I am sitting boob-deep in tepid water, sous-viding the burrito I ate for lunch a half-hour ago.
Around me float a dozen women representing almost as many age and ethnic groups. An elderly Korean lady accidentally grabs my thigh while, outside of the pool, a young blonde woman towel-dries her crotch. It is a typical Friday afternoon at Spa World, the sprawling South Korean-styled bathhouse in Centreville, Va.
This unincorporated community in Fairfax County isn’t at the forefront of many international trends. But when Spa World opened in 2008, it was during the height of South Korea’s public-bath craze and just a year behind the opening of New York’s largest jimjibang, Spa Castle. Since then, Spa World has done brisk business relaxing the D.C. area’s fast-growing Asian population as well as various tightly wound constituencies, including between-assignment State Department officials, Groupon users, and expats pining for the sentos, banyas, or hammams of their youth. There’s no shortage, after all, of type-A Washingtonians hoping to shed their stress (and, clearly, their clothes).
They all make pilgrimages to this otherwise unremarkable strip mall off of I-66, entering a concrete building the color of old newspaper. Then, just past a pair of amorphous Buddhas, they surrender their shoes and receive a yellow or prison-orange uniform and a telephone-cord bracelet that serves as both currency and locker key.
Until this month, $35 bought you a 24-hour pass to the entire two-story complex: fifty thousand square feet of saunas, hot tubs, and sleeping rooms. Now, a sign taped to the locker-room door outlines the new policy: “General Admission includes 12 consecutive hours use of the facility. There will be Overcharged fee of $40 after 12 hour. Coupons and any other deals will not be acceptable for Overcharged fees.”
On this day, at least one spagoer feels Overcharged, indeed. “I bought a bunch of coupons, and then they changed the rules,” says a lanky man I find near Spa World’s snack bar. “Did you really use the full 24 hours?” I ask. “All the time,” he says, explaining that he works as a gardener in the D.C. area, though he has a homestead in West Virginia. “I stay with friends, but sometimes I like to get out of their hair by coming here.”
While South Korean bathhouses traditionally stay open 24 hours, most U.S. jimjibangs don’t try to keep up. Even in New York, the jimjibangs close at midnight or soon thereafter. But Spa World seems determined to stay true to its insomniac roots despite the early-to-bed town it serves.
Being an early-to-bed person myself, I have never stayed at Spa World past 5 p.m. Today, however, I’ve told my editors I’ll lock myself in the bathhouse for 24 hours to find out what happens during the witching hours. I’m curious to see who stays overnight—Runaways? Down-on-their-luck couch surfers?—and how they find sleep at a complex that is largely devoted to sweating and bathing. If a rave breaks out in the ice room at 3 a.m., I want to know. Moreover, I want to test my own capacity to stay relaxed for an entire day. Do I have what it takes to spend 24 hours locked in a Northern Virginia strip mall without going crazy?
Spoiler alert: I do not.
Friday, Feb. 15,
Nudity is strictly enforced in the sex-segregated areas of Spa World, which include separate men’s and women’s 97-degree “bade pools,” with mushroom-shaped water fountains in the middle. Bathing suits are not allowed, a sign explains, because they might leach chemicals into the water or cover up signs of infectious disease.
I’m not usually squeamish about baring my butt, but today I’m worried my fellow bathers will notice the pancake-sized bruises on my thighs and think I’m suffering from late-stage Ebola. A few days ago, an off-duty police officer ran a red light near Union Station and then changed his mind, backing his car over me and my bike while I was in a crosswalk. As a result, I’m sporting a variety of contusions and abrasions, one torn ligament, and a chipped shoulder bone.
Despite the mishap, I decided to soldier on with the Spa World lock-in. After all, the bathhouse’s gemstone-encrusted saunas purportedly have magical healing properties. (More on that later.)
So I disrobe and shuffle past two older, stern-looking women in black lace lingerie guarding the door to the bade pool area. They stop one customer from taking more than two tiny towels and chastise another for failing to dry off before entering the locker room, but they let me pass, bruises and all.
Besides the 10 women floating in the bade pool, a few more soak in smaller hot tubs—more people than I expected to see in the middle of a weekday. I step into the pool and drift over to what looks like an overlarge sink faucet, which pummels my uninjured shoulder with a mighty stream of water. Heaven.
Through my foggy glasses, I contemplate the variety of bodies in this Northern Virginia melting pot: a 40ish women with a torso like a Coke can, a college-aged gal with ski-jump boobs, a young mother and baby, both covered in freckles. Like uniforms, nudity has a leveling effect. We might speak different languages and occupy different rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, but when stripped of the signifiers of class and culture, we’re all just naked apes with sore backs.
I soak in the various tubs for an hour, perhaps longer than recommended, but it’s hard to know. One sign tells me to spend no longer than five minutes in the water; another placard recommends five to 10 minutes; and when I sign up for a body scrub, I’m told to spend a full 30 minutes in a hot tub before my appointment. The management puts up new signs without taking down old ones, resulting in an archeological record of evolving guidelines and thwarted ambitions—including a laundry room labeled “banquet hall” and a business center that’s “coming soon” but has failed to materialize for at least a year. The very first sign I encounter, in the locker room, is my favorite: “Please be accompanied by a guardian for the old, The weak and the children.”
I gave the au pair/geriatric nurse the day off, but I find my boyfriend, Steve, in the co-ed “poultice room,” which both of the sex-segregated pool areas eventually lead to. He’s claimed one of the few Western-style chairs and already looks bored.
“Twenty-four hours,” says Steve. “Are we going to be able to do this?”
“It’s going to be tough,” I reply, but I suspect that, although he made it through Navy boot camp, Steve won’t survive Spa World.
We’re both wearing Spa World’s gender-coded uniforms, though Steve’s top is a nice, soft T-shirt reserved for very large men, while the rest of us chafe in rough canvas. On our wrists are orange plastic bracelets dangling numbered locker keys. At the center of the room is a raised floor where people hang out on the mats, chatting, sleeping, reading, or watching one of two large-screen TVs. Around the edges of the room are saunas, each of which offers a host of special benefits. The amethyst room, for instance, “prevents skin ailments,” and can “cure various geriatric diseases.”
While the bade pools are foggy and dim, the poultice room is noisy and bright. Unseen speakers emit a sine-wave beep, then an announcement: “Guest 2025, please come to the massage area.” I glance at my bracelet, though my massage isn’t until 4 p.m. In fact, every time there’s an announcement, I frantically check my number to make sure I’m not in the wrong place or in trouble somehow. Sudden onset authority anxiety: a result of either the prison-orange uniforms of the high-school announcement system.
In addition to the saunas, the poultice room is ringed by staircases. One has a curious sign: “The men’s sleeping room has been closed until further notice.” I investigate. At the top of the stairs is another sign: “Security Camera Now Recording.” I tentatively push open a door and peek in. Five men look up from their respective Korean newspapers, mildly annoyed by the interruption. I belatedly notice a sign that says “smoking room.” No one is currently smoking, though clearly someone has been. Huge silver ashtrays overflow with spent cigarettes.
I close the door and walk to the end of a hall, where I find another portal that someone sealed shut with yellow tape, suggesting the world’s most relaxed crime scene. I peer into the window and see only a wood floor and a sign asking that customers not remove the blankets.
Since I’ll be looking for a dark and quiet place to rest soon enough, I hunt for the women’s sleeping room. I head up another staircase from the poultice room and find myself in a fitness center. There are the usual rows of elliptical machines, treadmills, stationary bikes, and weights, plus a bookshelf lined with tennis shoes and a sign asking people to return the books after reading them. (There are no books, only shoes.)
No one is exercising, but three spagoers stand barefoot on what appear to be violently vibrating walkers. The cardiovascular benefit of these machines seems questionable, but I give it a try anyway, tentatively pressing the button for “low.” A platform tilts rapidly back and forth, shaking free an idea. Maybe the real purpose of spas and their many devices is to provide unusual sensory experiences. The salutary benefits of hot tubs, saunas, and body shakers provide a convenient cover for adults to engage in some tactile fun.
Kids can plunge their hands in mud for no reason at all, but when adults play with mud, we pretend it’s to tighten our pores.
I loiter next to a low wall in the bade-pool area, watching as a middle-aged woman in leopard-print underwear kneads a very relaxed-looking woman. She lies with one arm draped over her side like Sleeping Venus, eyes shut and unaware that the massage therapist is wielding a cheese grater just inches from her skin. I feel relieved when the masseuse uses it to grate a cucumber instead of her client. She makes a delicious-smelling mush and applies it to Venus’ serene face.
Soon comes my turn for a scrub and massage, and I’m led to my table by another Korean women, this one in lace lingerie. She gestures for me to take off my glasses and lay face-up on the table. I try to warn her about my injury. I point to my broken shoulder and wince. She looks confused, so I attempt to surmount our language barrier by speaking slowly and loudly. “Broken shoulder, please don’t touch,” I say, feeling like an idiot. What am I doing getting a massage, anyway?
She pushes me down and begins vigorously scrubbing my entire body. This is not a Western-style massage, where you’re covered by a sheet, your body demurely exposed a tiny bit at a time. I am in public, totally naked, and my massage therapist has no compunction about getting right up into my every nook and cranny. It’s a damn good body scrub, but I’m getting anxious. I don’t think my message got through, and her hands are heading shoulder-ward.
I attempt to convey discomfort by stiffening and shifting my body. It’s a strategy I remember using as a teenager on dates with handsy boys, and it’s proving as ineffective as ever. Missing my nonverbal cues, the massage therapist gives my left shoulder a firm press. I yelp. She apologizes, but soon her hands return to my injured shoulder. I try to relax through the pain. My shoulder is getting sloughed whether I like it or not. The grey worms of my own exfoliated skin roll off my body and drown in tiny pools of water on the floor.
Resuming my search for the women’s sleeping room, I head up another staircase and find a locked, glass-walled area. In back are long-abandoned salon chairs and hair-washing stations. There are also display cases of shampoo, slippers, and cheap jewelry—items that are ostensibly for sale, though there’s no cash register in sight. The biggest ticket item: a $3,000 “water mineral activator.”
I’m about to head back downstairs, defeated, when I see a clue. A yellowing sign on a window reads, “For women’s sleeping room, please use the staircase in locker room.”
I return to the locker room and see nothing resembling a staircase. There are exactly three exits—one to the bade pool, one to the poultice room, and one to the front-desk area. I methodically explore the room, weaving around women in various states of undress until I find a narrow staircase hidden behind a row of lockers. At the top of the stairs is the padlocked door of the women’s sleeping room and a sign: “Closed for Maintenance.”
Steve is still in his chair, looking lifeless, but he perks up when I tell him it’s time for the evening’s big event: dinner. When the Washington Post’s restaurant critic, Tom Sietsema, reviewed Spa World’s house restaurant last year, he called the vegetarian dumplings “feel-good” and the bibimbap “everything I want from the beloved Asian meal-in-a-bowl.” I call them bland. Luckily, there’s plenty of Sriracha around, so I drown my meal in rooster sauce while watching a sad-faced Asian man slurp soup while tabbing through spreadsheets. Behind me, a cute Russian couple giggles over a Lilliputian dish of kimchi. Both wear towels tied around their heads and twisted into Princess Leia buns.
After eating, Steve returns to his chair, and I introduce myself to our neighbor, the West Virginian. He looks up from a stack of New Yorkers that he is taking copious notes on and tells me about the rowdy 24-hour crowds. I ask about the sleeping rooms. “There was a scandal,” he says. “I heard about it through back channels. Someone did something they shouldn’t have.” He refuses to elaborate.
I read a short story about vampires, and empathize with their predicament: An eternity of bland comfort can only lead to despair, ennui and, finally, violence. At first, Spa World seems like a sensory extravaganza; now it’s a sensory deprivation tank, with its vast body-temperature pools and rooms. I visit a sauna with a floor covered in clay marbles—a mosaic of red, grey, and black. Crunching under my feet, the clay balls sound like waves crashing. Slipping through my fingers, they sound like rainfall. Time crawls.
To avoid succumbing to bloodlust, I make friends with more spagoers. A State Department employee is studying Korean out of a book, somehow missing the opportunity to converse with dozens of native speakers. I interrupt a man who is reading Your Defiant Child. He tells me he has two children, age 8 and 6. I resist asking him which is the defiant one.
A couple from New York, Terrell and Lee, tell me they came to D.C. for a friend’s birthday party and decided to spend the night at Spa World instead of a hotel. “That was a mistake,” Terrell says, shifting uncomfortably in his loveseat. Another couple, this one in their 20s, tells me that they hadn’t planned on spending the night, but they got too relaxed to drive home. This strikes me as plausible. Both of them appear to have melted into their chairs.
I’m drifting to sleep in my loveseat when a burbling fountain shuts off. The abrupt silence startles me awake.
The fountain turns on again.
The fountain turns off.
Cursing the fountain, I decamp to the floor mats. The last thing I see before I lose consciousness is an elderly Korean woman sticking her hand way down her orange shorts and scratching vigorously.
Saturday, Feb. 16,
My cell phone chirps. It’s almost been 12 hours—time to check out and back in again. Steve hasn’t slept at all, due to the smallness of the chairs, the hardness of the floors, and the three-minute fountain. We both check out, but I sign up for the next 12 hours alone. A small group of women stands in line behind me, chatting in Russian. I smile and wave and get blank stares in response. “Dobre outro!” I say, excited to use my one Russian phrase. They continue to ignore me.
The Russians and I plunge naked into the bade pool, which is almost as busy as it was 12 hours ago. Selecting a Jacuzzi-jet station, I realize, probably requires a similar calculus as the one men use to choose a urinal. You want to avoid standing directly next to someone else, unless that’s the only remaining option. I head for a spot marked by a semicircle railing and find a set of jets that point directly up your skirt. Except, of course, I am not wearing a skirt.
Two women with cropped hair are soaking nearby. My gaydar pings, though they don’t seem like a couple. In fact, body language suggests that this may be an ill-advised date, the kind that you go on because you have nothing else to do, stretching well into the night through the sheer force of inertia. One woman leans away from the other, arms crossed, looking bored. Her companion looks at me, eyes narrowed. It seems I have been staring.
Before I head to bed, I visit the smoking room, expecting to interrupt an orgy or, at the very least, some high-stakes Go-Stop. I crack open the door and find a lone man reading his iPad. I pop into the ice room and meet three college-age gals who have driven down from New Jersey just to visit Spa World. They seem dismayed when I tell them there’s a Korean bathhouse—Palisades Park’s King Spa Fitness—in their very own state.
En route to the mats in the poultice room, I peek into one of the cooler saunas and see a couple fast asleep on the floor, spooning. Fifteen adults and one child are sleeping on the floor, and a handful of other people doze on chairs. Employing a damp towel as a sleep mask, I fall asleep despite the quiet murmurs of a Korean drama and CNN.
I’m awake, and my chest constricts when I realize that I have another seven hours to go. I imagine sprinting barefoot, past the front desk, and into the parking lot. I just want to see the sky, just for a minute. Would anyone really care if I bailed a little early? In the name of journalistic integrity, I promptly fall back asleep.
Unfortunately, I’m awake again. The water fountain turns on and off and on and off. I browse a catalog of industrial mats while eating a breakfast of baked eggs. I ask the sauna-spooning couple how they slept. “Great,” the woman replies. I get the sense they live with their parents and use Spa World as a cheap place to canoodle.
I, myself, haven’t spent much time in the saunas yet.
I don’t quite get their appeal—why get hot and sweaty on purpose? But since I have run out of other things to do, I head to the 136-degree amethyst gem cave. Lying on the floor, I gaze at the ceiling, a 10-pointed star of purple and red gems. My mind enters a liminal state as I observe the walls, stone mosaics of flowering trees, mushrooms, deer, and egrets. A peaceful pastoral scene, though the mushrooms dwarf the birds.
The heat has made my limbs heavy and slowed my mind. The point of saunas, I suspect, is to force people to still their bodies and thoughts. The sweating is incidental. I lie there for maybe a half-hour, and when I return to the poultice room, I feel light, my despair incinerated.
The health benefits claimed by the gem-stone rooms seem far-fetched, but I am a strong believer in the placebo effect. So I claim a mat in the salt room, a 166-degree sauna that, the sign says rather literally, “heats bone.” I assume it means “heals.” Soon, sweat beads bubble on my skin, and I imagine that they are a viscous gel, dribbled onto me by the sauna’s pink salt blocks. In my mind’s eye, this magic substance soaks into my torn ligaments and binds them back together.
On my way out, my empirical mind regains control and I sneak a taste of the wall. It’s salt, all right.
I page through a copy of Lucky magazine and learn that bright pants are in for spring. Apparently Spa World’s orange shorts are on trend, too, I think sincerely. The saunas may have baked my brain.
I know where all the best jets in the bade pool are now, and I rotate through them like a pro. I strike up conversations with fellow bathers, give people unsolicited advice, and show them how to operate the jets. It’s a wonder Spa Word hasn’t kicked me out for being creepy, or offered me a job.
A small child dumps a pan of water on my head, and I realize it’s time to check out. I get dressed and ask a Spa World employee if there’s someone whom I could interview. The manager on duty, James Lee, says he is much too busy to chat. I call him later, and he explains that the bathhouse discontinued the 24-hour passes because “there were some customers treating Spa World as a hotel, for when they had nowhere else to go, and we wanted to get rid of those customers.” As for the sleeping rooms, they had a “variety of problems I prefer not to disclose,” Lee says.
I check out of Spa World, step into the strip-mall parking lot, and search for the sun. The sky is slate grey, but I love it anyway. A communal spirit has infected my city-hardened soul, and I chat with strangers during my Metro ride home. “I just spent 24 hours in a spa,” I tell a family who is visiting from Florida. “Weird,” a teenage girl replies.
She’s right. Spa World is weird. Even after doing it myself, I’m still surprised people really do spend the night there—otherwise normal folks looking for a cheap hotel or a place to cuddle, or who’ve simply gotten too lazy to check out. Maybe it’s a good thing Spa World switched to 12-hour passes, so no one gets inextricably embedded in a tatami mat. Of course, the real danger of becoming too relaxed is that, once you return to your high-pressure job back on this end of the Orange Line, you might find you’ve lost the reflexes you need to survive.