Do you Even Know what a Bath House Is?
My first introduction to the idea of a bathhouse occurred while I was in Chicago with my boyfriend (thank goodness for new times and new boyfriends). I didn’t quite get the concept, but it sounded like he was inviting me to some sort of nasty freaky sex spot that was going to sully my pristine image and reputation. Of course, I turned that down. I was not about to go to some spa called a bathhouse where, from what he explained, I was going to be buck naked with a bunch of strangers. Nope.
Well, fast-forward a few years, and I’m hanging out with my homegirl who invites me to “go to the Korean spa”. Now, when you hear “Korean spa”, you don’t think buck naked. You think massages and tea, right? Well, my friends know me well and my girl knew she had to prep me. Yall, the Korean Spa = bathhouse! I needed a minute. Thankfully, she didn’t take me there as a surprise because I’m not the kind of girl who could handle THAT KIND of surprise, at least not while sober or with a woman (I have evolved since my time as Chicago Babe). Anyway, my girl convinced me to go with her to the Seoul Spa near Baltimore (which recently closed —bummer!). Yes, she convinced me to go to a spa and walk around in front of other people without one stitch of clothing. Not a bra, not a panty, not a …. I don’t even think I had on toenail polish that day!
When you enter the buck naked spa, you pay your fee, about $35, and are promptly instructed to put your shoes in a locker in the main lobby. Then, you are given a set of keys and assigned a locker in a dressing room in the back. You are also given a set of scrubs and towels. In order to enjoy any of spa options, you must shower first…and in order to shower, you must disrobe. There’s no genteel way around it and no doors or shower curtains…and everybody is naked. Evenso, my friend and I giggled for a bit…and got on with it. I mean, how many of you have seen your sister-friends completely naked? I mean, I haven’t seen them….well, I hadn’t then. Now, I’ve gone with a few of them and we got receipts! I mean, who knew they had that many tattoos! Yeah, I looked!
Fast forward again to about a month ago, I decided to check out the spas aka bathhouses within an hour of Philly. The hour thing was pretty important to me because I want regular access to the things I like, which brings me to the reason why I like bathhouses over traditional spas. When you go to a bathhouse, you can linger as long as you like. There is no rush. Traditional spas are supposed to be about relaxation, but they are about profit and schedules and that’s clear in how they operate. Bathhouses are different: you go and you chill. If you want a massage, you can get it, but you can also relax in an extremely hot soaking tub (I mean SUPER hot with a gigantic tea bag in it. Essentially, YOU are steeping) without having a specific appointment. By the way, there’s also a cold tub there that you’re supposed to occasionally dip in and out of. It’s supposed to help with the detoxing experience, but that water is ice cold…so, I skip it. Let’s say you don’t like “wet spaces” You can retreat to the dry heat rooms that feature things like salt, clay, granite, charcoal, and jade and debate whether you’re willing to enter the cold rooms, which are literal ice boxes. Yes, all of that is in the bathhouse. Additionally, they feature gyms, small restaurants, wifi, and a cafe and/or tv room: you really can spend an entire day there. Frankly, many people do. Oh, I forgot the most significant bathhouse shock! Depending on the type of spa treatment you get, your massage therapist is damn-near naked, too. I’m not kidding! She will have on panties. She MIGHT wear a bra. At Seoul Spa, the massage therapists don’t wear no bras. Yes, that’s a nipple that grazed your back. If you have hang ups about the body or are even remotely homophobic, stay your ass at home unless you’re planning to work on your stuff. On the flipside, at Chung Dam, they wore bras. Now, let’s talk about Chung Dam.
For the sake of comparison, I visited the Chung Dam Spa in Philly and the Southampton Spa in, well, Southampton. From my house, Chung Dam is 35 minutes away; Southampton is 50 minutes. Chung Dam is Korean and Southampton is Russian. These distinctions are important. Stick with me.
The Chung Dam Spa ($25 admission) is similar to Seoul Spa, the first place I visited in Baltimore, except smaller. Much smaller. Chung Dam has about four saunas whereas Seoul had 8 – 10. Everything about Seoul was larger and just a wee bit nicer; HOWEVER, Chum Dam is not bad. I plan to return, if that tells you anything. While there, I got a Shiatsu massage ($85, but if you buy this service, admission is included in this price). It was like a combination of Swedish, deep tissue, a spanking and being walked on. Yes, the therapist literally walked on me: think George and Mr. Bently. When I realized ole girl was holding on to something on the ceiling and walking on me, I was like, “Well, I be damned!” But it felt good. And at one point, she used a technique called “tapotement”, which really does mean that she beat me a little. It was great massage, and the overall experience was good. The one thing you have to plan for at Chung Dam is that they don’t have an on-site restaurant. While there are two restaurants in the plaza where it’s located and you are permitted to bring a packed lunch, they don’t make that clear on the website. I also think the spa needs a little TLC and better lighting in soaking tub area. For this reason, I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars instead of 4 out of 5. I would give it 4 stars if the soaking tubs were larger. The smaller tubs are great for friends, but a little intrusive among strangers.
After spending a day at Chum Dam, I learned about another bathhouse in the area, except this one was Russian. I felt like this one was going to be easy breezy because I got to keep my hotspots covered and wear my swimsuit! Once you go naked, you feel like you can do anything. One day, I’ll tell y’all about the nude beach I discovered in North Jersey (I didn’t say that I’ve gone; I’ve simply discovered it). Upon arriving at the Russian spa ($45 admission), I was given a key and tour of the facility. Whereas the Korean spa focuses on detoxing primarily by heat and a little cold, the Russian approach requires alternating hot and cold…and boy do they do hooooooootttttt and ccccccccooooooooold! It starts with a cold shower. Literally, you stand under a shower head, pull a chain and a gallons of freezing water are dumped on you. Then, you scream for your life and take yourself in the wet steam room. You stay in there for as long as you can take it (I tapped out at 4 minutes); then, you exit and take another freezing shower. Then, you go back in and somebody has added eucalyptus to the steam and your contacts get to burning and you leave in 2 minutes. You come out, take your second cold shower and go into a different hot room, except it’s dry heat this time. Essentially, you do this alternating hot and cold thing, with each room having more extreme heat and cold, until you think you’re going to die. It’s supposed to feel good as some point…I never got there. You know what felt good to me? The regular hot tub when all of that alternating business was over!
What I really liked about Southampton is that the facility is co-ed; Korean spas separate you by gender (I guess that’s important given the whole buck naked thing). Seriously, Southampton has tremendous promise for couples. It could be a great date spot. Notice that I said, “has tremendous promise”. I desperately wanted to like this place. But there were a few things that got me. First, it was dirty and dated. When you have people in hot tubs, steam rooms, and saunas, cleanliness is paramount. In terms of dated, renovations are needed, but even small things would help like better quality shower curtains, sans mildew, in the ladies locker room. During my massage (60 minute, deep tissue, $75; admission is not included in this price), which was the highlight of my visit, I told the massage therapist that padding of the face cradle wasn’t sufficient because I could feel the wood of it on my cheekbones and he said that he didn’t know what to do. I’m certain the padding was just old and needed to be replaced (and probably cleaned – I risked my life for this blog post). By the way, did you know that there is such a thing as a glut/hamstring stretch? Who knew you could stretch your booty and that it would feel WONDERFUL! Finally, there were even drain flies in the bathroom and near the seating area around the hot tub and pool. Second, the only person who spoke English was the person who checked me in. I had to ask three different people where to put dirty towels! Oh yeah, bring your own flip flops because they don’t clean those. When you take them off, they tell you to just put them back on the shelf! Back to the no English situation…It was the communication barrier that made me wonder what I said that made the $10 salad I ordered come up to $17 when my bill came. Finally, the spa services that are offered on the menu aren’t necessarily available. While they offer on-the-spot treatments, anything other than a deep tissue massage has to be scheduled for nearly a month in advance! This isn’t because they are busy, it’s just a crap shoot based on who is working that day. I give it 2 out of 5 stars. A good cleaning and new shower curtains alone would bring them up to 2.5 stars.
Overall, I’m sure I will go back to Chung Dam when I’m in need of quick and urgent self-care because I like not being rushed. However, I’m in search of a more luxurious experience. When I’m up for a longer drive and have a whole day to play, I’m going to check out Island Spa in Edison, NJ, which is only 1 hour and 5 minutes away on sleepy Sunday afternoon. I got my $35 admission fee ready, but I have to wait until it is wash day because I’m getting the hair and scalp massage.