The Korean Spa

You’ll find this to be the perfect post, a contrast, to follow my last one about wrinkled knees and growing old.

Earlier this week, my best friend and I went to a Korean spa [or sauna.] There are several interesting aspects to a Korean spa, but the best is the whole body exfoliation that leaves your skin feeling…well, like a baby’s be-hind.  There is an entire bathing ritual that we Koreans go through that keeps our skin soft and supple.

*Yaaaawn*  What is she going on about??
Stay with me here, especially if you’d like to get your entire body feeling as soft as….

In preparation, I went to their website for Chung Dam Spa, which had some basic information and photos of services.  You can get a body scrub and/or massage, eat lunch there, work out.  You can go to a dry sauna, a steam sauna, clay room and mineral room. But  I wanted to know a little more – do I need to bring anything?  Where do I go?   In essence what happens when I get there?  I called and left a message and never heard back. Did I say I’ve done this before?  Would it be the same?  Will they start speaking Korean to me?  Will they speak English?  Will they judge me for not being fluent?  And the real question: Do I have to get nekkid??  [The answer is “yes.”]

Chung Dam Spa, apparently the only one in all of Pennsylvania, is located at the end of a strip shopping center in Cheltenham, the first northern-most suburb of Philadelphia.  Here, you’ll see many signs in Korean as you drive past several Korean groceries and a number of Korean restaurants. If you look over at the driver in the next lane, he/she will as likely be Korean as black.  But I digress.  The entrance is on the side, not visible from busy Cheltenham Avenue.  We entered the glass and brass doors and down marble steps to a very clean lobby lined in marble and granite.  To our right we saw a little café, and further down was a workout room.

At the front desk, when we asked for a Body Scrub, we were told that for just $20 more, we could get a 45 minute massage.  Oh yeah.  Who could refuse that?  We were given a locker key on a plastic holder to put around our wrist or ankle, and a set of towels and a robe.  [The towels are thin and small because  Koreans don’t like big, thick towels.]  We had to remove our shoes before entering the women’s area.  [Remember Koreans don’t wear shoes in living areas.]  We went through the curtains to an immaculate locker/lounge area.  Beyond, we saw some doors leading to heated treatment rooms.  We also saw glass doors to what looked like a shower area.  Nobody guided us, there were no signs or directions but a we  figured out we were to head in there to shower, soak in the tubs and/or use the dry or steam saunas.  Nekkid.  When we arrived, there were only a couple of women, but later on, there were nekid women all over the place.  The good, the bad, the old, the saggy.

The scrub and massage are all done in the Wet Area, which consisted of multiple shower stations, 3 soaking tubs, and the treatment area.  The treatment area had 3 tables with 2 spigots.  While my friend and I occupied 2 of the tables, there were other customers receiving treatment at the 3rd table.

The Scrub 
They use a special scrubbing mitt with a variety of potions to slough off your dead skin.  They get every nook and cranny of your body, from between your toes to the tip of your chin and everywhere in between.  They flip and fold your limbs around and scrub.  And scrub.  And scrub.  If you choose to look, you’ll wonder why there are rolls and globs of wet toilet paper on the table.  You’ll soon realize it’s your dead skin.  Eewwwwww!  Right?  The appalling realization is that you’ve been walking around with all that dead skin on.  THAT is the real Ewwww.  No wonder all those lotions haven’t been working!  Don’t be shocked when intermittently, they dump a basin of hot water over you.  They also use various potions, including warm milk, to clarify and nourish your body.  This goes on for 45 minutes. 

You shower again, and have a chance to go to the saunas if you choose before the next 45-minute session:

The Massage
This is a unique Korean method that every single massage therapist in Korea employs.  I remember these techniques from when I was a little girl as I watched my grandma getting a massage.    [Back in the day, the blind were trained as massage therapists so they could earn a living.]  It’s a combination of hitting pressure points, releasing knots in your muscles and somewhat shocking hits that feel good and wake your senses.  I’ve had American spa massages before, which leave me snoozing in a candle-lit room.  Afterwards, I feel very relaxed, but a little sensory deprived, unwilling to re-enter the real world.  This experience, however, left me relaxed but strangely refreshed and invigorated, with my senses made alive, ready to take on the world!   The first thing they did was apply a mashed cucumber potion on my face.  It’s got astringent qualities that left my face….yes, soft as a baby’s be-hind.  She finished off the 45-minute massage with a shampoo and head massage.  Aaaaaah.

Bibimbap from maangchi.com
Afterwards, we went to our locker and gave the women their tips*.  Then we were allowed to stay as long as we wanted.  Really.  We could stay there from the moment they open until the moment they close.  What an escape!  We chose to get some lunch, so we put on the provided bath robes and scuffled over.  Yes, there were men there.  Yes there were people in their street clothes.  We ate, went back in, read some magazines, and when we were good and bored, we packed up and went home.  But it took us 4 hours to get bored.

Other things to keep in mind if you go:

  1. Leave your sexuality at the door.  Koreans don’t have the same view of their bodies, the self-consciousness of Westerners.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, they’re as vain as the rest of us.  Koreans have more plastic surgery per capita than any country in the world.  In.  The. World.  [Usually eye and nose augmentations to look more western.]  The Korean sauna is a very therapeutic environment.  If you act embarrassed by partially covering delicate areas, you make yourself become a sexual being.  If you stand in the mirror and preen and admire or even criticize your body, you are bringing something in where it don’t belong.
  2.  Do not expect privacy.   Everyone is walking around buck.  Naked.  Know what I’m sayin?  If you’re going to be shy, see #1 above.
  3. This is not your notion of a Zen experience.   Leave your preconceived notions about East Asians at the door.  [There might be a pile of stuff at the door!]  There are no tea ceremonies, geishas or submissive guides.   Do not expect Enya to be playing, fragranced candles, patchouli or life-affirming posters.  Water is splashing, the spigot’s running, people are talking… and loudly.  You are pampered in that when you get your scrub and/or massage, it is completely and totally about you.  It’s just that it's a bit more like…mmm, the kitchen let’s say, than the bedroom.  More like a workroom than a chapel.
  4. You must tip*:  These women expect a tip and there are clear guidelines for how much to give, which is 20% - 30%.
  5. Go Au Natural - Despite all my What I Wore posts, and fashion pleadings, don’t bother putting on make-up or doing your hair.  Leave all your jewelry at home, or in your locker.
  6. Bring your own beauty products - they have everything there - soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotions, hair spray, hair dryer, brushes, toothbrushes, toothpaste.  But you may want to bring your own little bucket of items.
As I sit in front of this screen trying awkwardly to convey the experience, I pause and subconsciously stroke my face or neck, or rub my arm.  My knees are still wrinkled, but my skin? Yup....


Julie said...

I have always wanted to try a spa. Any spa at all. I am just not comfortable with it. I'm not comfortable with me. I don't care about anyone else going naked but I can't quite get over my own body insecurities to try. Maybe it's the WASP in me that can't quite make the leap.
Also I didn't know about the Koreans and plastic surgery. That saddens me that they feel they need to look more Western. Don't they know their beautiful the way they are?

blackbelt said...

Oh Julie, I had a bit of trouble myself. I had to get my gumption up and 'act' natural, au natural, as it were! There were plenty of thin women there who probably look great in clothes but revealed scrawny legs and fleshless butts. As I said, the good the bad, the saggy. ;-)

Donna B said...

You are most definitely a very brave woman...Sounds great if I could be as brave and could get over the being naked part...THe American spa experience is naked enough for me!

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Anonymous said...

I've been reading lots of info about Chung Dam...but still have not seen the answer to these questions:

#1--are the massages given in the appropriate sex divided areas? (I don't think you mentioned that the spa is divided by sex).

#2--If so, are men giving the massages in the men's section? It would seem awkward to have women in there doing the messages. Plus as a man, I would prefer a male masseuse, rather than being aware that females were massaging on men all around me. Seems a little skeevy.