A Bathhouse Immersed In Tradition

Spa World Resort, a Korean bathhouse in Centreville, Va., opened to the public on Feb. 27.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

Inside the 127-degree Red Clay Ball room, Kum Sun Hong, 54, and her husband, Song Hong, 59, nestled amid thousands of hazelnut-size spheres that covered the floor, a kind of grown-up sandbox touted as "great for removing inner body toxins."

Nearby in the igloo-shaped Amethyst Gem room, two women sat chatting while a man sprawled on a mat, soaking up the "energy oscillating waves" said to cure ailments. In the main hall, where Korean pop music played softly from hidden speakers, people dressed in mandatory loungewear -- men in yellow, women in orange -- lay on the 104-degree onyx floor, their heads resting on brick-shaped pillows, their ears covered with towels twisted to form buns.

Behind the modest facade of a 1980s-era Fairfax County strip mall, Korean entrepreneurs have brought a slice of their homeland to their new land: a much-awaited, $15 million jimjilbang, a Korean-style sauna and bathhouse. But patrons and community leaders say the sleek Spa World Resort in Centreville is as much a cultural milestone as a business, reflecting both the size and evolution of the Washington region's Korean community.

The area's Korean immigrant population is the third largest in the nation at about 59,000, according to 2006 census data, and the number of Korean-owned businesses jumped 21 percent from 1997 to 2002. After reshaping Annandale's commercial offerings and settling in large numbers in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, Koreans in recent years transformed Centreville's storefronts, schools and congregations.

Along the way, they have branched out from small enterprises to big chains and property development; Spa World is owned by a Korean construction company and golf course owner and is housed in a strip mall owned by a Korean supermarket mogul. Yet although luxurious Korean spas exist in the Los Angeles and New York areas, homes to the two biggest Korean communities, there was none here until recently.

"We have been waiting for a long time, because we have to travel to New York to go experience the spa," said Kevin Park, an Annandale-based reporter for the Korea Times. "Because we have a brand-new spa, we don't have to go up to New York."

The word "spa" does not quite begin to describe a jimjilbang, a recent Korean cultural phenomenon that grew out of a centuries-old public bathhouse tradition and now ranks first among "10 Unique Korean Customs & Practices," according to an October Korea Times article. Spa World is a 24-7 complex with a floor space nearly that of a football field, a Korean restaurant, smoking and sleeping rooms, a gym and a child-care center.

"In Korea, this is a family gathering place. They gather together and enjoy the full service," Spa World's owner, Sang K. Lee, said, wiping his brow with a white towel as he stood on the heated floor. Busy immigrants had been asking for such a one-stop relaxation spot here, he said, adding, "When they are working hard, they are missing something: family gatherings."

Lee said he hopes the venture will encourage healthfulness and serve as a handy resting spot for airline workers on layovers, who he said are welcome to spend the night on thin mats in the sleeping rooms.

The complex took three years to build, with the help of more than 60 builders, engineers and computer technicians who flew in from Korea to help. Its centerpiece is a vast main hall with smooth stone floors heated by water pipes that run underneath, another Korean custom. At one end is a juice bar serving $5 shaved ice with red beans. At the other are several rooms heated to desertlike temperatures and one 54-degree "ice room," their walls covered in stones imported from South Korea and the Himalayas.

Joyce Yang and Jong Bae Lee, both 33, dined in the restaurant on ox rib soup and slivered beef with their son, 3-year-old Leo Lee. Large, multi-service jimjilbangs were just getting popular when they left Korea six years ago, and they said Spa World was as opulent as the best of them.

"It's socialization," said Yang, a parent educator, explaining the spas' appeal.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company