Korean technologies of the body, right here at home

You’ll have heard me rave before about jjimjilbang, Korea’s answer to the sauna, the schvitz and the day-spa. It’s a treat for the senses; a true jjimjilbang experience starts with a cleansing shower and proceeds through hot tubs, whirlpool baths, tea- or eucalpytus-scented steam rooms, and radiant-stone dry saunas, before ideally concluding with a vigorous massage.

One of the aspects I really love about the experience is that it’s a social, multigenerational thing: the whole family comes, and spends the whole day (or night). The larger jjimjilbang are richly provisioned with different functional areas or zones, so there’s always some way to relax close at hand whether your preferences run to shiatsu, robot massage chairs, “color therapy” (with your choice of seven LED color washes), or beer and TV. I sincerely believe that the the full-service jjimjilbang has got to be numbered among the highest accomplishments of the human species, and in any sane world there’d be a good one down the end of every other block.

Up until last night, though, I always had trouble imagining this kind of thing working particularly well in New York. It just seemed far too culturally specific, nontransferably bound up with the profoundest sort of unstated beliefs about custody of the body and comportment in public – I’d try to envision a big ol’ spa on, say, 34th and Lex, and I’d invariably fail.

And then we went to Inspa World.

There’s something about being operated under the protective aegis of the Korean immigrant community – an existing audience, and a grounding familiarity with the form and its rituals – that seems to function as guarantor. Inspa World works brilliantly, right here in polyglot Queens.

Upon checking in, you’re issued a two-piece cotton uniform, just exactly as you would be in Seoul. The uniforms – “orange for women and blue-gray for men, sort of like an ultra-low-security prison,” in the Grey Lady’s felicitous phrasing – are utterly sexless, which strikes me as being an important part of what makes the whole thing hang together, socially. (For an American, it can be a little odd to contemplate that hedonism and sensuality can be pursued, and quite ardently, without a single note of sexuality in the mix. If it’s the latter you’re interested in, Korean society of course offers the usual array of options, at least if you happen to be male, but that’s just not what the jjimjilbang is all about.)

Before you even get that far, though, you’re issued an RFID bracelet, and this will be your constant companion over the next several hours. I’m, inevitably, fascinated with how rapidly and how unremarkably RFID technology has been folded into the proposition. In a place like Inspa World, your bracelet is quite literally key to the experience: you use it for your (separate) shoe and clothing lockers, but more importantly you use it to purchase all of the additional products and services the place has on offer.

It’s an ideal technology in this context, for a whole bunch of reasons. The bracelet is both waterproof and resistant to the entire range of temperatures you’ll encounter, from cold plunge to the hottest sauna. It lives comfortably – in fact, all but unnoticeably – at the surface of the otherwise un- or lightly-clothed body. And it’s there to meet whatever desire should arise in the course of your sojourn here, from frozen yoghurt to facial treatments to an inner tube for the rooftop pool, all of which are additional charges on top of the $30 entrance fee.

It rather reminded me of the network of ubiquitous scanners in Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, in which each citizen of the universal state wears, from earliest childhood, a metal bracelet bearing their unique identification “nameber,” and when you want to “buy” something from a store, you place first the item desired and then your bracelet against a scan-plate to authorize the transaction.

Inspa World is like that, but in Korean, and lacking (most of) the creepy dystopianisms – and in this, it’s a reasonably good preview of how u-City life is supposed to work. I have to say that I was both pleased and chagrined to see my argument in Everyware borne out: when the act of purchase is as thoughtless and painless as waving your wrist past a scanner in the presence of the thing you desire, let me tell you, shit adds up quickly.

Just so you’re not taken unawares, as well, it must be said that Inspa World’s idea of “relaxation” is as inflected by the contemporary Korean experience as everything else here – which means that the “relax zone” is a darkened bay of sixteen massage chairs, each of which is equipped with its own not particularly quiet television, looking out onto a wall swept by light in every color LEDs can be tuned to. Outside the sauna spaces proper, the air is filled with a cacophony of synthesized-voice and deedly-ping signalling: the massage chairs welcoming you to sit down, half a dozen phones going off all at once as the family tries to track down halmoni, etc.

Nevertheless, nevertheless. What a gift to the city this place is. For all that it’s a hassle to get to, way out there in a lobe of Queens with no public-transit options whatsoever, I’d rank it a Must – both to do nothing with a day but enjoy your body, and to get the tiniest taste of what loud, happy, particolored ubiquity Korean-style looks and feels like.

8 responses to “Korean technologies of the body, right here at home”

  1. Christopher Fahey says :

    The place sounds (and looks, based on the site) extremely stimulating, if not downright stressful to me. For me, solitude, near-solitude, or virtual solitude is a requirement for genuine relaxation. Don’t get me wrong, it sounds fascinating, but in the same way that parades can be fascinating. Maybe you have to be comfortable, inculcated, with the whole ritual before you can truly relax there.

  2. AG says :

    I won’t deny that the open areas of Inspa World are all a-bustle, but the actual sauna rooms (like any anywhere) are primarily places of companionable silence and immersion in bodyness.

    It’s true that you’re rarely going to be literally alone, but I find that the overwhelming experience of the heat ultimately serves the same end. You’re there lying on your back, staring at the close dome of the ceiling (or at nothing at all, or at the inside of your eyelids), and you really might as well be there on your own.

    It still may not be for you, of course, but I wouldn’t rule it out solely on the basis of crowdedness or overload. There’s plenty of scope for respite from these things.

  3. Donna says :

    It seems you must have been, in all your travels, to Blue Lagoon in Iceland? (I searched your site, but no results).

    My recollection from having been there last May is that they also give you and RFID bracelet upon check-in —– a brief web search shows that yes, they do, and isn’t the fact that I don’t *exactly* recall it further evidence of how quietly ubiquitous and unremarkable it has become?

  4. AG says :

    Heh, I wish.

    And yes, I totally agree. It’s, ‘ow you say, truly a minuscule technology.

  5. Eric Rodenbeck says :

    I’m ready. I’m so, so ready.

  6. Geoffrey Oh says :

    I went to Inspa World this past Monday, February 18, 2008, with a group of my friends. It was quite an enjoyable experience. I spent most of my time in the pools on the second floor with the water jets, and even met/briefly talked to two girls there (although I was unable to get their numbers). Overall, I had a great time, but I kinda miss those girls, sadly.

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