More Philadelphians Getting Naked at Traditional Korean-Style Spa

Cheap massages trump modesty in Cheltenham.

Stand on the south side of the intersection of Front Street and Cheltenham Avenue, and you’re in Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood within blocks of both the shuttered Cardinal Dougherty High School and SEPTA’s Fern Rock Transportation Center. Cross the street, and you’re standing in Cheltenham, Montgomery County, at the shabby old Melrose Shopping Center, which counts among its tenants Baskin & Robbins, a state wine store, CVS, a nail salon and, in the basement, Chung Dam, Pennsylvania’s first and only Korean-style spa, where the customers—both men and women— are all getting naked. Good thing there are no windows.

Now, before you get too nervous, titillated, or morally outraged, I should point out that men and women aren’t actually getting naked together at Chung Dam. Like all traditional Korean spas, known to people who know how to speak Korean as jjimjilbang, nakedness is de rigueur but so is gender segregation. Once you check in at the front desk of the Cheltenham spa, you don’t see a customer of the opposite sex until it’s time to leave. But what you will see is a whole lot of nudity of all ages, shapes and sizes.

“People who come and don’t know about Korean culture will definitely be surprised,” confirms Chung Dam owner Soo Yoo, who seems to have missed his calling as a personal injury attorney. “The first time, a lot of people are shocked. Oh I cannot take all my clothes off! But then they learn to relax and get used to it. It’s actually a lot more comfortable to be without clothes.”

Comfort  is nice, but Korean spas like Chung Dam are also big on hygiene, and it’s said that part of the reason they require nudity is to be sure you’re not hiding some awful contagious disease or rash. As the sign at the front desk reads: “Attention: If you have any type of contagious skin condition, you are not permitted to use the facilities.” There’s also the idea that toxic chemicals in clothing are released when exposed to the Korean spa’s high temperatures, which currently top out at 120 in Chung Dam’s one sauna, although Yoo promises that a “super hot sauna” reaching 150 degrees is coming soon. “Maybe even 160,” says Yoo, with what sounds like a touch of sadistic glee. “Try wearing clothes in a 160-degree sauna! Either way, you can’t stay more than two minutes.”

Yoo opened Chung Dam nearly seven years ago, but recently, he’s seen a sharp increase in business from outside the Korean community, perhaps because of the affordability of the spa: The cheap massages start at $60 for one hour and come with a day-pass to all of the facilities. (Be sure to ask your Korean masseuse to walk on your back, a Korean massage specialty, but one performed only by request here.) Chung Dam also provides vigorous exfoliating body scrubs for $50-$60. “You will be speechless after experiencing our body scrub,” promises Chung Dam’s literature. “I glowed for weeks,” one fan of Korean scrubs told me.

On the women’s side, the facilities include three soaking pools of temperatures that range from very cold to very hot, and a 20-minute soak in the “lower body bath tub” is supposed to be good for everything from type II diabetes and obesity to the common cold. Chung Dam suggests another 20 minutes should be spent lying down in the “Hot Clay With Charcoal Room” in order to “secrete sebum and other impurities.” Other facilities include the “Hot Jade Stone Room” (high blood pressure), “Warm Granite Room” (“hypo-kinetic diseases”), and the “Herbal Steam Sauna,” where the mugwort vapors may just ease your respiratory ailments. The men’s facilities are virtually identical. Most customers come for the cheap massages but stay for the saunas and general relaxation.

I first heard about Chung Dam from Philadelphia actress Charlotte Ford, who seems like a natural fit for nude spas given that BANG, her upcoming Live Arts Festival show, is chock-full of nudity. Plus, she’s an actress, and what starving artist is going to turn down a cheap massage? Ford has spent time in public baths in Korea and elsewhere in Asia and says that Chung Dam pretty much nails it. She’s been to the Cheltenham spa five or six times and has roped in other ladies from the Philadelphia theater community. “It’s like hanging out with your moms and cousins, if your moms and cousins actually went to a spa like that,” says Ford. “It’s just normal, healthy bodies, a very bonding, sisterly, Red Tent kind of thing. No one looks sexy. Imagine your 65-year-old aunt without clothes on.”

Thanks for the visual.

Yoo’s trying to franchise Chung Dam and hopes to bring the nakedness and cheap massages to the Main Line soon. Whether the Ladies Who Lunch will become the Ladies Who Lounge Naked Together remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Their husbands will probably stick to the golf course and martini bar for anything resembling bonding. “I can’t think of many male friends who would be super-psyched to hang out naked together,” observes Ford. And neither can I.

[Marquee photo courtesy Chung Dam Spa.]