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.
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.
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.