Opinion: Understanding the Bathing Culture of Korea

(Photo via The Korea Times)

(Photo via The Korea Times)

Editor’s note: The Korea Times reported on Dec. 2 that King Spa & Fitness in Palisades Park, New Jersey, was once again permitted to keep its business open 24 hours a day, reversing a resolution the city government had passed on Nov. 24 restricting the spa’s business hours.

I am sure that Koreans share a similar memory from their childhood of visiting a public bath and holding their mother’s hand. We used to visit a public bath and scrub our bodies. That would be one of the most classic images that springs to mind when Koreans think about bath culture. We remember that every town had a few tall brick chimneys with the word “Mok Yok Tang” (public bath in Korean) written on them. For many years, those chimneys have hardly been seen and, instead, many spas are replacing them. It is a new kind of public bath that combines two concepts – a public bath with a sauna.

For various people, the Korean-style spa has taken on the role of a retreat. For instance, salarymen who get tired from a night of overtime work visit a spa and have a relaxing time. On some occasions, they head directly to their work from the spa after spending the whole night there. The last time I visited a Korean-style spa in Dongdaemun, almost half of the customers were foreigners. Now I dare say the bathing culture of Korea is influencing the global bathing culture, just as Korean food once influenced the global food industry.

When King Spa & Fitness opened in Palisades Park in 2003, I was excited to have a Korean-style spa in our town so that I could have a relaxing time there, which I had been unable to do unless I was visiting Korea. I wonder why the Korean government did not attempt to introduce the bathing culture to America, just as when they made an effort to introduce the Korean food culture worldwide. It is not too much to say that Korean-style spas in many places in the U.S., such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas, are playing an important role in spreading Korean culture.

I got to know about issues surrounding King Spa from the newspaper on Nov. 24 reporting that [the spa] was in trouble and had been ordered to restrict its business hours. Also, it is ridiculous that the staff of King Spa never knew about the resolution until they heard it from other Koreans locally (…) What is happening to King Spa seems to be an emotional act by people in power.

Moreover, applying sanctions to King Spa without any convincing reason, incurred my wrath. There was no prior notification or warning, nor a valid reason for the resolution. I felt as if a hammer had hit me when I received the report about King Spa from the newspaper and I felt very sorry. [The city government] compared the spa with hotels, saying it provided accommodations. There are countless Korean-style spas in Korea, but I never read news that anyone in the hotel industry made an issue about them. That is because every Korean knows that staying overnight at a Korean style-spa totally differs from the idea of staying at a hotel.

Now, many Koreans are involved, directly or indirectly, in politics in Palisades Park from the deputy mayor, to the City Council to police officers. We, as representatives of Korea, ought to not just spread our own culture but also protect our local businesses. In the past, Korean restaurants struggled to obtain a deeper understanding from the board of health about their foods, especially side dishes including kimchi, which always happened to receive a failing mark from the inspectors. People in the restaurant business all know that was an essential step we had to go through for the globalization of Korean food.

People should take a rest at accommodations such as hotels when they are on a trip. The Korean-style spa, where people visit and sleep over despite having their own house nearby, needs to remain as a retreat for local people. Apart from political calculations or benefits and losses of the business, it is our duty to speak with one voice so people better understand our culture. King Spa in New Jersey should remain as a welcoming place 24 hours a day not only for Koreans but also non-Korean residents.

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