Thursday, February 12, 2009

A little bit of Seoul

Hidden within a non-descript building on Montrose Avenue in Albany Park lies a relaxation haven rarely found in the Western world. For nearly 20 years Korean-run Paradise Sauna has been offering massage, exfoliation, sauna, steam rooms and hot tub in Seoul-style.

Make no mistake however, this isn’t a fancy schmancy spa. “I think to those who go regularly it's a necessary cleansing and health ritual-- kind of like a deep cleaning for your body-- and not a frilly, girly, spa experience,” said Anna, a frequent sauna-goer and fan of Paradise.

While the facilities are clean there are no plush robes, pitchers of artesian lemon water or other fussy luxuries. The services and prices are posted next to the reception desk in Korean and English. Paying $18 for the sauna plus a $2 key deposit, you receive a towel, washcloth, cotton robe and locker key.

The women and men’s facilities are completely separate. Massages are $40 for 30 minutes, $60 for an hour, or you can get a package deal of scrub, 60-minute massage and sauna entrance for $100.

The sauna area is a large room with a hot tub, cold tub, whirlpool, sauna, steam room, and showers. It is required to shower and scrub yourself before getting into the tubs, and Korean style sit-down showers as well as regular showers are offered. The showers have shampoo and bar soap, keeping with the no-frills scene.

In the ladies side, women of all shapes, sizes, ages and races lounge in the tubs and sauna. People give a few sideways glances here and there, but mostly everyone keeps to themselves. On one side of the room sits a massage table where a Korean woman in lacy black lingerie gives intense exfoliating scrubs.

“I like that it's separated by sex, and that you are required to be naked, because it has always struck me as strange to be sitting, sweating, and in your clothes that are getting all of your dirty sweat all over them, ” Anna said. “Nobody really cares what anybody else is doing there, so you can really tune out. To me, the idea of sauna is about detoxing, and getting clean-- you're sweating out impurities, and then shocking the system by a dip in alternating cold and hot pools.”

Signs in Korean Hangol and English explain what is what and the basic sauna rules. The staff is helpful and friendly, although there are obvious language barriers. Miming things while naked can be awkward but necessary.

Next to the locker room there is a nap room with Korean newspapers, television and chairs. Beyond this is the massage room, where you can get one of the best cheap massages of your life. Stopping just short of painful, the masseuse’s get all of the tense spots, even climbing on the table to get all of the knots out of your back.

This type of sauna is common throughout Asia, with people going to hang out for much of the day and relaxing, not just stopping in for a quick treatment. “My experience with American saunas is that people are hung up on keeping their towels or swimsuits or whatever on, and more concerned with the frills and surroundings than with sweating stuff out. It's not viewed as a necessity, but more of a treat, and thus not taken as a health thing, but more as a luxury,” Anna said.

Paradise Sauna is located at 2910 W Montrose Ave, for information call (773) 588-3304.

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