A spa official handed us each a burlap bag, saying it was to protect us from burns when sitting on the floor. With a gulp I grabbed the bag and entered the kiln-shaped Bulhanzungmok, a Korean super sauna — an oak-fueled oven reaching 200 degrees. I was enveloped in heat, sweat forming immediately, the hot air sucking at my lungs and the floor hot on my feet. My wife, Carol, who loves heat, looked delighted. I found a space, dropped my bag to the floor, sat on it and looked around at the pink- and white-clad people sitting around me. When I emerged from the oven, my face was bright pink.
Carol and I were at the King Spa in Palisades Park, N.J., the first municipality with a majority Korean population in the United States. The spa, hot tubs and saunas are a Korean tradition reaching back at least 500 years, and we were getting a taste of the modern version, known as jjimjilbang.
Carol and I are not strangers to Korea, having served there in the Peace Corps many years ago. (And, as a disclaimer, despite my name, I am not Korean. )
But I was determined to get a Korean experience on this trip, eating only Korean food for a 24-hour period. And it really did feel like being in Korea. Hangul (the Korean alphabet) lettering appeared on almost every building on Broad Avenue, the main commercial drag in town. Korean was heard in the streets far more often than English.
For lunch soon after our arrival, we chose a restaurant called Muk Eun Ji — for seafood noodles and bean paste stew. The portions were large and came with eight panchan items (side dishes); they included kimchi, spinach, tofu, bean sprouts, and a bubbling hot steamed egg served in a clay pot. As I paid the bill, the man at the counter politely accepted it with a slight bow as he extended his right hand while holding his left hand towards his body in the Korean fashion. I handed him the credit card in the same manner.
After lunch we walked down Broad Avenue towards the public library on Second Street past shoe repair shops, clothing stores, hair salons and coffee shops, all with signs in Hangul and English. Outside the library stands a memorial to the thousands of women from Korea and other Asian countries who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army during World War II. Jason Kim, deputy mayor and first-generation Korean American, and Mayor James Rotundo were instrumental in setting up the memorial to the “Comfort Women,” as they were known.
“I had never heard about it before,” Rotundo said. “When I heard the stories, I knew this was the thing to do.”
Kim pointed out that this is not merely a Korean-vs.-Japanese issue — the victims were from multiple nations.
“And it still goes on whenever there is a war. It’s women and children who are the victims,” he said.
The granite memorial bears a plaque showing a Japanese soldier and a woman with the inscription, “Let us never forget the horrors of crimes against humanity.”
We continued our Korean culture quest to one of the more enjoyable traditions: the hot tub and sauna. When I lived in Korea, a weekly trip to the sauna helped get me through the cold winter months. The King Spa on Commercial Avenue, though, is unlike any spa I’ve ever been to. There are about a dozen saunas to choose from, each with a distinct benefit: amethyst stones for the better circulation, yellow mud for muscle aches and rock salt for the skin, to name a few examples. After checking in, men are issued a white shirt and shorts, and women the same in pink, to be worn in all public areas of the facility. In the separate spa sections for men and women, where the hot tubs and lockers and some massage areas are, it is strictly clothes-free.
Every day in the Bulhanzungmok sauna, the King Spa bakes dozens of eggs right in the carton and sells them at the juice bar. They come out a brownish color. Young Cho, the vice president of King Spa, claims that they bake from the inside out, and that this particular sauna is therapeutic for the same reason: because it warms up the vital organs inside first.
My day nearly done at the spa, it was time for a full-body massage. The Korean masseuse kneaded, poked and slapped me. She slathered warm oils on my skin as she worked out the tension and sore muscles. After an hour, I emerged from the session feeling relaxed.
One of the hardest decisions in Palisades Park is where to eat a Korean dinner. There are more than 20 restaurants on Broad Avenue alone. We opted for So Moon Nan Jip, which is known for its barbecue, or bulgogi. The meat is heated over a charcoal grill in the center of the table. Our waitress managed barbecues at three separate tables with calm efficiency. We were served excellent panchan: kimchi, tofu, spinach, steamed egg, chopped radish, dried salted fish, apples and potatoes, and bean sprouts.
It was a boisterous crowd on a Saturday night. Many of these patrons would move on later to coffee shops, pool halls, and still later to the karaoke bars that draw lots of people to Palisades Park at night.
On Sunday morning, we stopped at a Korean bakery for a breakfast of bean-paste-filled pastries. Kim had told us the day before that first-generation Koreans at Palisades Park frequent the Grand Shilla Bakery, while second-generation patrons are more likely to go to Caffé Bene, and that Paris Baguette appeals to both. We chose Caffé Bene, where we got a bubble tea and a bean-paste bun. Then we bought some hodo kwaja — bite-size cakes with bean paste and walnut inside — at Red Mango.
The cakes were for later. We were taking a taste of Korea home.
Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.
More from Travel:
Hampton Inn, Ridgefield Park
100 Route 46 E., Ridgefield Park
Minutes from Palisades Park. Free breakfast and free on-site parking. (Entrance to the motel can be easily missed.) Rooms from $124.
Hilton Garden Inn, Ridgefield Park
70 Challenger Rd., Ridgefield Park
Just outside Palisades Park. Free on-site parking. No pets. Rooms from $149.
Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe
100 Frank W. Burr Blvd., Teaneck
Three-star newly renovated hotel two minutes north of Palisades Park.
Three restaurants on-site. Free self-parking. Rooms from $149.
So Moon Nan Jip
238 Broad Ave., Palisades Park
High-end Korean barbecue with traditional decor and extensive menu. Parking in the rear. Barbecue from $26. Other entrees from $12.
Muk Eun Ji
217 Broad Ave., Palisades Park
Prides itself on kimchi aged over a year. Many menu items feature kimchi. Entrees from $12.
321 Commercial Ave., Palisades Park
Three floors of saunas, steam baths, hot tubs, game tables, lounges and massage rooms. Plan on staying at least several hours. Free shuttle service from Midtown Manhattan. Check Web site for times. Admission: $45; massages $35 to $85. Tips are expected when checking out. Check Web site for coupons. Open 24/7. Valet parking. No children under 10.