The Korean Baths
[Important note: Taking pictures in a room full of naked women would be a quick way to get my cultural ambassador title - and probably my visa - revoked. So the pictures attached to this blog are not of the Korean baths. Instead they are images from my recent hike to Soraksan, South Korea’s northernmost mountain range. More pictures from that trip can be seen in the Soraksan set on flickr - including the endless metal stairways and stunning mountain views. However the two topics, Soraksan and Korean baths, are not unrelated. Hiking the first required a long visit to the second to soothe some aching muscles!]
For the Korean baths, imagine a temple to cleanliness. Showers line one wall. Another section has individual cleaning stations with a small stool, washbasin and mobile shower nozzle. A long, narrow stone water basin ringed with a stone bench is available for those who want to dip their washbasins, pour water over themselves and then sit and soap up. Take your pick and get clean, or try all three.
Once you are thoroughly clean, you can move on, but I do mean thoroughly clean. When was the last time you washed behind your left ankle bone? How about between your toes? Did you use a long scrubbly cloth or brush to scrub your own back? Or did you ask someone else to do it? If you are done in less than 20 minutes (not including the time you just stood around in the hot water!) you are not Korean-style clean.
Moving on means making choices. You can soak in the warm, medium hot, or broiling stone whirlpools in the center of the room, or try the medium hot wooden hot tub. Splash some water over the edge and have a seat to get used to the heat, or just slide in up to your chin. If you tend to be in a hurry when you brush your teeth, feel free to bring your brush and indulge in a 5 or 10 minute tooth cleaning. Just do not drip into the pool.
Or you can go try the saunas - hot and dry, hot and moist or sometimes hot with earthen/clay floor for its health properties. After each, come out and rinse off by pouring water over yourself and then take a plunge in the cold pool to bring your body temperature back down. Like Scandinavians, Koreans believe in both the health and cleanliness value of purging the body through steam and the stimulating value of cold water. The opening and closing of the pores is also supposed to create more beautiful skin.
If you have made an appointment, you can get a full body scrub from one of the on-site massage technicians. They will be sure to get any dry skin you missed while also stimulating circulation in every part of your body. At fancier spas you can also arrange a dip in green tea tubs, pine needle infused tubs, ginseng tubs and many others.
It would be all too easy to make simple cultural comparisons based on Korean and American shower habits. Do Americans have a lackadaisical, “good enough” attitude compared to Koreans’ careful, focused, and detail-oriented approach? Or are Koreans too focused on appearance while Americans are eager to get past the basics to the important parts of a day’s agenda? What about years of American mothers yelling “Stop getting water on the floor!” versus the Korean approach of putting a drain in the floor and simply allowing people to get water absolutely everywhere?
I will be sure to give these topics more thought over the coming weeks, preferably in the medium hot stone whirlpool at my local sauna.
1 comment October 22, 2007