Korea in the Buff
Riding the bullet trains, storming Lotte Department Store, swallowing slugs–all rank as first-rate memories from a recent whirlwind trip around Korea. But it was my solo foray into Hurshimchung–a hot spring spa in the southern city of Busan–that lingers. They say it’s the largest spa in Asia, able to accommodate 3,000 bare bodies at once.
I’m a risk-averse traveler. I don’t go anywhere near whitewater, grizzlies, or sherpas. I get my kicks, instead, by plunging solo into unfamiliar cultural waters to see if I’ll sink or swim. A novel place like Hurshimchung provides just the adrenalin rush I relish. Terrifying, yes, but incredibly exciting.
The smiley young woman at the entrance speaks a bit of English. She hands me a locker key on a wristband and tells me to pay afterwards. I’ll owe 3900 won–a fifty percent discount over the usual weekday price of 7800 won (about $8 USD) because I’m staying at the nice Hotel Nongshim across the street. I know just enough about Korean culture to remove my shoes once I hit the tatami mat, and to store them in the shoe locker. Then I wander into a changing room full of bare-naked ladies. Some are stepping into clown-colored “pajamas.” Should I follow suit? No, no, an elfin woman pantomimes to me, those are for later, for people heading to the rest lounge after bathing. I spy on other women from my locker cubicle. What does one wear into the baths, then? Apparently only a napkin-sized towel slung over one’s shoulder. I pluck up my courage and shadow a small group up the steps into the main bath area, trying in vain to stretch the napkin over my nakedness, wishing for a longer curtain of hair (of the non-blond variety).
We enter a big, bright room under a great glass dome. High humidity. Blue-tiled pools and ponds. Sounds of water spitting, gurgling, streaming, cascading, sloshing. This is no dusky Mahgrebin hamam, where you’d find crowds of chattering women. Hurshimchung, built in 1991, has a Mitteleuropa feel to it–with its bronze statues, airiness, and tranquility. In fact, on this Wednesday afternoon, I count no more than a few dozen bathers–young mothers, babies, diminutive grannies. I take a shower first, of course, in a room on the left. Then, feeling an urge to go into hiding, I slink off into the “Wild Cave Baths”–which, according to my hotel brochure, allow you to “relax the mental fatigue” and “meditate on the life.” I’m alone in the cobbled grotto except for the murmur of a plasma TV. The first small pool, a blood red color, is labeled “Pepper.” Whaa? I decide against swimming in Diablo Grande juice, and lower myself instead into the neighboring “Lavender” bath, where water dribbles from the mouth of a stone Confucius. The warm psychedelic-purple waters indeed “relax the mental fatigue.” But “meditate on the life”? No can do, what with the TV and my fear of turning mauve.
The “waterfall” bath soon attracts my attention because I can hear its roar. When I peek around a corner I’m appalled to see six bodies sprawled on slate, like melted cheese, under six torrents of water. The cascades whack one bather squarely in her gut, another on her butt, and still another on . . .her head! The latter stays motionless under the pounding water for a long time, and I fear she’s suffered a concussion, but then she comes to, and it’s my turn. I gingerly wiggle my fingers under the force, then my toes, then thrust in my arms and legs. Within five minutes, my brain’s taking a beating. It feels good!–an unorthodox massage.
I head to the next pool. No one seems to pay me any heed, and I’m beginning to feel less conspicuous. But no sooner do I raise my foot to get in when a woman rushes out of nowhere to chastise my deviant behavior. “This water is just for splashing yourself!” she pantomimes.
From then on, I immerse myself only in peopled pools–about a dozen in total, including the “Open-Air Bath”, the “Sleep Cure Bath” (will it cure my jet-lag insomnia?) and something I dub the “Library Bath,” which is equipped with seats, a long wooden “desk” and laminated reading material. My final bath, the “Seawater Bath,” contains sea salt and will make your skin “soft and disinfected,” according to the hotel brochure.
Apparently, I don’t rinse myself well enough after the salt bath because when I get on an “Exfoliating” table (yes, there is signage in English), it feels like the buck-naked Exfoliator is rubbing salt into open wounds. “Ow!” I mewl, but my protest must not translate, for she doesn’t let up–except occasionally to slop a bucketful of warm water over me. I relax into the stinging pain, deciding it’s all part of the cross-cultural experiment, and almost enjoy the image of a skinned and bloody me. I’ll pay another 12,000 won (about 12 USD) for this pleasure. (The Exfoliator also offers massages for 25,000 won.)
With a new blush on my skin, I don the clown pajamas in the changing room and walk upstairs to the unisex rest lounge, where the Korean saunas–called jjimjilbang–are located. There’s a charcoal sauna, a yellow soil sauna, and a curious igloo sauna, as crusty with frost as the inside of my freezer. There’s also a snack bar, an Internet cafÃ©, an oxygen room, and a restaurant where people eat quietly at low tables. A Korean colleague from Busan tells me the vibe completely changes on weekends and holidays, when noisy families settle into the spa for the entire day.
I’m good for nothing more at this point than stretching out on the cool topaz floor of the lounge, mimicking the Koreans. I prop my neck up with a wooden block and promptly fall asleep next to a barrel-chested guy whispering into a cell phone. When I awake, I’m disoriented. Where on earth am I? Then it comes to me. I’m through the looking glass–in the Land of Chile-Pepper Baths and Igloo Jjimjilbang.