A trip to Spa Castle

What are the greatest contributions immigrants make to American society? Labor economists will give you one answer; social historians will tell you something else. A taco crawl down 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, like the one I did last weekend, will give you yet another answer, one having something to do with chorizo, roast pork, spiced pork, beef tongue, and a cake called cinco leches.

But really, I’m most grateful to recent immigrants for teaching me how to sweat.

Regular readers know I’m a longtime fan of the Russian and Turkish Baths, the 106-year-old East Village institution. With the cave-like Russian room, the ass-kicking wet heat of the tile-lined Turkish room, a wood-lined sauna, two steam rooms, and a frigid plunge pool, the Baths offer a distinctly non-American place to pummel your body with hot and cold (and, for an additional fee, to be pummeled by a burly Russian man wielding oak branches and eucalyptus soap).

Probably the most foreign aspect of a trip to the Baths is the way you learn to relate to bodies, your own and others’. Entering the Russian room, where temperatures can reach 200 degrees, you’re overcome first by the heat and second by the sight of sweating flesh of every size and color. Tattooed and taut hipsters, sagging octogenarians, tourists from Finland and Los Angeles. Men with hairy backs and huge bellies, a leathery woman so skinny you’re afraid she’ll slip down the drain. Whatever your issues with your own body, the proliferation of forms all drenched with sweat tells you one thing: get over it.

My Baths companion A White Bear made a trip a couple of months ago to farthest Queens in search of a new bath experience, a Korean palace formerly known as In-Spa World, now Spa Castle. She returned with wondrous tales that begged for verification. So on New Year’s Eve I set out in a minivan in a snowstorm with the boyfriend and two other Canadians. Four expressways later, we pulled up to a gargantuan, four-story, stucco-covered monstrosity sitting amid the two-family homes of College Point, Queens.

The Spa Castle experience is a crazy mix of traditional Asian baths and futuristic wackiness. A microchip-encrusted wristband is your key to first your shoe locker, then your clothes locker; later, you will swipe it to pay for sushi or fresh juice or a massage. You’d be almost foolish to pay for a massage, though, when Spa Castle provides so many self-massage opportunities in the form of water jets — jets that shoot from the floors of pools, from the ceiling, from tile seats covered with flowing water, single jets, jets in groups, gentle burbles and industrial-strength streams that sandblast the dead skin cells from your back and shoulders.

The second floor, where guests wear uniforms of long shorts and t-shirts and wait for their sushi orders to be called while looking like extras from Logan’s Run, has half its area given over to igloos. Made of concrete, presumably, the igloos are lined with various materials — jade, gold, bricks of salt — and kept at different temperatures. Only one or two have real heat to them, and there’s nothing that matches the 200-degree intensity of the Russian Baths, but you can get your sweat on nonetheless, and the salt-lined igloo clears the lungs remarkably. (As you might guess, I was unimpressed by the therapeutic value of the other linings, particularly the “color therapy” hut where you can pick one of seven colors of light for your little sitting booth, corresponding to benefits like “hope” or “prosperity.”)

The third floor has an outdoor pool. Rather, two or three outdoor pools and a couple of hot tubs, plus a giant mushroom fountain. We got up there in the late afternoon towards the end of the New Year’s Eve snowstorm, and with the steam rising from the pools it was clear that the only thing that could make the place more awesome would be snow monkeys. One of the outdoor pools had my favorite jets, extremely forceful yet narrow clusters that made for the most intense foot massage I’d ever had in public.

But again, the oddest (for me) part of the Spa Castle experience had to do with bodies. When you enter the men’s locker room, you’re casually told you need to take off your clothes and shower before putting on your uniform and heading upstairs, and the attendant gestures toward a shower room. You’re thinking it’ll take a couple of minutes and you’ll be on your way. So you undress and walk through double glass doors into what can only be described as a mini-spa. There are showers along one wall, completely exposed. The center of the room is dominated by four shallow pools of water, three bubbling and one still, each a different temperature and joined at their common corner by a neon and plastic pillar taken from some Seoul corporate conference room. Along the far wall are deeper pools, again of different temperatures; nearer are doors leading to wet and dry saunas; over to the right are a series of low countertops with mirrors and sinks where guests shave, brush their teeth, and scrub each other with green exfoliating mittens.

Everyone in the room is naked. You are, too.

How did I feel about the nakedness? Well, that evolved. I’m sure I blushed when I walked up to the showers, my manly bits dangling to and fro. There was then a momentary rush of, I guess I’d call it a feeling of power, when it sunk in that I could stand naked, could wash myself all over quite naked, in front of a room full of people. This was quickly followed by a feeling of normalization, hastened by the arrival of my boyfriend and our two friends (cute, straight Canadian indie boys) in the naked room. It’s not that I wasn’t aware that I and they and everyone else was naked as we lounged in the hot pools and carried on our jokey conversations; it’s that the nakedness quickly receded into the background.

Eventually, though, the nakedness reasserted itself, but not as something weird. I noticed that it felt good. Not to be constricted by clothing. Not to be hiding anything about your body. Able to see whatever there was to see of everyone else’s bodies, again in such a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

I began to understand the utopian dreams of nudists. What if the whole world were naked, open, free of elastic and zippers? What if the nations of the earth could bare themselves, no longer hiding their weapons, their ambitions, their poverty? Was not nudity the answer? Would not a metaphorical nudity, anchored in real nudity — and here I had stepped well over the line into the bathetic — stop the bombs that were falling on Gaza?

Then I remembered my Cronenberg: naked people can wield knives. And we did have secrets inside our skins, the different languages we spoke, our diverging histories and futures, our sexual orientations. So I settled for simply being naked, sweating, plunging into a cold pool much less brutal than the one in the East Village, and submitting to the jets of water streaming from the ceiling and the floor. It felt great.

27 responses to “A trip to Spa Castle”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Quote of the year-
    my manly bits dangling to and fro. There was then a momentary rush of, I guess I’d call it a feeling of power, when it sunk in that I could stand naked, could wash myself all over quite naked, in front of a room full of people.

    Your reflection in the last two paragraphs are good.

  2. Marleyfan says:

    And, to achieve the quote of the year in early January is quite a feat.

  3. Not if the year is a rolling 12-month window. (Well still a significant feat, but not made any more so by the month in which it happens.)

    I like the article but am having a hard time getting past the first paragraph and my long-unsated cravings for Sunset Park tacos. Is the upshot of your visit to College Point “Don’t bother, the Second Ave. spa is better anyways”? Also, I thought College Point was totally industrial, not residential — isn’t it that little strip of grimy auto shops and factories and Home Depot that’s in between Flushing Meadows Park and Flushing proper?

  4. (Except what’s “roast port”? — An as-yet-unknown-to-me form of the drink “port”? A misspelling of the meat “pork”?

  5. Brooke Maury says:

    I maintain my position that you don’t know nudity until you practice nekked yoga.

  6. Dave says:

    (A typo.)

    I suspect Brooke is right, but I’m not ready to find out.

  7. LP says:

    WOW. Everyone, please check out the link Dave provides to Spa Castle. As he was describing the various rooms / pools / igloos etc., I was thinking, “I wish he could have taken pictures!” All is revealed on the site. It is a wonderland.

  8. LP says:

    Click on “facilities” and watch the slide shows for each floor.

  9. Dave says:

    The dilemma: Should our next TGW meetup be at Spa Castle or the taco stands in Sunset Park?

  10. Jane says:

    I like to read your thoughts on these Baths because there is no way in hell I would ever actually go to one. Openly nude people is the one part of me that is very prudish.

  11. I would totally come to a Sunset Park meetup. Just lemme know when.

  12. (Another possibility for the TGW meetup. Maybe too short of a notice though.)

  13. Gary Lee Smith says:

    Although not nearly the same this post reminds me of memories I have of childhood…walking into the local YMCA, observing public bathing for the first time. I guess it was a shock, because I view had a cultural perception that bodies were private, and finding a place where they were normal was odd.

  14. Natasha says:

    Dave, it’s funny that you actually went to Banya on New Years Eve. Have you ever seen “Ironia sud’bi ili s legkim parom”?

    Jane, I think you’ll change your mind once you see the way your skin looks after an experience like that. It’s good for your health and for your soul.

    For those of us on the West Coast, there is something very similar to that in the Pallazo/ Venetian Hotel in Vegas. They have a meditation steam room with a crystal, an igloo with northern lights and northern winds, rainforest showers with thunders, an herbal hot rock room, a salty breeze room, and a snow room with actual snow coming down from the ceiling, plus all the other stuff. It’s worth checking out.

  15. trixie says:

    dave, this place reminds me of yunessun spa outside of tokyo. they have all these outdoor pools in themes, like coffee, or wine, or green tea. plus like every 20 minutes they have a “water show” where all these fountains spray water all over hither and yon.
    plus, the wristbands. they had those too. and you could scan it over a vending machine and a snack of your choosing would come out, then you paid for it all later. it was rad.
    don’t know how to embed links anymore:
    http://www.yunessun.com/english/yunessun.html

  16. Dave says:

    The thing in 13 looks fun, but I’m going to be in Iceland. Let’s make the tacos happen, though.

    Natasha, I haven’t seen that movie. I assume it involves a banya visit on New Year’s Eve? Ours had one unfortunate consequence: One of the Canadians was so dehydrated that he got quite sick from a truly moderate amount of booze later in the evening. I guess we should have saved the trip for the next day.

  17. This is an unusual time of year to be planning a trip to Iceland. What’s the draw?

  18. Natasha says:

    Dave, you know how it is a Russian tradition to go to banya before the New Years, because it is supposed to cleanse you of all the stuff from the last year and, of course, you must see the New Years clean :) So, in the movie, the four friends have a tradition to go to banya on New Years Eve (according to the rules, you are not supposed to drink an hour before and an hour after the whole thing,) but knowing the Russians, they serve vodka. So, all of the friends get wasted and one of them is supposed to go to Leningrad. Drunk, they don’t know who it is supposed to be, so they reason that it is one of the guys who just met the love of his love and put him on the plane like a log. He ends up in Leningrad and has a taxi take him to his Moscow address (during communist times everything was the same, so there is a matching address in Leningrad), he opens the door to the Leningrad apartment with his key (it fits) and has some crazy and hilarious adventures. It’s a classic. A lot of the famous guitar songs you have probably heard come from the movie, as well as the expression “S legkim parom.” So, you did the absolutely right Russian thing, you went to banya on the New Years Eve, it must make your whole year right. The good thing though, you guys did not ship the Canadian to some place across the country to meet his destiny :)

  19. Kate the Great says:

    Dave, please forgive me if I’m terribly wrong, but I have somewhat associated with a set of photos from this site. Such photos include a rocket and musings of your friends in a job that involved a trip to NASA. Somehow, I also associate that photo post with a wife and kids. Am I completely wrong?

  20. Kate the Great says:

    Okay, that comment wasn’t proofread. Re-cap: You and a wife and kids and NASA and huh?

  21. Dave says:

    Iceland: the currency crashed along with their financial system a few months ago. I’ve always wanted to go. A friend of mine wrote a guidebook that says there’s no bad time of year to visit.

    Natasha: Thanks. I’ve heard of that movie, and it sounds great. I’ll have to see if I can find a rental. We should have put the Canadian on a bus to Winnipeg.

    Kate: If you think I’m married with kids, you don’t know me very well. But yes, a NASA post, with hilarious comments.

  22. Marleyfan says:

    The new feature listing each post per month in the archives section is going to be useful as well.

  23. Kate the Great says:

    I must not. That’s what I get for using a website as a means of getting to know a person. Chalk it up to weird misconceptions and confusions about the number of personalities associated solely with this site. Then please ignore my befuddlement and continue to like me as I am. Sorry, Dave.

  24. Dave says:

    No problem at all, Kate. I actually think you can get to know a person pretty well on a website. So now you know I used to work for NASA, that I’m not married and have not kids, and a few of my thoughts on being naked in public.

  25. Kate the Great says:

    Hey, those were very deep thoughts. I liked them. Waxing philosophical without slipping into innuendo is hard. And I’ve had a fascination with nudist colonies and the psychology that goes along with that for years.

    If you started a nudist colony, Dave, I would join.

  26. Really nice piece Dave. This one wonderfully evoked in me one of those “I can imagine the world as I think it should be moments,” as you describe when envisioning the nudists’ Utopian dream. At the very least you have convinced me that it would be an incredible learning experience for any aspiring architect to visit Spa Castle, so s/he might see such primal example of how organized spaces can create new ways of being.