I’d been curious about Island Spa and Sauna in Edison– a jjimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse– ever since my girlfriend mentioned that she and her husband spent one whole glorious spa day here, sans kids. My mom and dad raved about a traditional one in Korea that they had visited while on a multi-country Asian tour a few years ago. That got me thinking, is the Korean-style scrub on its way to becoming the next global beauty trend? If it is, we want to be among the first to check it out. When NJMOM asked me to experience Island Spa and Sauna, it meant I would finally get to see what jjimjilbang culture looks like on our North American shores.
one of the tranquil treatment rooms at Island Spa and Sauna
So what’s a Korean-style bathhouse all about?
I didn’t know anything about Korean bathhouses before this visit, except for what a couple of girlfriends who have been to Island Spa and Sauna texted me the night before: “You have to be very comfortable with your body” and “Be prepared to see Korean grannies in lingerie.” Um, what? I had so many questions but didn’t pursue it because I wanted to gain the full Korean bathhouse experience, untainted by opinion or criticism. Still, I was excited to go get a traditional full body scrub in hopes of emerging with new, bright, dewy skin– because exquisite skincare is what Koreans are so well known for, that much I know.
#NJMOM Deal: Use code NJMOM27, score a day pass for $27
I brought my husband as my guest to Island Spa and Sauna, and as soon as we stepped inside, I realized that this was not going to be a candle-strewn, American-style boutique spa affair. This was a Korean experience, so that meant technology played a role immediately, in the form of electronic wristbands that function as your locker key as well as a scannable account— our passes and payment for everything that lay beyond the reception area’s sleek wooden desk. Daily general admission is $35 on weekdays and $40 on weekends, but you can snag an awesome ticket deal for $27 right now using NJMOM promo code: NJMOM27 (click here for the deal). We were handed our complimentary spa uniforms (loose tees and long shorts, somewhat like recreational soccer uniforms) and set about our jjimjilbang’ing.
Step inside, be transported to tranquility
Island Spa and Sauna is a corporate-looking fortress of a building (definitely not your typical boutique spa vibe) with multiple areas, including a Korean style restaurant and juice bar, lounge, sleeping room, media room, and relaxation pods equipped with free wifi. Then there is the outcropping of saunas– perhaps the primary draw of coming to a place like this– and nudity-mandatory, gender-segregated baths that are very nice, actually. While the jjimjilbang is not necessarily luxurious, it does offer a communal experience like none other.
At the front lobby, we tucked away our street shoes into a designated locker just for shoes. Then we parted ways and headed barefoot to our respective bathhouses, which each include a locker room, four different soaking tubs, steam rooms and showers. While my husband went on for a relaxing Swedish massage, I checked in for my service, a Body Scrub Regular. The attendant instructed me to shower first, then soak in one of the hot tubs for 20-30 minutes before my scrub. Koreans take their cleanliness and sanitization seriously, so make sure you shower– but heck, go the extra mile and utilize the toiletries provided by the spa to shave, brush your teeth, wash your face, and so on.
What to know before you go
For first-timers in a Korean bathhouse, like myself, it can be awkward stripping to your birthday suit and hopping into tubs with strangers. It’s all about acting. If you’re not confident or comfortable, just pretend to act confident and comfortable. Act like you own the place, too. You’ll have less eyes on you that way, trust me. Though I’m more bashful than exhibitionist, I quickly got over any qualms about public nudity. Because, momma– you birthed a tiny human being! Anyway, two must-do’s: soak in the herbal hot bath and opt for a body scrub.
Now back to the Korean grannies in black lingerie that I mentioned at the start. The scrub corner in the bathhouse is run by Korean scrub mistresses who use a coarse glove to get at every inch of their guest’s body. And they wear a black lace bra and underwear to do it. The scrub, or “seshin”, is a brisk, efficient, no-nonsense service (that at times, feels punishing, yet strangely satisfying), but also calming because there’s the constant hum from the surrounding hot tubs and the rush of bucketfuls of warm water being thrown on you periodically throughout your scrub.
First, she wraps a towel around your head covering your eyes for ultimate relaxation (or more likely, so you don’t accidentally look at naked guests lying right beside you). At first, you may wonder what exactly you’re supposed to do– but relax!– through a series of taps on your butt, your scrub mistress will indicate when you should turn over. Throughout the intense cleansing process, your body will be masterfully contorted into positions necessary to get at every nook and cranny. It’s a little awkward at first, but necessary in order to effectively rid the body of all the dirt and layers of dead skin that accumulate to reveal smooth baby pink skin. (On second thought, perhaps the eye towels are so you don’t have to see the rolls of gray skin on the floor?)
Now, let the real fun begin.
Korean beef bulgogi from Cafe Island, a Korean-style cafeteria inside Island Spa and Sauna
Working on your zen works up an appetite
Before hitting the saunas, we took a lunch break and checked out Café Island, serving up traditional Korean fare and fresh sushi. By now, we had both somehow worked up an appetite and each enjoyed large platters of delicious marinated beef bulgogi. Another time I’d like to try the uber traditional sauna-baked eggs.
Next up, yoga. Complimentary sessions in the sleeping room are held every day Sunday through Friday from 1pm to 2pm. Christian-with-the-really-nice-muscles led a solid class good for beginner to intermediate levels. My husband opted out of yoga citing a “very full belly” so instead he read a newspaper and watched Christopher Robin, which was playing on a big movie screen in the main lounge.
Now, if you’ve gotten a scrub, your pores will be clear and ready to soak up the benefits of the saunas. There are six saunas at Island Spa and Sauna, each with a different theme and promise of benefits: a charcoal room to stimulate sweat glands and release built-up toxins; a Himalayan salt room to flush out impurities from your skin; a baked clay sauna to increase circulation of blood to your muscles. A pharaonic, crystal-studded hut thrilled me, though its intended physical benefits were vague–and does it really matter anyway? In another sauna, a hot air bath filled with ambient sounds of a natural forest lulled me to sleep. Like, is this as close as I’ll ever get to Bali?
We completed our circuit of dry-sauna’ing, having followed the recommended path of beginning with the least hot sauna (Charcoal Island, still a toasty 135 degrees), working our way through the archipelago to the hottest (Treasure Island, hovering around 175 degrees), and finally cooling off in the snowy themed Ice Island while wearing a Caviar sheet mask (available for purchase at the spa). Don’t forget to replenish yourself at the Island Juice Bar with a fresh smoothie or juice– or if you’re feeling decadent, a green tea patbingsoo which is a must-try Korean shaved ice dessert.
Get scrubbed, get your sweat on, and get super relaxed
Sweating regularly, even without vigorous physical activity, apparently makes you very sleepy. I literally did nothing at Island Spa and Sauna, and yet I did so much. You cook your body at temperatures north of 100 degrees in the company of sweaty strangers! It’s relaxing! It feels good! You sleep like a baby afterwards! (Or, if you’re like some people, catch some zzzz’s inside a sauna while everyone listens to you snore.)
After one visit to Island Spa and Sauna, I intend to start incorporating Korean style body scrubs into my skincare/self-care routine at least quarterly– though I’m told that in Korea, it’s really just a part of the culture from early childhood on, and visits to the bathhouse are a weekly family ritual. My more American version of skincare tends to be a sudden mad dash to Nordstrom.com when there is a Black Friday sale to buy $100 eye cream at a discounted deal, praying it will reverse some of the teenage UV damage. I’m slowly learning the importance of a multi-step skincare routine, and this one is an affordable luxury that I will be treating myself to more regularly.
Cultural exports like jjimjilbang did not come so naturally to me in the beginning– but by the end of my day spent at Island Spa and Sauna, I left feeling refreshed and extraordinarily rejuvenated. And bright, dewy skin? Check. I’m still sparkling, weeks later.
Cost: $27, use code NJMOM27. Click here for the deal.
Island Spa & Sauna
1769 Lincoln Highway
Edison, NJ 08817
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