Day trip: Seawater Spa

Last weekend, we hooked up with Pedro Kim of Lonely Korea for a trip up the western coast that involved a buddhist temple, a drive along the sea, and a stop in a traditional Korean sauna.

We arrived in Gwangju just after ten a.m. to meet up with Pedro and the rest of the travelers. There were nine guests total, from places as varied as Missouri, Nova Scotia, and North Carolina. We left Gwangju and headed west, towards the coastal region of Yeongwang-eup and Bepseongpo temple. This is where Buddhism was introduced from India to the ancient Baekje kingdom, in the 6th century. The area is secluded and remote; Pedro parked the van in an empty lot, and we walked past a modest house where dogs were play-fighting over a chunk of squid near the shore. Fish had been tied up in yellow twine and hung to dry in large masses, mouths gaping, eyes staring at the sea from where they’d been taken.

A wave of fish

The view from the temple

The temple was up and over a low rise, standing on a hill overlooking a bowl of smaller structures, facing a wide estuary and mountains in the distance. Truly a spot to sit and contemplate history, and the future. The architecture is notably Indian, and not very similar to the Korean temples we’ve been at except for the elaborately painted pagodas in bright colors.

We took a drive along the coast, and though it was foggy the coastline was lovely, and wavey, which we haven’t seen in Mokpo, where the thousand islands dampen waves long before they reach our shores. Pedro took us to a secluded spot, where we had a waffle and coffee in a cafe that was done up in Korean Christmas style. Then, we headed down to the spa.

The sauna wasn't much from the outside.

Korean seawater spas are different from what we’ve experience before in what are called Jimjaebangs. Those are more like standard hot-tubs and saunas, but the sewater spa is a different experience entirely. Here, we changed into spa clothes in a small room with cedar lockers, then walked into a small room with two cut-out holes in the floors where the water was kept. There was barely enough room between the walls and the holes for one person to sit comfortably, but all ten of us managed to squeeze in.

On top of the water was a bag of fragrant sticks, and a jute mat. We were warned – don’t go in the water; it’s an extremely hot 80 c. The room itself was not much warmer than the outside temperature, which was in the low sixties. And, unfortunately, it was too humid and wet for us to bring in any cameras, so my description will have to do.

As soon as we’d settled in, an attendant brought in a shovel loaded with white-hot stones. He carried them carefully across our outstretched legs, then dropped them into the pools. The white-hot rocks hit the seawater in a spray of steam that immediately gathered in the room, a dense fog that blocked our vision completely. Then they brought in more hot rocks; four shovels full for each tub, and we sat in the dense fog as the room heated up.

Eventually, the water cooled to below boiling, and it was at this point that the magic of the spa experience began. Pedro showed us the way: Dip a towel into the incredibly hot water, squeeze it out, and when you can stand to touch it, wrap it over a partner’s shoulders. The heat, barely where you can stand it, immediately sinks into your muscles, loosening your muscles and relaxing them at the same time as the steam is cleansing your lungs. It was very calming, especially with the herbs that had been put in the water beforehand.

We stayed in the sauna for about two hours, repeatedly applying the hot water towels to ourselves, and as time passed the water cooled, lessening the need to cool off the towels before wrapping our legs, or arms, or heads, in the salty water. Eventually, we soaked our feet in the water, and then, pruny and satisfied, and feeling a bit like salted dried fish, we changed back into street clothes and went back into the cool, cloudy day.

Snowy day!

I just wanted to share a quick video of my kids playing in the snow yesterday.  We got about two inches of the biggest, fluffiest flakes ever.

Little things to notice:

The doors to the school are open (all year-we wear coats and gloves inside).

The kids are unsupervised during recess (they have about 1hr 40 mins unsupervised time daily).

They are making and throwing snowballs at each other ( no one gets hurt either…)

Free time is so different here, but kids are the same everywhere.

School Festival!

The stage, and the camera-boy.

(Mike )

When October comes to Korea, elementary school students all over the country start practicing their special skills. Homeroom teachers become variety show producers, thinking of new skits and songs and dance routines for their students to produce. The halls are filled with the sounds of recorders playing folk songs ranging from old Korean standby Arirang to the more modern Edelweiss, from the Sound of Music.

My school, Soehae, was no exception. I’d heard the rumors from other schools whose festivals had gone before, but nothing could quite prepare me for the over-arching three-hour bacchanalia of cute and clever talents of kids aged five to thirteen performing on a gymnasium stage.

Kids in Hanbok

I went down to the gym around nine-fifteen, a few minutes before the festival was due to begin. The gymnasium had been converted to a theater, with folding chairs down both sides of a central aisle, and in the middle towards the back a platform held a camera on a tripod, and a fifth grade camera-boy, to record the whole show.

The parents were just starting to file in. As is the custom, you are not supposed to wear shoes inside a school, even if it is a gymnasium that has been worn smooth by thousands of sneakers. The parents hadn’t brought the indoor shoes, so they did the alternative: The stuck their feet in plastic baggies and tied them shut at the ankles. Imagine if you will a room full of parents shuffling around with their feet in plastic baggies. It was even odder than you’re imagining.

The show started, as it must, with a cute couple of kids welcoming the parents to the show. Then, a group of school-kids came out to play arirang on the recorder. Then, first-graders in traditional Korean outfits called Hanboks came out. They danced, and lip-synced to a Korean popular song whose lyrics were a complete mystery to me. Then, every five minutes, there was another show: third graders sat on the stage holding soda bottles containing beads; they shook them and pounded the floor in a percussion show. Then came some more third graders, all in yellow shirts and wearing faux American Indian headbands. They knocked together wooden sticks to the beat of a song I can’t remember.

Parents' row

For many acts, the parents moved up front, crowding the pit in front of the stage, and thrusting their cameras up to film the action. I though at some point there were more photographers than performers. I suspect the scene is familiar to anyone with kids in America.

There were no solo or duet acts. Korea isn’t big on the idea of individuals showing off, at least not at the public school level. The smallest group of kids was about six, who came out in berets and played their accordions in unison.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the classes lined up for their turn on the stage and frazzled teachers tried to keep the show together. It went on for about four hours, until finally, the crowd thinned out to the final sets of parents, the show closed and we all returned to our classrooms exhausted and ready to go home.

(Akasha )
School festivals are awesome, so different from MN school festivals.  (One day I’ll do a US/ ROK elementary compare and contrast entry) My schedule was rearranged for a month as each class rehearsed during 6th period for the month.)  Classes were cancelled the day before the big show for dress rehearsal.  All students sat in the gym and watched the dress rehearsal.  It was the noisiest, most rambunctious “watching” I’ve ever seen.  During the actual production the teachers were busy watching/ helping the show.  Classes that weren’t on stage or in que were supervised by one teacher per floor,  a 1/120 adult/ student ratio!

Kindergartners exiting performance #2

Most of the performances were very similar to Mike’s school festival.  The big difference and most memorable was the “play” the 6th graders performed.  It went from birth to death.  It covered being born, first day of school, first day of middle school, studying for national exams, graduations, fun with friends, going to college (Harvard), compulsory military service, falling in love, graduation,  getting married, having babies, a soju rage (professional men binge drinking and questioning the life, very existential and ugly, usually around age 60) getting old, and dying.  It was awesome and the one the kids really paid attention to.  Super fun, if not a little depressing.

soju stupor

The performances were spotless.  The parents seemed pleased, and the kids had fun.  None of this would have happened back home, it was strange and wonderful.