Or Why I Desperately Want to Visit South Korea Very Soon
Please allow me to once again indulge my Korean beauty obsession. I hadn’t been planning on writing another post about Korean skincare or beauty but after reading The New York Times article A Look at Korea’s Culture From the Bathhouse I felt compelled to write yet again about Korea and their beauty culture. (As sometimes happily happens reading one article takes you to another related article or an interesting website so I’ll be sharing those links here as well.) Previously I’ve written about Beauty in South Korea and my personal experiences trying a few different Korean skincare products (Korean Skincare Products: Tested).
I actually had an opportunity to go to a Korean spa (or Americanized version of a Korean spa) before moving back to Israel about a year and a half ago. A branch of King Spa and Sauna opened not so far from my suburban Chicago home before I moved. I really cannot come up with a good excuse why I never went since the admission is quite reasonable, it is open 24 hours 7 days a week, and a friend even recommended it to me. My loss to say the least. Now I can only dream of hanging out in the salt room or the base rock room at this spa. At least I now know one thing I will be doing the next time I visit Chicago (besides eating at my all time favorite restaurant) unless somehow I make it to South Korea first.
Anyhow, before I really digress any further lets talk about Korean spa culture. The origin and the modern evolution of the Korean bathhouse is very interesting:
When South Koreans evoke the good life, they talk of a “warm back and full stomach.”
Nowhere has the Korean longing to lie on a heated floor (a feature of traditional houses) and eat one’s fill found fuller expression than in the jjimjilbang, the 24-hours-a-day public bathhouse.
But calling the jjimjilbang a bathhouse hardly begins to describe its attractions. …
The jjimjilbang is modeled on the public bathhouses that were popularized early last century by the country’s Japanese occupiers but eventually fell out of favor when showers became a standard feature of Korean homes. In their modern incarnation, the bathhouses are a reflection of South Korea’s relatively newfound wealth, but also a way to satisfy nostalgia. …
The first public bathhouse was built here in 1925, mostly to cater to Japanese colonialists, but the institution quickly became part of Korean social life. Most urban neighborhoods had a bathhouse, as did small towns. Inside, patrons sat in or around large, sex-segregated baths filled with extremely hot water, gossiping and scooping water on themselves with gourds. Scrubbing other bathers’ backs, even strangers’, was common practice.
Many Korean adults share a childhood memory of being taken to public baths for no-nonsense, sometimes tears-inducing scrubs by their mothers. The bathhouses began adding amenities in recent decades as more people bathed at home. Those included steam rooms and professional body scrubbers, barbershops and hair salons, and communal sleeping rooms, where harried business people — often expected to work long hours and stay out late drinking with colleagues — could come during the day for a nap on a heated floor.
By the late 1990s, many bathhouses had turned into true recreation complexes, and going to one became as much a part of Korean social life as going to the movies. In 2006, there were more than 13,000 in the country, more than 2,500 of them in Seoul. Some can accommodate thousands of people. …
Some jjimjilbang have karaoke rooms, concert halls, swimming pools, even indoor golf ranges, as well as cafeterias and rooms to watch videos.
But a jjimjilbang’s reputation owes much to its saunas.
Some feature heated huts suffused with the aroma of mugwort (important in traditional medicine). Sometimes the walls are studded with jade and amethyst, which many Koreans believe emit healing rays when heated.
(From For All Kinds of Good, Clean Fun Koreans Turn to Bathhouses from The New York Times)
(This is not a political blog is any way, except for my occasional rant about letting everyone define for themselves their own idea of beauty, but I did find it interesting that the Japanese occupation of Korea produced such a positive, lasting effect on Korean culture in the form of bathhouses. If you know nothing of the history mentioned above see this for more information.)
Unlike American spas which are seen as an indulgence, a special treat, Korean spas or bathhouses are meant for the entire family and as a place to spend the day. Women (and men) in Korean follow a much more elaborate skincare routines than their American counterparts making skincare and body care a top priority for a large part of the population. Since many young people live with their parents bathhouses are a place where young couples can spend quality time together outside the confines of their homes. So if you are a Westerner forget everything you know about spa culture and open yourself up to a new idea of how to spend your day off.
Need more proof? Frances Cha wrote about her day at a Korean bathhouse for CNN:
Visitors change into cotton shirts and pants handed out at reception. Then they head to communal areas.
There’s a tarot card reading station set up near the entrance, but most people beeline past this and head straight for the outdoor foot bath area.
Here there’s a large heated pool for wading back and forth, as well as private booths where couples often play games on their phones while perched precariously above pools of water.
Spa Land has dreamed up a variety of themes for its many steam and sauna rooms.
These range from extremely hot (I couldn’t enter this one without yelping in pain) to extremely cold (the Ice Room has a cute, fake jellyfish aquarium) to the gimmicky.
The walls of the pyramid room are set at a 52-degree angle, “which has been said to be the easiest angle to collect energies from the universe,” according to the spa.
The SEV room “radiates electrons from SEV” meant to “metabolize your body rapidly.”
The theme rooms are fun to take pictures in.
The downstairs snack bar serves bingsu (a beloved Korean shaved ice dessert) and various vinegar drinks said to be good for the skin.
Customers can take the snacks and eat them all around the bathhouse.
Upstairs there’s a restaurant and cafe run by chefs from the Westin Chosun Hotel.
Alcohol consumption is limited to 500 ml per person, to prevent sauna accidents and overly rambunctious parties from disrupting the austere atmosphere.
My favorite spot in the spa is the outdoor rock pool in the women-only bathing area.
I soaked under its sodium bicarbonate waterfall for a good 20 minutes before my appointment with the seshin ajumma (scrub ladies) in the scrub room.
For 25 minutes I beached myself on a plastic slab, and gave myself over to the capable hands of a professional scrubber.
Clad in black bras and panties (standard scrub uniform), she scoured my entire body with two loofahs.
“Young ladies are the most sensitive,” she said in an amused voice when I squeaked a little. “The older ladies always ask for the hardest pressure.”
I emerged red and raw, but wonderfully clean.
It was the best extra ₩20,000 ($18) I’ve ever spent in spa.
Back to The New York Times article mentioned at the beginning of this post, the article does touch on the “darker” side of Korean beauty culture – conformity. This takes the of form of plastic surgery, pressure to weigh a certain amount, and a strong need to try to achieve “perfection” as defined by the prevailing culture. I guess it is always important to remember what an outsider may see as interesting and even “exotic” (I hate that word but sometimes there isn’t a better one to use) is actually a burden for those who are a part of that culture or country you are just visiting.
Bottom Line: Despite the fact that I am now more aware of the conformity in Korea when it comes to beauty, and that does not sit well with me, I am still very intrigued by Korean bathhouse culture and Korean skincare practices and products. Since I am “indulging” in Korean culture from afar I can pick and choose the aspects of Korean culture that I want to explore and experience making it easier for me to enjoy the best aspects of that culture. Perhaps one day I’ll finally make it to South Korea or just visit a Korean bathhouse the next time I am in Chicago.
The original New York Times article that prompted this post lead me to discover two really interesting websites for information about Korea:
- If I do make it South Korean for a visit I will be sure to read this entire website before going: Seoulist.
- For reviews of Korean skincare and make-up I’ll be checking out this website: Lady Fox Make-up Blog
Photo from cnn.com