I have been in the healing waters of a Budapest health spa, had Thai massage in Bangkok, enjoyed the Russian banya in St. Petersburg and also in Southampton PA, and now I have had a scrub at a Korean spa in Philadelphia. I love me some spa time, but the typical US establishment is a luxury out of my price range. Maybe you can relate. Luckily, I live in a large urban area with enclaves of immigrants who have a more prosaic idea of spa-type services with prices to match. The Korean place is my new favorite.
What is it about semi-public nudity and hot water that discomfits the average American? I am willing to bet a large portion of standard variety US citizens come from a cultural background where basic, not luxury, spa culture is the norm. Yet we do not have such public facilities as a common city service as one might see in Asia and Europe. Sweden and Japan may be different in many ways, but their citizens know how to sweat in the city baths. Saunas and sweat lodges and healing waters have been used by regular people all over the world into prehistory, why stop in the US? I, for one, am pleased to continue the tradition.
The Korean spa was almost empty of visitors that Tuesday morning. The employees, who did not speak English to each other and addressed me by a number, were there, of course, but almost no one else. I had been there previously with a friend and a coupon I had found online. We each had a massage that visit, and it was a vigorous and emotionless affair. On rare occasion, I have been pampered luxuriously at high-priced spa establishments in the US and I have been offered tea along with my choice of soothing music and aromatherapy fragrances. There are often health forms to complete and a discussion with the massage therapist beforehand. The Korean spa had none of this- rather I was called by number and treated as bread dough being kneaded or perhaps laundry that was being washed by hand. There was no-nonsense squeezing and stretching and turning and some light chopping with the side of the hand. It was a trifle rough, the way I was manipulated and handled by the indifferent staff, which is not to say it was a bad experience.
The scrub was similarly devoid of new age, touchy-feely, overly precious ambiance. I was face down, buck naked, on a table covered in rubber. There was a similar table to either side of me supporting other women going through the same ordeal. A woman in what I thought was a red bikini poured warm water over me and got down to business. She had on her hands a type of mitten with loofah material on the palm side. She scrubbed every part of my back, arms, legs, hands, feet. Then she did it again. There were more buckets full of water, then I lay on my side for more scrubbing. Then in my back for even more. Then the other side. This went on for nearly an hour.
Over time I noticed two things. One- the lady was wearing a matching bra and briefs in red with some lace. This was not a swimsuit, she was scrubbing people in her underwear! There was something really excellent about that. The other scrubbers were similarly attired. Two- there were bits of grey lint or something on the table. It gradually dawned on me that this was my own skin being scrubbed from my body. It occurred to me that I had probably not been scrubbed like this since I learned to bathe myself at some point in early childhood.
Towards the end of the experience, the lady in underwear communicated that she could wash my hair. Why not? I agreed to that, it happened, and then I was told to sit up while she manipulated my arms and head in Thai style massage moves. Then I was sent on my way. I spent most of my time in the women only area so I didn’t even have to wear clothes unless I wanted to- bliss!
Similar to the Russian spa in the Philly suburbs, this spa also has a sauna, steam room, and hot tubs. Unique to the Korean spa are two hot rooms, one featuring jade and one clay, where one lies on the floor and absorbs the healing minerals. There is also a sauna-type room with wooden benches and pink Himalayan sea salt in large pile on the floor. The air is said to be a healing therapy in this room.
I can’t get enough of this stuff, especially in the cold winter. I can spend hours at this place- there is even a gym and a lounge area. It feels exotic with all the Korean being spoken and the atmosphere of the different rooms. It may not be Budapest, which has maybe the best spa I’ve ever been to, or Bangkok, with its super low prices on facials and reflexology and massage, but it is much closer and just as luxurious to me. I’ve been spreading the word to friends and co-workers, but I’m often encountered with skepticism as people share with me their fears of infectious disease, being naked or seeing others naked, or whatever. I say, relax, give it a try, it has worked for millions of people for perhaps millions of years over cultures and countries. Try your local international spa, be it Laotian, Latvian, or Lebanese. Sit back and breathe the heat and steam as it mixes in the atmosphere with that of the ancients and the present day enthusiasts of health and relaxation.