I wasn’t so sure about the mandatory uniforms, themed saunas, and high-velocity water jets at first. But the bulgogi helped change my mind.
Eating Korean barbecue in a wet bathing suit on the eighth floor of a nondescript office building was not something I’d ever envisioned myself enjoying. Yet, there I was, masticating thin-sliced beef in a recliner positioned in front of an enormous projection of a beach scene. It was October in midtown Manhattan, and I was thinking I could definitely get used to this.
The occasion for the soggy bulgogi was a solo afternoon at the newest location of Spa Castle, a spin-off of the behemoth Korean-style spa in College Point, Queens. The Manhattan outpost is smaller than its sprawling Queens counterpart (not to mention the Carollton, Texas, location, which has a connected hotel), but it’s still a labyrinth. Spread out over the floors of an office building that previously held the New York Tennis and Racquet Club, Spa Castle Premier 57, as the 57th Street location is technically called, holds state-of-the-art locker rooms, a hydrotherapy bade pool, a smattering of quiet meditation areas, a cafe featuring hearty Korean foods, and a cluster of themed temperature-controlled rooms called “Sauna Valley.” It’s a deeply confusing experience of total bliss and serenity, perched above one of the least relaxing neighborhoods in the world.
No element of Spa Castle made sense to me. Not the mandatory nudity in the women’s locker room (placards bolted to the walls commanded all guests to get butt-naked); not the Brave New World–style grey uniforms that came next; not the Draconian hydrotherapy pool safety regulations (a lifeguard politely asked me to stop doing handstands); not the science behind the “Chromotherapy Sauna,” a hot room with flashing lights in primary colors; not the shot glass–sized paper Dixie cups with cartoon animals drawn on them that appeared to be the only vessel with which one could replenish herself after a trip to Sauna Valley. Certainly not the damp-bikini bento box episode. None of this should have been relaxing. And maybe the water jets addled my brain, but that very cognitive dissonance seemed to enhance my Spa Castle experience. Otherwise, sitting alone in a giant bathtub for four hours could have gotten boring. That’s probably why there’s a bar.
So often, we think relaxation is about turning off the mind, smudging our conscience out of existence with a pair of able hands and one deep inhale of eucalyptus during a 90-minute massage. But Spa Castle—though it offers plenty of hands-on services, including Korean scrubs and reflexology—releases its customer from her stressful life with slightly uncomfortable mind-body challenges, instead of just blissful zoning out. One’s mind has to be present and alert at Spa Castle in order to embrace the high-velocity water jets barreling into the exoskeleton, to withstand quick temperature transitions, to be vulnerable and naked among strangers. These are skills that, if mastered first at Spa Castle, could make our lives a hell of a lot more serene in the day-to-day. Though it offers many elements that are just straight-up relaxing, Spa Castle also asks bathers to encounter a stimulus—bright light, heat, or physical pain—and inure one’s self to it.
Take Sauna Valley for example. Clad in my unflattering grey uniform, I first entered the Gold Sauna, purportedly built of gold bricks, which are believed to reduce dependency on caffeine and carbohydrates. It was hot in there, and yet I waited it out with mindfulness. When I realized my body’s limit, I left the sauna and entered the Ice Igloo, a cold stimulation room, and stayed there until my body told me to move on. I repeated this process with the Far Infrared Sauna, meant to increase oxygen flow to the brain; the Himalayan Salt Sauna (I licked the wall; it’s really salt); the Loess Soil Sauna, meant to aid blood circulation; and the Chromotherapy Sauna, meant to balance internal energy, dipping back into the Ice Igloo after each time. When I finally left the area, my body was confused, but my mind felt grounded.
Before I grabbed lunch at Spa Castle’s cafe, I relaxed in the Infrared Lounge, meant to simulate the warmth of sunbathing without any of the UV damage. I found myself lounging amidst a group of old college friends who appeared not to have spent much time together since they’d all had kids. The infrared and the awkward conversation was a disquieting experience at first, but I got used to it quickly. By the end of the day, I was even into the uniform.