WITH A COZY ATMOSPHERE AND A VARIETY OF TREATMENT FACILITIES, THIS EDISON OASIS IS REINVENTING THE KOREAN SPA EXPERIENCE
BY AMANDA McCOY
Korean spas traditionally called jimjilbangs (“bathhouses”) have surged in popularity in the United States in recent years, largely among residents of major metropolises with diverse populations, such as Los Angeles and New York. Mass market beauty publications have taken note, sometimes referring to the Korean spa as the “next big thing” or the “biggest trend in spas right now.” For Jackie Lee, a career creative and co-owner of Island Spa & Sauna in Edison, the bathing focused spa experience is no passing fad or trendy newcomer. It’s a ritual rooted in centuries of tradition, and offers a completely different experience than the typical American spa.
“Growing up Korean, it’s a part of our culture washing, bathing, and having a place where families can go on holidays, or even just stop by after work to wash up,” she explained.
Lee always wanted a career in the creative arts. The daughter of a successful interior designer, she recalled admiring her dad’s imaginative eye throughout childhood. As an adult, she dove into such fields as film, marketing, and photography. In 2011, noticing a lack of spa diversity in Central New Jersey, Lee and her father teamed up with a few other business partners to bring the Korean spa experience there.
“While I was growing up, there were only a few major spas around the U.S., some in L.A. and New York,” she said. “But we felt it was something that Central New Jersey was missing. We wanted to open our own Korean spa, and intended it to be not only beautiful, but also cozy and welcoming. That’s what we thought we could bring to the table.”
The road to the grand opening, however, would be a long and arduous one, and four years would pass before the business opened to the public. At last, though, in 2015, Island Spa & Sauna was ready to pamper its first guests.
“It was a really long journey,” Lee said. “We had very little budget, and it was hard to get investors.”
Once the spa opened, however, the owners were thrilled with the community’s response.
“We showed people in the area what a Korean spa could really do,” said the co owner, adding that before long, word of mouth reached residents throughout the tri state area. In time, city dwellers from Philadelphia and New York began traveling to Edison to spend a few hours or even days here.
Inside the 30,000 square foot space there are six saunas five hot and one cold that utilize natural, earthy materials to calm, heal, stimulate, and detox the body. Guests can soak in four different tubs in the gender separated bathhouses, where traditional Korean culture requires them to be nude to fully immerse themselves in the experience.
“Wearing a swimsuit when bathing isn’t truly bathing,” said Lee. “This is an invitation to see what the Korean bathing culture looks like, and that’s exactly what it is about bathing. It’s not about what everyone thinks of me. They’re not looking. I’m here to focus on myself. It helps to instill confidence in guests, too; they can definitely get nervous, and it was a bit of a struggle at times, but we decided to be culturally committed. It’s been working out.”
Classic spa treatments like massages and facials are available, but perhaps the biggest difference between an American spa and a Korean version, Lee explained, is that in the latter, many guests just pay an admission fee to use the sauna and bathing facilities and choose not to have a treatment.
“When we think ‘spa’ in the States, we think facial or massage, but a Korean spa is special in that the main product we sell is the admission to come inside,” she said. “You pay an entrance fee, and with that you have access to a number of things.”
If a guest does want a treatment, the co owner recommends the traditional Korean scrub.
“It’s an iconic service. It’s our tradition to get exfoliated. The way they do it is very special; you feel like a totally new person. A lot of guests are really shy, and I think that’s fun for people,” she said. “They just really go at it on your body,” she added with a laugh.
Designing the aesthetics was just as important as the facilities, Lee explained, because the owners wanted to create a truly cozy atmosphere. A team of visual artists used its collective creative chops to craft an environment that as appealing as it is relaxing and welcoming.
“There is an island vibe inside,” said Lee. “We wanted a place to escape and rest, and we’ve had a really strong team to make that happen. We get a lot of people say they’ve been to other Korean spas, but that the atmosphere and vibe here are different. We push for creativity. We bring in employee ideas and listen to each other, and also listen to our customers and ask their advice.”
Since many patrons choose to forgo a treatment and pay only an admission fee to use the facilities, the owners knew their customers were likely to spend multiple hours inside the spa, so on site eating and drinking options were vital. Lighter refreshments like fresh made juices and patbingsoo (a popular Korean shaved ice dessert) are available at the juice bar, while the restaurant serves a wide selection of the classics, including the flavorful rice dish bibimbap and bulgogi thin, marinated, and grilled slices of beef. Since traditional Korean bathhouse culture also allows guests to stay overnight, Island Spa is open 24 hours on the weekends and has available sleeping and lounging areas.
“In today’s world, we are expected to do so much. We have so much great technology, but our bodies are still the same,” Lee observed. “We are expected to do more work… and we have families and children, so we just need to unplug once in a while. Washing always makes the day better. After a long day of work, a long shower, bath, or sauna makes you feel good. Sometimes home isn’t always relaxing, so we have a home away from home setting. When guests check out and tell us this is exactly what they needed, it makes our day.”
Island Spa & Sauna
1769 Lincoln Highway
732.253.7379 / islandspaandsauna.com