Omitting the spas of Korea whilst living here; is like not visiting the Eiffel tower while in Paris. The only disparity is that while one typically visits the Eiffel tower only once, the spas in Korea will probably encourage you to assimilate this into your Korean lifestyle. Korea holds many assets in terms of thermal and spa waters, these waters have been embraced by Koreans for over 1000 years. The Latin name Aquincum itself (Ak-Ink….rich in waters) could refer to the hot springs in the area around my Korean home town of Chungju, which could be labeled as the Aquincum of Korea.
In these therapeutic baths we habitually find pools with different temperatures, hot air and steam chambers. The term “bath” originates from the English city of Bath, where the historic remains of an Ancient Roman Baths complex still stand. The site is very well preserved. This demonstrates the fact that from ancient times people have enjoyed taking a hot bath to relax or relieve fatigue. Suanbo (near Chungju) purportedly began spewing water over 30,000 years ago. It’s officially mentioned on record in 1018, during the ninth year of King Hyeongjong’s reign. The water originates deep beneath the earth and has an average temperature of 127°F (53°C). Alkaline in nature, it contains such minerals as calcium, fluoride, lithium, sodium, and magnesium and is supposed to be good for your health.
I had been pre-warned that going to a sauna in Korea can be a rather overpowering if not intimidating experience, especially for the first-time visitor. My response, “do I have an American passport” (no offence meant but in my experience many Americans can be rather prudish when it comes to nakedness, before dissing me read the scores of net articles). Most general bath houses in Korea are called Jimjilbangs but this weekend I was embarking on a visit to the thermal spa where the curative properties of the waters are more widely venerated.
Franks taxi headed for Suanbo around 9am, Suanbo-myeon is around 21 kms south of Chungju. It’s not a large town but it’s packed full of restaurants and hotels, it’s restaurants specialise in rabbit, duck, and pheasant meals. It also features a ski area and a number of hot spring oncheons. Some of the hotels have bathhouses with spring water, or some even pipe the water into hotel room. Suanbo Park Hotel is high up on the hill way above the town. It’s not particularly accessible unless you are traveling by car and it costs 6,000 won admission. The spa is sexually segregated and there are outdoor baths set into terraces, with faux waterfalls and immense view across the valley.
On entering the spa we removed our shoes, these were then locked away separately from the rest of our attire. Next was the locker, grooming, washing and drying zone. No shyness, full frontal nudity is de rigueur; I then took a shower and relaxed in the hot pool, later dipping periodically into a cold pool and the dry charcoal steam room. There was an area set aside for a fierce rub down or massage and of course the outdoor granite clad terrace.
It is not unusual for many Koreans that after bathing, they spend time having a shave, haircut and manicure or simply they prune themselves in the mirror, most of the tools and products come free. It’s unlikely that there’s a mirrored surface anywhere in South Korea that hasn’t, at some point, served as a makeshift mirror for somebody checking makeup, fixing hair, or fretting about wrinkles. I have never seen people (male and female) so obsessed with outward appearance as Koreans. It borders on the obsessive and is so widespread, so constant, that it’s begun to worry me!
We left the Spa after around 90 minutes, passing through the soulless hotel, past its crockery sale and a conference hall dedicated to a FEBC Radio staff conference labelled as their “2012 Retreat”. The restaurant tables had heated woks bubbling away, maybe Rabbit or Pheasant dishes? Downtown it was reminiscent of “28 Days Later”, a few signs of life, local radio playing on a tannoy, tourist information with a non English speaking lady exhumed for the day! A fountain spasmodically ejaculated spray whilst uncontrolled kids pranced across the concrete and granite town fountain which was embellished with the Chinese zodiac. At this point for the first time in my 52 years I discovered my mum, dad and I share the same Chinese star sign, the bloody Mouse. Whilst I cannot see mum and dad as having the deemed characteristics, many of them fit me perfectly. If I can marry my own strengths and weaknesses whilst negotiating the kibun, nunchi and inhwa who knows what could happen?
Our next destination was Woraksan National Park. I have visited twice before but never actually taken to the mountain trails so I was looking forward to it. Woraksan is one of Korea’s most exigent and without doubt more striking mountains. Soaring 1,094 m (3,589 ft), its terrain is home to several temples, Buddhist shrines and historical relics. Given its secluded location in the centre of Korea, it’s one of the least visited national parks in Korea. This IS a good thing. For those looking to get away from the pandemonium of school life in SK, it’s a fine antidote.
On entering the park the first signs of real habitation is Mireuk-ri, the tourist village at the southern entrance is 11km southeast of Suanbo Hot Springs. Adjacent to the village is Mireuksaji, the remains of a temple that was originally built in the late-Shilla or early-Goryeo period. A couple of stone pagodas and a stone Buddha set in a cave are the main relics, though a replacement shrine hall is being built. If you would like to review my two visits here check out previous posts. Down the hill from here we passed a pretty large tourist rest stop and a couple of campsites before meeting some stunning cliffs and the remains of a fortress wall.
We stopped here as it was a stunning setting with the well preserved gate and impressive walls that clung like a limpet to the hillside. The panorama’s here are awesome and made me think how Korea has yet to realise its potential as a tourist destination. Small group, high end, high income tourism such as that with a photography or art focus could boost tourist revenues and create jobs in these rural areas. Across the road was a stunning river with the clearest water I have seen anywhere on my travels, comparable to the pristine clarity of mountain water in Ladakh, in the India Himalaya. We stopped here to take some shots, slightly hindered by the bright sunshine, it was difficult to avoid flare.
Woraksan is the habitat for stunning rare flora and fauna plus fertile gorges, waterfalls, immaculate lakes, fresh mountain springs and streams, for a photographer the views are purely dazzling. Rangers have gone to great lengths in preserving Woraksan’s ecological diversity; trails are well marked with good signage and hiking courses are monitored & regulated to prevent forest fires. We were, as it turned out, only 500 metres from the small hamlet of Deokjusa. A good point of entry to the walking trails of Woraksan mountain is the Deokjusa Temple. From here there are a number of trails (the longest being 4.9km) that lead to the summit. The temple is accessed by following a nature trail, adjacent to the trail, crystal clear water trickles down a creek from the mountain peaks: The aquamarine colour of the water in the stream is really implausible particularly when contrasted with the beautiful autumn leaf colours, yellow, red, violet and gold. Summer has gone in Korea, it sort of crept away unnoticed, the Autumn weather, crisp and bright is here, and the leaves are slowly falling. I love a beautiful setting such as this; I can stand back and take in natures full beauty. It’s a short Autumn in SK before nature comes and snatches back this beauty and leaves us with Winter with its accompanying bleakness and cold.
On ascending the nature trail we arrived at a gate, part of a walled fortress that stretches for 10 kilometers around the mountain. It was first constructed in the 13th century and was used as a protective boundary against the invading Mongols. The fortress was important again in 1592 during the first Japanese invasion of the peninsula. From the gate the path continues toward Deokjusa Temple. There is really not much to see or anything of much historical interest at this recently constructed temple. Across from the temple on the right side of the path, the trail heads off upwards towards Yeongbong peak, the 1097 meter summit of Woraksan mountain. Signage is clearly visible along the path. The trail initially is very well maintained and includes many well built bridges and stairs to assist novice arthritic hikers such as moi who want only to hike up to view the stone Buddha carving, which is located about 40 minutes up the trail.
Ostensibly, we were the only ones clambering up the mountain in our shorts and t-shirts because our Korean counterparts were enclosed from head to toe in sinister mountaineering clothes and forbidding masks. It was not too far removed from ascending a mountain with a pack of sun hating ninjas. In addition to this we had the ubiquitous family of Korean hooligans shouting at each other whilst at least 30 cm apart. Déjà vu. After around 20 minutes we seemed to leave the hooligan element behind and arrived at another section of fortress wall conveniently dissected to allow passage through. It doubled as a resting point for the wired Koreans to forget nature and reengage with their digital world. SKT had installed fibre optics on the mountain so Korean citizens do not experience digital withdrawal. It is at time like these that I am happy not to understand the telephone conversations and the possibility that the guy is making arrangements to bonk his mistress at the nearest love motel! Watch out ladies the Ninja Warrior is on his way to pleasure you.
We carried on climbing, as the sunlight forced its way through, we passed by squirrels and crossed a bridge with little sign of the clear mountain water before climbing steeply again. I could just see the rock carving in the distance as we came across an impressive ancient tree plucked from middle earth. Three more steep flights of wooden stairs brought us to a manmade series of stone plateau’s on which sat atop the Buddha. No one knows for sure how old the Buddha is, some deduce the carving is from the Goryeo dynasty which ruled Korea from 935-1392AD while other believe the carving was constructed during the Shilla dynasty that ruled before 935AD. The carving is an imposing sight to see since it stands around 32 metres and is ornately carved. It was unquestionably worth taking the time to make this trek up the mountain. I wandered around the site whilst Frank just settled and took in the views; I must learn to do that more! It would have been relatively calm and peaceful except for the groups of Ninja Women’s Institute visitors, liberated from their adulterous husbands and at one with nature. The clear air and exuberant views were also shattered by the sound of a CD player blasting out Korean music of unfathomable genre. All the more surprising was the fact the music accompanied the enthusiastic industry of a monk who was manipulating some wood in the shadow of the Buddha. Was it his music?
Apparently past the Buddha carving the track becomes a great deal steeper and rockier such that I would recommend a moderate to high level of individual condition for anyone contemplating this hike. The hugely taxing and remorseless topography means those looking to attain the summit should be equipped for stern calisthenics, and should set aside around seven hours for the return journey.
We descended the trail arriving back at the temple around 4.30pm, the crowds had dissipated and we reflected on the walk as we surveyed once again the beautifully clear aquamarine pools at the start of the walk. The rest of the drive through Woraksan is lovely and emerges at the great un-natural wonder of Chungju Lake. The Lake is beautiful but is a result of the gargantuan Chungju Dam. Passing along the lakes edge the road took us to the main highway back to Chungju and the formulation of a Spaghetti Arabiata feast.
On Sunday the plan was to embrace an alternative public spa (mokgyoktang) in Angseong. We headed off just before lunchtime and stopped to take in my favourite Brisket & Mushroom Soup restaurant (costs 4.20), of course I didn’t know the name of the restaurant or the soup (could be yook-gae-jang) but I knew where it was! It was as usual phenomenal, Frank said he could beat it and would find a something I liked better later that day. Being of Korean descent he is a food expert, a waste disposal unit and could eat endlessly for days on end. It’s a bit like Prader-Willi Syndrome without the violence!
We ambled into Angseong passing the main tourist hotel which had a spa and then we noticed a sign which said Angseong Hot Spring Spa Plaza, seemed like an idea. This turned out to be the main public Sauna and claimed to be unique or at least that its waters were unique. This spa was more expensive than the hotel spa in Suanbo a mind bogging 4 quid. Angseong has hot springs emanating from a depth of over 700m underground. The water temperature is between 25°C and 38°C, relatively low for hot springs. So the hot water pool is often re-heated. The carbonated spring bath, for which Angseong is famous, is said to be very effective for mental stability as well as health. I have found my Nirvana right under my nose in Korea, henceforth every educational manager in the UK will spend his/her summer vacation here and have their mental stability assessed and corrected. Unfortunately the spa is not working effectively for those currently employed in the Korean educational system, whose mental stability could be questioned. The water here is deemed particularly valuable in treating minor physical symptoms including shoulder discomfort, backache and flu/colds. It transpired that it does soften the skin and is effective for relieving fatigue.
Wearing nowt but a smile we found this spa was so much busier than the one at the Park hotel, the water here was not purified in the same way and was brown in colour, much like when your drains are being fixed by Thames water. It was interesting to feel the carbonating water on your skin, bubbles formed, and it felt more beneficial than the Suanbo spa. The atmosphere was less sanitised but there were some irritating feral kids who were not kept in check by their Sumo sized pater. I noticed the wide screen TV and a bevy of bathers a sleep on a raised platform and whilst in the cooler pool, pondered if I was the first GET to visit here. If I’d stayed in the wet steam room I would have been the last, it was HOT! I believe this room carried the aoma of the infamous Mugwort herb! The dry sauna was of your typical charcoal variety. After srubbing off 4 layers of skin it was time to shower and depart but not before observing a couple of Koreans blow-drying and spraying cologne on their crotches. All in all a great place, after using the scrub glove to take off all my dead skin, I left feeling refreshed, cool and smooth…….Gangnam Style, no Angseong Style!
We drove back through Boryeonsanseong forest stopping off at the Chungju Observatory to take juvenile pictures of ourselves as spacemen and to take in the panoramic views of Chungju Imperial Lake. From here it was back to Bong Bang Dong, the Aquincum, Mountaineering and Yukgyejang weekend was nearly over except for the promise of great food delicacies. Later I was treated to a dish called Gamjatang which although not as spicy as my favourite brisket and mushroom soup was just as delicious.