Korea has some odd little beliefs that I've been exposed to. One of these is that sweating is good for you. I don't know if that's true or not, but it might be. It's something that sounds reasonable, doesn't it? However it's pretty cool here right now so there's not a whole lot of opportunity for sweating very much. Not a problem for the Koreans - it's off to the bathhouse.
So I thought I'd better give it a try, not wanting to be unhealthy or anything. It's about three euros in, but you can stay as long as you want so it's not too expensivee, even for a total cheapskate like me. The first problem was that I went on a Thursday morning, and there was pretty much no one around. I'd hoped to find a friendly Korean and rope him into being my friend for the day. The Korean who wants to be your best buddy is everywhere when you just want to be left alone, but when you want them, nope, of course there's no one who will even meet your eye. So I had to figure it out for myself. The first thing that I noticed is that they were all nude. OK, the guidebook had warned me about that, so fair enough.. but then it started getting complicated. What were all the little bits and pieces sticking out of the wall? How do you use them? In what order?
I took a shower first - both because it seemed the decently hygenic thing to do and because it was the one thing I felt reasonably comfortable with. How much ettiquite can there be with wiping dirt from your body afterall? Then there was a pool in the middle of the floor and I said I'd give it a try. Thw wall of the pool is raised to about hip height so you have to take a big step to get in there. I got about half of the first leg in and then pulled it out in agony. HOT! OK, try again, a little slower this time. Still no. I don't know what the temperature was in there, but I've been in cooler volcanic crater lakes. Yikes. Then I looked over to the other pool and saw all of the Koreans there laughing at me. That's a little intimidating, when you're naked in front of the locals and with one leg out and one leg half-in the pool, it's sorta a compromising position, y'know? Then I suddenly reaslised why my pool was enpty and they were all laughing at me from the comfort of the other pool - cooler water. I went over, jumped in without testing it, and landed in the nicest, most relaxing hot tub I've ever been in. I haven't had a real bath since coming to Korea, and this was so good.
As nice as it was letting the warm bubbles relax me, I eventually decided that I should try the other bits and pieces. The sauna seemed pretty safe... I've been in saunas before afterall. Plenty of Koreans in there, going in just at the same time that I was and I thought I'd watch what they do and copy them, and at least not make a total fool of myself for a second time in the same day. :-) They go in, and turn over an egg timer, and sit down. It all seems good. It's hot, it's really hot, but it's a sauna, so fair enough. I can sit down, sure no problem. Then the Koreans start doing jumping jacks. I don't want to be the crappy westerner, so I start doing them too. Oh. My. God. If sweating really is good for you, I should be the healthiest guy in the whole world.
What to do after that? Hmm.. there are some other 'showers' over at the other side of the room. They are too low to be showers though, and there are people sitting down in front of them, and they are wearing gloves. Interesting. I sit down on a stool, minding my own business and just look around and settle into some people watching. I saw what I presumed to be a grandfather, a father and a son, all there together. Three generations of the one family, all showering, all naked together. Then they start scrubbing each other's backs using those gloves I'd seen earlier. But they were scrubbing the whole back - from the neck, right down to the butt. You're there touching your father's bum, whilst your son is touching yours. Back home the social services would be called in to protect the children in that sort of family, but here it was just routine. Sometimes I think I'm observing the Koreans, when I'm really just observing myself. Afterall, there's nothing inherently wrong, or unhygenic about what they were doing, but it totally freaked me out. Then at the worst possible moment, I find my helpful Korean. You scrub my bum, I'll scrub yours. Thing is though, I could do that fine with some random Korean, no problems. How would I feel doing the same thing with one of the teachers from work? Or with my flatmate? Or with one of my friends back home?
Eventually, skin tingling, I decided it was time for the cool pool - couldn't get down into it. I don't know what they were filling it from, but it felt like snow melt. I was going to get out and give up on swimming in it, but had already justified the fact that the Koreans were able to use the super-hot water because they were better at handling heat than I was... so surely then I should be able to use the ice water? It might be dodgy reasoning, but it helped and down I went, swam two laps to ensure I really did it, and then got out, looking decidedly pink. The Koreans were staring at my pink naked body, but Koreans always stare at foreigners anyway, so I told myself that this was no more than the usual looks you get on the street.
Then I tried the pebble path. Little stones, and not so little stones, set into a concrete pathway, and barefoot, you walk across it. Or at least you attempt to walk across it. The Koreans believe that every part of your foot corresponds to a different part of your body, and so by stimulating your feet, you're in fact healing your body. Great thought and all, but for "stimulating", read "torturing". I guess my body did feel better afterwards though, at least by comparison with my poor feet. I hobbled off that path. The Koreans jogged on the spot - hammering their feet into those pebbles.
Hooked up with the Korean again and went for a massage. I've seen James Bond getting a massage, invariably at the well-oiled hands of some lucious beauty. They make suggestive chit-chat as she caresses his body... so I said I'd try a massage, how bad could it be? They hit you with their fists. Then they walk up and down on your naked body. Then they use what sounds like a well-rehearsed phrase, to be used whenever foreigners visit the baths. No screaming, please.
I decided I was a total failure at this 'bath house' experience.
I couldn't leave it like that though. I did the pebbles one more time. It hurt just as much, but at least I was trying. Then I thought about the volcano water I'd run away from initially - my final challenge. I had to psyche myself up for it though. First, hot shower, on maximum heat. Next, sauna, to really heat up until I couldn't stand it anymore. Ran out of the sauna, covered the distance to the hottest pool in about three good strides and lept into the relatively not-so-hot water. From the looks and the laughter the Koreans thought I was mental. I can't say they were entirely wrong. Then a Korean came over and explained in broken Englsih:No.
2: Cold pool.
That makes sense I guess.... Finnish people roll in the snow after their sauna, right? But then again, I'm not Finnish, and I'm not looking to be. It might be good for your pores, but it can't be good for the rest of you. I'll go back to the bathhouse again. I'll scrub a Korean's butt. But there's no way I'm going straight from the sauna to the cold pool. It's just not going to happen. :-)