Welcome to Spaland
I was given an unexpected day off yesterday as my school was closed for it’s birthday celebrations. Apparently in Korea this is something worth celebrating, and although I was confused I was certainly not complaining. I had planned to spend my day shopping for a birthday present for myself but realised after about an hour that there was nothing I really wanted or needed that could be purchased here. I considered buying more Korean cosmetics (my never-failing fallback) but made myself leave the shop empty-handed after considering how much excess baggage I am likely to have to pay already upon my return home.
I often make strange decisions when I’m on my own (hoovering my entire apartment at 3am, trying to see if I can hide myself completely under the bed**, etc.) so I was not entirely surprised to find myself headed toward Spaland, a Korean/Japanese style bath house and Jimjilbang enclosed inside Shinsegae department store. I’d seen it during a recent shopping trip and had heard tales of the reasonably priced wonders within, but had also heard tell of the compulsory nudity and wussed out on account of my British prudishness.
To explain this a little bit to the folks back home, Jimjilbangs are usually (I think) separated into two areas, a single sex (nakey) spa part and a communal bit where you can hang out with your friends/family/whatever wearing the sweet cotton pajamas provided for you. My perception of this might be a bit skewed as I’ve only ever visited Spaland (apparently the biggest, fanciest, most expensive and most Western-friendly) but I’d bet that they’re not too different. The reason I was so concerned about the public bath-house nudity is because Koreans see absolutely no problem in having a good old stare, especially at someone who looks different than them. As a very pale blond Westerner, bigger than them and sporting tattoos I was concerned that literally all eyes would be on me…especially on a weekday out of holiday season when I would likely be the only waygook there.
I was, as expected, the only foreigner in the (Spa)land, but happily the staring really wasn’t that bad. I had asked my co-teacher previously what the best response to this is and she told me that acknowledging the looks and smiling is far more effective and polite than pretending not to notice. I followed her advice whenever I noticed someone looking (which only happened a few times) and was pleasantly surprised to find that it works a treat. Friendly smiles abounded and by the time I was bored of the baths it was only a bit strange that middle aged naked Korean women were pointing at my bum.
The actual spa bit of Spaland includes around 20 different pools of water for your soaking pleasure. Most are indoors but there’s also a really lovely outdoor part, all rough stone and pagodas and high walls to keep the perverts out. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there’s an outdoor section for men. According to the guide I found (printed in English as well as Korean, Japanese and Chinese) there are three choices of temperature (15, 35 and 40 degrees, otherwise known as ‘holy crap that’s freezing’, ‘ooh, that’s a bit of alright’ and ‘death by magma’) and then a choice between sodium chloride or sodium bicarbonate pools. My limited grasp of science informs me that this means saltwater or baking soda, both of which are apparently good for your health.
It’s worth noting here that the Korean ideas of health are at best questionable and at worst a complete joke, and that a huge part of the health and beauty industry is based on some decidedly bad science (more on that later in this post) so I wouldn’t take many of the brochure’s claims without a hefty dose of skepticism. That said, my skin did feel very lovely after an hour or so in the baths and (apparently) because of the saltwater I did not turn into a giant Western prune. Score.
After bathing to your heart’s content, drying off in the lovely powder room and slathering as many complimentary products as you can onto your naked self it’s time to don your comfy maroon pajamas and enter the ‘entertainment zone’. This part is mixed sex and contains 13 different types of sauna, an outdoor foot spa (which I adored and spent far, far too long lounging about in), a snack bar, a tarot reading booth and oodles of padded deck chair style things mostly occupied by sleeping Koreans. Koreans bloody love to sleep in public, they do.
I can’t decide whether I thoroughly enjoyed the 13 sauna rooms or not. For one thing, I am really not a big fan of sweating so lying in 80 degree heat is not my idea of fun…for another, I am very skeptical of some of the health benefits apparently provided for choosing one room over another. I agree, sweating is probably good for your skin and for detoxifying or whatever. Is it good for anything else? Not so much. Enjoy some of my favourites below, lifted directly from the brochure (forgive the clunky translation but not the pseudo-science):
Yellow Earth Room: It has been said that yellow earth is a good remedy to women’s disease and has a good effect on purification and mental stability.
This made me think of Hippocrates’ ‘wandering uterus’ theory, which was not a very mentally stabling thought.
Body Sound Room: “…design based on the principle of bone conduction…”
I’m no scientist, but that sounds a bit like total bollocks to me.
Pyramid Room: By reproducing angle 52 of Pyramid, which has been said to be the easiest angle to collect energies from universe, customers can experience space of Pyramid indirectly.
Come again? This was by far the most intriguing, but even after lying in it for 20 minutes I had no clearer understanding. Perhaps I was experiencing the pyramid too directly for the energy to collect.
**Note: Despite my gentle mockery, I actually think that most Korean health superstitions are harmless and very sweet. Not a day goes by without one or more of my co-teachers giving me some well-being advice, usually beginning with “I heard that…” and ending in something ridiculous like “writing on your hand is as bad for you as smoking”. Before I came here I assumed that the nationwide belief in ‘Fan Death’ was exaggerated, but now I’m not convinced.**
Being such a heat hater my favourite of all was the ‘Ice Room’, set at a comfortable (for me, not for the shivering Koreans inside) 13 degrees, nicely lit, very relaxing and with a tank of oddly beautiful, glowing jellyfish set into one wall. I would have stayed in there longer but I begun to get concerned about how hot it would feel when I went outside again. Shame really, it felt a lot like home.
I started to feel a bit light-headed after visiting a few sauna rooms so decided to go for some lunch. Obviously you can’t leave the spa complex and return, so I ate in the Spaland restaurant which was as tasty as I expected and slightly less overpriced that I had thought it would be at 10,000 won for a bulgogi stew with rice and banchan. You pay for everything using your locker key then settle the bill as you leave, which eliminates the need for carrying sweaty money around and also makes you feel as if you live in the future. Double brilliant.
Next to the restaurant there is a ‘relaxation room’ of about 100 reclining armchairs equipped with TVs and headrest sound thingies. Most of the channels were in Korean but I still had a nice time watching a man teach K-Pop dancing and pretending that I was one of the obese passengers on Wall-E’s Axiom spacecruiser. Apparently there are DVD screenings too in a separate room but I couldn’t work out the schedule and wouldn’t have been overly interested anyway. Who goes to a spa to watch a film? Not this chump, that’s for sure.
With an hour left (most Jimjilbangs are unlimited time-wise, but Spaland only allows you to stay for four hours without paying extra) I decided that I’d had enough of hot rooms and went back to the spa section to spend some more nude time with Korean oldies and use yet more complimentary products. I left exactly four hours after I entered, very relaxed, inexplicably exhausted and undeniably pleased with myself for braving the unknown…even if it did take me six months to take the plunge.
Spaland (Shinsegae Centum City, Busan)
Directions – Centum City Subway Stop, Floor One (I think)
Price – 12,000 won (weekday), 14,000 won (weekend). Early bird and late night available too.
Note: My co-teacher thinks that this price is extortionate, whereas I think it’s brilliant for four hours in a gorgeous, relaxing spa. Apparently other Jimjilbangs or public bath-houses are much cheaper, but personally I’d pay this again to go to one I know is lovely.
Other notes – Be aware of the dodgy science and don’t expect health miracles to come about because of a light show and some whale-song.