Tag Archives: Swaminarayan Akshardham

Out LIVING. Loudly so.

Yes, I love that double entendre. And it is my intention to outLIVE as well.

But sometimes a girl just has to play. Therefore, my recent trip to Philadelphia started a few days prior to the conference. Four, to be exact.

My friend Rufiya picked me up at the airport on Thursday. We went straight to a farm to table restaurant followed by a trip to the Philadelphia Distillery (home of Bluecoat Gin) where the bartender regaled us (an effort I heartily supported) and then on to an evening with Michelle Wolf, the comedian who raised more than a few eyebrows at the 2018 White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

The next day Rufiya dropped me off at Princeton University and I perused their excellent art collection before spending a pleasurable hour in the amazing Labyrinth bookstore. After dinner Rufiya and I took a detour to Robbinsville New Jersey to visit a Hindu temple complex, the Swaminarayan Akshardham.

When you first drive up to this mammoth structure it looks almost as if you are at a high end mall or in Las Vegas (that’s from the parking lot). As you approach the entrance you begin to notice the intricate carvings in gorgeous Carrara marble. Once inside women and girls are ushered to the left, men and boys to the right. Shoes are removed and if a woman is dressed ‘immodestly’, a Sari is provided. The marble floor has radiant heat (cooled in the summer, we were told) which makes the entire experience more sensual.

It was our excellent fortune to arrive just before the ceremony where the gods are fed and we were graciously invited to participate. We were allowed to enter the heart of the temple where we took a seat on the floor facing the elaborately dressed gods. It is very traditional–with males in the front and females in the back. Chanting, incense, priests in orange robes. At the conclusion of the ceremony we were encouraged to join in another ritual, where you go to a special room, cleanse your hands and then are handed a shiny metal bowl filled with hot water. You take this bowl to a statue of a god, make a wish, and pour the water over the god. The entire experience was both highly spiritual and incredibly magical.

Rufiya, the consummate hostess, had something special planned for Saturday morning as well and we were up at the crack of dawn and headed north to the King Spa and Sauna in Palisades Park. Mind blown.

I will try to describe.

After entering you are handed a bracelet (for charging food and services) and your uniform. For women it was baggy pink shorts and a t-shirt, a washcloth and a little pink cotton cap. The spa is huge—IKEA sized with multiple levels. The dry section (hot saunas) is unisex and consists of various rooms, igloos from sort-of-hot to so-very-hot-you-need-to-wrap-yourself-in-a-tarp-hot before entering (the one room we passed on). You lie on the floor in the igloos on tatami mats with your neck supported by a wooden pillow. Each igloo is lined with various minerals and crystals or salt and has bags of herbs suspended from the beams. Aromatic, hot and fantastic!

Mixed in with the igloos are sleeping rooms with either tatami mats or recliners (the spa is open 24 hours a day)–and there are also spaces with laptops and televisions. Onsite manicure or pedicure is an option. And a restaurant with ornately carved chairs upholstered in pink leather. We started our day with ginger tea and brown eggs that had been cooked in the hottest igloo (!). Lunch was traditional Korean fare–phenomenal kimchee. After that we were ready for the wet room.

This is the moment that you leave your inhibitions behind. Although segregated by gender, everyone is nude. There are both hot and cold soaking pools, showers, and a steam sauna. The room is very noisy and lined with multiple tiled stations equipped with handheld sprayers. Each station has an overturned bucket and women sit on top of these to scrub and bathe. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much running water. Along the back wall is a row of tables covered in pink vinyl, and this is where the wet and dry massages take place.

Rufiya opted for a wet massage, which is basically an hour and a half long exfoliation. I, not quite so brave, went for the dry.

When it was my turn, a very short Korean woman dressed in black bra and panties came and took me by the hand and lead me to her table. Then she slathered my skin in oil, wrapped me in steaming hot towels, and applied a mask to my face made from freshly mashed cucumber. She spoke no English but sang softly in Korean as she worked. At one point she pounded (gently) her fists on my forehead; at another juncture she suddenly threw my arms off the table. After forty minutes she motioned for me to turn over onto my stomach. I opened my eyes to peer around and realized she had crawled on top of the table and was straddling my back (‘riding me like a horse’, is the way I described it to one friend ;). At the end of the massage she washed and conditioned my hair, sat me back up, slapped me on the back and said ‘You good.’ It was all so very odd and so wonderful as well.

But my friend Rufiya wasn’t finished with me yet. Nope. I did this. Billed innocuously as a mugwort bath, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was…really odd but, I guess, an experience. I’d advise passing on the mugwort and just getting more food in the restaurant. BTW, if you are interesting in giving King Spa and Sauna a try, check out Groupon for a steep discount.

I fell asleep in the car on the way home–turns out all that spa-ing is exhausting. But the next morning Rufiya dropped me off in Philadelphia in preparation for the conference and I hit both The Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Four action packed days of plain old FUN.