I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some significant sauna time during my stay in Korea and Japan. Our hotel in Seoul had a super sauna and hot baths, where I soaked and poached myself quite a bit. I find the process incredibly relaxing and, when done in the evening, it guarantees me a good night’s sleep.
Just like in the onsen setting in Japan, the Korean set-up was gender-segregated and prohibited any form of clothing. Rather than stress me out, I was comforted by the overlap in rules, minimising the opportunity for me to commit a massive cultural faux pas. In other words, naked spa-time without any worries.
The first step was to strip out of my clothes and then clean myself thoroughly. These spas have a special area for this, where you sit (or squat) in front of a waist-height mirror and hand-held shower. You’re basically required to lather up and rinse off before you go anywhere near the shared spa areas. The saunas and hot spring baths aren’t about washing yourself and it’s viewed as very bad form to try and get yourself cleaner in either.
Scrubbing my little form didn’t take too long, but as I was in the company of some Korean gentlemen, I made sure I scrubbed for all I was worth.
Next, I eyed up the baths… There were three, each labelled in Korean but helpfully also with the temperature clearly marked in numerals. There was a 20C pool, which appeared to be for cooling off. There was a 40C pool which sounded very appealing. And a final 43C pool, which looked like I could poach eggs in it.
As I obviously don’t have any photos of the set-up – mobile phone use is strictly forbidden, for a whole host of reasons – let me describe the baths. If you can picture water that’s deep enough to sit in and have come up to your neck, while also being big enough to fit about ten men in at a time, you won’t go far wrong. Sometimes they have clearly defined sitting areas, so know exactly where to sit. Sometimes not and, if it gets busy, you’re expected to budge up and make room for someone else.
As the 40C bath was pretty busy, I opted to turn to the right and gingerly ease myself into the 43C one. I wondered how much of a difference there could be between them. Surprise #1. Oh was I glad I eased in! It was, without doubt, the hottest bath I’ve ever experienced. There was also a ‘shelf’ all the way around the bath, where you could sit and keep your chest and above out of the water. I sat there for some considerable time, slowly adjusting to the heat.
I could tell from the looks on the guys one bath over that they were enjoying my discomfort. Obviously, I should have started with a lower temperature and worked my way up…
Yet, after just a few minutes, I was comfortable. I slowly slid the rest of my now-pink body into the water and closed my eyes. There’s an interesting effect this kind of heat can have on you. Once you get past the feeling of ‘oh my god, my heart!’ And ‘I can feel my blood pressure in my head!’, it’s possible to move to a more relaxed state where all of this fades into the background and all you have to deal with is not falling asleep. Seriously. I saw this happen in an onsen here in Tokyo, but that’s a story for another time…
After ten minutes in that bath, I eased myself out again, marvelling at the red colour of my feet and ankles and stepped under a freezing cold shower. This was bliss, but just for a moment. Then it was time to take a step back away from the water, which was beginning to feel like needles. I thought it best to move onto a sauna next.
Again, there were three rooms to choose from, all facing out onto a ‘relaxation area’ which had cool water and some easy chairs. The first room had a steam room, the second a sauna set at a very high temperature, the third resembling something closer to hell itself.
I opted for the middle sauna and experienced surprise #2.
I walked in on a naked Korean guy doing energetic push-ups in the middle of the floor. Fast, pumping push-ups where you keep your feet on a bench and clap in-between. The kind I see demonstrated on Men’s Health videos on Facebook but have no intention of trying to replicate.
I’m not sure who got the bigger fright. No, I am. It was me. Having said that, he quickly jumped into a standing position and walked out of the sauna, leaving me to wonder what it was all about and if I’d inadvertently broken a rule by walking in like that. But there was no ‘do not disturb sign’ that I could see and the sauna itself was big enough for about 12 men, so I didn’t believe it was possible to keep it just for one person.
Still wondering what I’d just witnessed, I experienced surprise #3: I sat down without using a towel. 😬
Now. Here’s a basic rule of most spa facilities where no clothes are allowed: you need to use a towel before you sit on anything. In many places, this is about hygiene. In a Korean sauna, it’s about protecting your body from third degree burns.
Thankfully, I leapt up before I could do any serious damage and memorised a new golden rule for onsen use: never sit on anything when naked unless you’ve checked its temperature first.
Despite all of the above, my first experience of a Korean spa/onsen was incredibly relaxing. I slept so well that evening and was keen to sample more on the trip. I’ve since experienced two more, very different, spas on this holiday so far, with a third scheduled before we fly home. But I’ll cover those in other posts – this one is getting long and I’m keen to go and have some breakfast 😀