A few years ago I spent a year teaching English in South Korea. I had just completed my BSc, spent an additional year snowboarding in Vermont, and then finally came to terms with the fact that my 7 year stint in the US was coming to a close. Was it time for me to return to Canada and “settle down?” Almost. There’s always time for one more adventure…
Off to South Korea I went. I have to admit I had a difficult time adapting to the world of teaching English in an Asian country; the community of English teachers lived a very different lifestyle than I was used to, and thankfully I met a few kindred spirits while I was there. But mostly I spent my time wandering around herb shops, teahouses, temples, textile markets, and the most amazing herbal spas (jimjilbangs) that you could ever imagine. Tea became my salvation and my muse.
Over the course of my year in South Korea, I became quite the teahouse connoisseur. I came to recognize the rituals of tea preparation, the artistry of tea service, and the caliber of different grades of tea. I befriended local teashop owners, and became a regular fixture at my favorite teahouses. I even apprenticed with a bonafide tea master. A perfectly good day for me would consist of walking around tea shops admiring clay teapots, and sharing a cup of Pu’erh with my favorite Korean tea friend. Yes, life in the tea world suited me just fine!
And if life in the land of tea wasn’t glorious enough, South Korea also has the most unbelievably insane, kick ass herbal spas ever! These jimjilbangs are positively the best kept secret in Korea, and only cost $5-$10 entry fee for as long as you like (you can even sleep there!). I was so amazed by these places that I snuck my camera inside so that I could document their existence. Seriously, I wouldn’t have believed it if I wasn’t there myself!
Jimjilbangs are divided into two areas – the wet areas with washing stations, tubs, and steam rooms – and the dry areas with amenities, sleeping quarters, and dry saunas. The wet areas boast hot tubs of varying temperatures, many of which are infused with medicinal herbs such as ginseng, green tea, and rose. It honestly feels like your sitting in a giant cup of your favorite tea. I remember looking around with a wide-eyed grin and thinking – “I’m sitting in a tub of Ginseng!” There are also salt rooms with large bowls of salt to exfoliate with, herbal steam rooms, mud baths, and massage stations where you can get a massage or exfoliation by a serious-looking Korean lady. There’s no messing around here. These ladies mean business, and you may feel like you’ve lost a couple of layers of skin afterwards. But, it’s all well worth it.
In the dry areas, there are a plethora of activities to do, and depending on the jimjilbang, there may or may not be a full service spa, a movie room, one or more restaurants, an arcade, a computer room, a singing room (karaoke), and a kid’s room. I stuck to the dry saunas, myself, and there are an amazing selection of them in varying temperatures. My personal favorites were the medicinal herb room (big containers of medicinal herbs), the oxygen room (with trees inside), and the woman’s room (with heat lamps on the ground that you lie on during your moon time). There is also a very cold room (0 C) and a very hot room (100 C). Probably the coolest thing about jimjilbangs is the generous use of crystals and semiprecious stones both inside and outside the saunas, and all the amazing crystal art. Not only are the walls covered in crystals, but the entire ceiling consists of beautiful intricate crystal designs. Amazing!
After a long day (or night) at a jimjilbang you honestly feel reborn and squeaky clean allover like you just grew a new layer of skin. It really feels like a total cleanse: physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. These spas are truly magical.
The year I spent in South Korea was a great way to decompress after my seven-year hiatus in the US. Having so much time to indulge in my favorite activities was a true luxury, and I’m grateful to have been in a country that offered so many healthful ways to recharge the batteries – and for pennies no less! Maybe North America should embrace tea as an alternative to coffee and offer subsidized spa services for the masses… what do you think?