Right up to the very end of the 19th century, most city dwellers had to leave their homes to take a bath. They visited the Russian banya, the Turkish hammam, the Finnish sauna, the Jewish mikvah, the Japanese or Korean bathhouse — almost every culture had its own version of the bathing ritual.
When the advent of indoor plumbing brought bathing into the home, it rendered most remaining public bathhouses considerably less wholesome. Individuals’ newfound privacy also came at the cost of a vibrantly healthy communal ritual involving detoxifying saunas, skin-brightening scrubs, and relaxing soaks in steaming, herb-infused pools.
Take it from one who has now experienced all these delights firsthand: The five-minute shower just can’t compare.
Recently the public bath ritual has begun to resurface in spas around the United States. While not all public baths fulfill the institution’s original mission, there are now a great many that do. True public baths offer powerful cleansing and detoxifying rituals. They are often surprisingly affordable. They are not, in fact, seedy.
In researching this article, I visited several public baths where I experienced everything from sweating in a pink salt sauna to soaking in a hot mugwort pool to resting on the jade floor of a quiet nap room, all for a fraction of the cost of visiting a regular day spa. The two- or three-hour rituals left me feeling as clean, serene and beneficent as an infant Buddha. And one cost only $15 for unlimited bathing.
To be fair, I also encountered a couple of places where I would never send my friends. Or my enemies. In the process, I learned some valuable lessons about how to tell a feel-good facility from a creepy one:
∙ Legitimate public baths are tidy and clean.
∙ They have separate facilities, or separate hours, for men and women.
∙ Any co-ed facilities require bathing suits.
∙ Secure lockers, fresh towels and robes or “spa uniforms” are provided.
∙ The bath ritual is treated as sacred, and visitors are left alone — no employee should ever interrupt with sales pitches for massages.
Finding your way around a public bath facility for the first time can feel a bit awkward at first, but that wears off quickly. And after an hour or three of sweating, soaking, scrubbing, and dunking in ice-cold pools, you’re likely to feel more relaxed and clean than you have in your adult life. As one friend said after receiving a professional body scrub at the Olympic Spa in Los Angeles, “I don’t think I’ve been this clean since I was a baby.” She paused. “If then.”
Having visited each of the following facilities, I can vouch that all are wholesome, clean and well equipped to restore your sense of well-being. So next time you find yourself in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, consider going out for a bath. It may be just the urban renewal your body needs.
Queens, New York
Tucked into the far reaches of Queens, New York, family-friendly Spa Castle is a destination for spa lovers — and a totally unique experience. It’s essentially a traditional Korean spa crossed with a four-floor bazaar. The lobby floor has separate changing rooms and full bathing facilities for men and women that each include a variety of herbal hot pools, two cold pools, an impressively hot wet sauna and a dry sauna. Clothing and swimsuits are prohibited in the separate men’s and women’s areas, but plentiful free towels are provided for covering up. Comfortably modest uniforms are provided for visiting the co-ed floors, where you’ll find the spotless “sauna valley” that features no less than seven separate saunas — from simple wood rooms with infrared lights to huts built from pink mineral salt, jade and gold plate. One full floor is devoted to bodywork treatments, and another to a fitness center. The roof hosts two enormous all-season bade pools (full-size heated pools outfitted with acupressure jets and waterfalls). I spent hours soaking happily here on a 40-degree March day. Swimsuits, weirdly, are available for rent.
Juice bars and food stands are located throughout to sustain a full day of exploring. A couple of caveats: Ask questions if you have any doubts about how something works; the busy staff doesn’t go out of their way to explain the routine. And leave your flip-flops at home: Footwear is seen as bringing outside germs onto the pristine floors.
Kabuki Springs & Spajuice bar, food stand, Korean
Kabuki Springs & Spa is a peaceful, pristine communal bathing facility tucked away in San Francisco’s busy Japantown. Bathers are encouraged to respect the contemplative atmosphere by keeping conversations to a minimum. They offer a full range of bodywork treatments (the shiatsu massage is excellent), but the Japanese bath ritual in the communal facility is the best reason to visit.
It begins with a shower of the bather’s choice: standing up Western-style or seated on a small wooden stool where you wash your feet in a red metal bowl. After showering, it’s traditional to begin with heat, either in the spacious dry sauna or the spotless steam room, and follow this with a plunge in the bracing cold pool to increase circulation and regulate body temperature. You can alternate between heat and cold for as long as you like; the longer you spend, the more hypnotic the experience. Tables around the edge of the room offer tea and pitchers of cucumber or lemon water for sustenance, along with small dishes of sea salt for exfoliating knees and elbows in the steam room. Finish with a leisurely soak in the giant hot pool.
Of all the facilities listed here, Kabuki Springs may be the easiest to navigate. The service is outstanding.
El León Spa
Walking into the fabric-draped, terra cotta–tiled interior of El León spa in West Hollywood — modeled after the traditional Turkish hammam — is like stepping onto the pages of A Thousand and One Nights. For those intrigued by the bath ritual but not quite ready for its communal aspect, this facility offers a version of the hammam experience tailored to more private sensibilities.
The Turkish soak-and-scrub ritual takes place in a private room and begins with a bath in a tub full of hot water, milk and Byzantine herbs. After 20 minutes, the treatment practitioner arrives and moves you to the table for a full-body scrub. This rigorous treatment removes any skin you don’t absolutely need (feel free to ask the practitioner to adjust the pressure; it should be bracing but not uncomfortable) and concludes with an oil massage. You’ll recover in a linen robe in the elegant common area with a glass of ginger tea and a small plate of fresh fruit.
The staff here is exceptionally kind and accommodating. And while the price for the Turkish ritual is more in line with traditional spa treatments, it’s still a great bargain for its combination of detoxification
The first thing you notice upon entering this Korean bathhouse are the elegant carbonized wood “plants” lining the rooms to purify the air, a welcome sight after a day of breathing Los Angeles traffic fumes. The ritual at this traditional site centers on the vigorous, head-to-toe Korean scrub, but if you like, you can purchase a $2 scrub mitt with your $15 entry fee and do the job yourself.
The facility offers showers, an oriental-clay dry sauna, a eucalyptus steam room, cold plunge pool and hot herbal pool. There’s also a magnificent hot mugwort bath — a steaming tub filled with a woodsy-smelling tea purported to accelerate detoxification, regulate menstrual cycles and create healthier skin. You can perform your own scrub with a bucket and stool at the small freshwater fountain in the middle of the bathing room. Finish with a nap on the jade floor of the rest area. There’s also a tiny café for bim bap and tea.
Open to women only; swimsuits are prohibited.
New York City
The sign for Juvenex is nearly hidden on this dense block of Manhattan’s Koreatown, but one is amply rewarded for the search. This small, pristine spa offers a full range of skin treatments and massage services, including the traditional full-body salt scrub. Unlike many of the Korean bathhouses in the neighborhood, here you’re welcome to forgo treatments and simply use the bathing facilities. Just sign up for the “Jade Journey,” which provides full access to the saunas and hot pools. This 90-minute ritual allows plenty of time to sweat in the jade igloo sauna, soak in the three herbal pools (one is filled with bobbing lemons, another with pillow-sized teabags stuffed with ginseng), steam in the herbal steam room, and conclude with a leisurely rest on a straw mat in the lower-temperature, baked-clay sauna. This contained ritual is an excellent antidote to jet lag, and a superb way to restore after a day of schlepping around the city.
Juvenex is open 24 hours, but call ahead and reserve if you plan to do the Jade Journey. The Web site says walk-ins are welcome, but one unannounced visit revealed that the soaking pools are not necessarily filled around the clock.