and safety concerns (Toddlers don't have the bladder or bowel control of adults).
The only seemingly authentic aromatherapy treatment takes place in a small alcove inside the women's locker room, where guests can avail themselves of an artemisia sitz bath. Women sit in a specially designed chair for the steam bath, which is believed to alleviate various gynecological problems. Employees customize the treatment by blending the artemisia with dried Asian herbs selected from a small dispensary.
After leaving the wetroom, customers can partake of King Spa's large variety of dry saunas. These include saunas heated by special types of rock, salt rooms, soil rooms (varying colours of soil are believed to have specific health benefits), a charcoal room, a wood room and an aroma room (which was permeated by the aroma of artificial jasmine and indeterminate fake florals). Be forewarned: although there are signs in every room asking guests to be quiet, loud conversations abound, and there are children constantly running in and out of most of the saunas. I spent time in every room but the hottest sauna, and didn't care for most of them due to the noise level. Despite the distractions, I did find the heat in the proprietary Bulgama Room and the Base Rock Room to be particularly penetrating and soothing. A type of aromatherapy appears to be used for odor control in most rooms: bags of charcoal hang from the ceiling, mixed with lavender buds, chamomile blossoms and another herb I could not identify.
The dry saunas surround a huge common area with a café, an open movie theater and rest areas with couches and floor mats. Reflexology and full body massages are offered in adjoining areas, and a fully enclosed second movie theater is available for private rental. The entire common area smells strongly of garlic (the favored seasoning in Korean cuisine), and the aroma wafts into the dry saunas whenever someone opens a door. Oddly, the majority of guests in the rest areas are busy talking on cell phones, checking e-mails on their notebook computers, listening to iPods or watching portable DVDs. With the blaring movie theater, plethora of electronic devices, clanging dishes in the café, shrieking children and lively conversation emanating from all directions, it really is something of a carnival atmosphere. Despite the constant din, some spend the night sleeping there, which is encouraged by the management and apparently commonplace in South Korean spas, where entire families check in for weekend mini-vacations.
On both my visits, a little over half of the customers were Korean and many had come with their extended families, so I assume that King Spa provides an authentic cultural experience. I'm glad I tried it, but it's not for me. When I visit a bathhouse, I want to experience relaxation and rejuvenation, and sadly, King Spa provided neither.