I love going to hot springs. I’m not talking about the hotel resorts with communal water spas where everyone has to wear a swimming costume and there are water slides and lots of ‘family fun’ involving rubber dinghies, arm bands and floats. In fact, call me grumpy, but anywhere that advertises itself as ‘family friendly’ makes me turn and run screaming for the hills. No, my ideal water-related getaway would be a quiet (preferably empty of fellow bathers, but that’s asking a lot) hot spring (men and women separate) with various baths offering a range of health benefits.
Last May we went to Mungyeong. I really recommend this as a weekend getaway especially during the tea festival, which is held at the outdoor KBS historical drama studio. And there’s the Mungyeong Saejae provincial park there too which includes part of the road to Seoul from Busan used in the Joseon period. And then there are the hot springs. The hot spring resort hotel was fully booked when we went to the tea festival, (book early if you go during this period). So we stayed in a nearby motel (It was cheap. we brought our own sheets!) And we went to a hot spring near the motel which was really nice. Here are some other hot springs around Korea.
Mungyeong Tea Festival
ONYANG HOT SPRING TOWN
The oldest hot spring resort in Korea is Onyang in Chungcheongnamdo. It’s a couple of hours away from Seoul by car and it’s where the Joseon kings went to relax. I wonder how long it would have taken a royal party to get to Onyang (as seen in historical sageuk drama) with members of the party travelling by horse, sedan chair, or even on foot!
In Onyang there are signs all over the place for baths, spas, and health treatments such as massage. We stayed at the Cheil Hotel which has its own hot spring in the basement. The next day we went across the road to try the Tourist Hotel’s hot spring too.
There are older, smaller traditional baths around the town which are cheaper (around 3,000 won) but they don’t have all the modcons like jaccuzzi style baths or outdoor baths. And they are favoured by older customers. The other claim to fame in the area is the Shrine dedicated to Admiral Yi Sun Sin, read about our trip to Onyang here.
WHAT TO DO IN A HOT SPRING
I think it would be quite intimidating to go to the hot spring alone for anyone who hasn’t been to one before. I went into the hotel baths at 5pm and it was HEAVING! And although I’ve been to lots of hot springs – in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea – every place is different and I always get a bit confused about what to do! This (below) is an old style bath in Onyang. The women’s entrance is on the left 여탕 and the men’s entrance is on the right 남탕. You pay the 3,000 won fee at the window in the middle there.
At the Cheil Hotel hot spring this is what you have to do: First you buy a ticket at the reception which is easy enough. But then the first problem is how to get into your locker. I said goodbye to Mr. Kim who went off to the mens’ baths and I headed to the ladies’. You have to take your shoes off at the entrance and then put them into a shoe locker. (Don’t do what I did the first time I went to a sauna and try and put your coat in there. It won’t fit and you’ll look like an idiot).
I was looking for an empty locker but didn’t realise that you have to use the locker number that is written on your receipt, not just any available locker. In the end, the receptionist took pity on me and came over to help! After you have locked your shoes in, you take the key and go into the main changing room and find the locker with the same number as the shoe locker.
Here you get undressed. (I assumed they would have soap and shampoo in the baths as this is a big hotel. But they only provide towels – bit stingy. So you have to bring soap yourself or buy sachets from the vending machine. I was kicking myself for not bringing down the shampoo etc. from our room! So at this point I had to get some change and buy a sachet of soap)
Cheil Hotel and Onyang Hot Spring Town
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR TOWELS
After getting completely undressed, go out of the changing room through the glass doors into the bath area. You are given two towels at reception. (well, ladies are given 2 towels, men aren’t given any because there are stacks of towels in the men’s changing rooms.They can use as many as they like. There are usually no spare towels in the ladies’ rooms because the towels ‘disappear’!) Take one with you and leave the other one in the locker for later. The towel you take with you has various uses. I use it to sit on when I go into the sauna to avoid sitting directly on the benches. I also use it as a kind of security blanket when I’m walking around the baths…
Some ladies soak the towel in cold water and then cover their heads with it in the sauna. Meanwhile in the baths, some ladies tie the towel around their head in a kind of turban – maybe it’s to keep long hair out of the water? Or they fold it in a square and balance it on the top of their heads.
HOT SPRING ETIQUETTE NOTE 1: The one thing to remember about the towel is that you should NOT put the towel in the bath. If you want to wet it fill one of the many bowls lying around on the floor with water and soak it in that.
ENTERING THE BATHS
Before you actually get into the baths, you should have a wash at one of the showers. In the women’s baths most of the showers are low so you sit on a plastic seat and have a wash. But women bring a lot of stuff with them into the baths – shampoos, brushes, scrubbing items, creams – you name it. And they tend to leave them in bowls around the shower area and then go off to the baths. So it’s impossible to know which showers are free to use! Mr Kim says it’s not like this in the men’s baths. Oh to be a man.
A common sight in the baths is women scrubbing their dead skin off with an exfoliating ‘Korean Italy glove’ Bathers will also scrub each other’s backs – who hasn’t seen this kind of male bonding scene in a Korean drama? The gloves look like these (left) on sale from Amazon.
Or you can have your body professionally scrubbed for 15,000 won. This is carried out behind screens around the sides of the bath room. The women walking around in black swimming costumes (sometimes black underwear) are not body-shy bathers, they are 때밀이 ttaemiri* professional scrubbing staff. (I hear that the male staff in the men’s baths wear black trunks)
*Mr Kim says it’s not polite anymore to call the scrubbing professionals ttaemiri. (ttae means ‘dead skin’, miri means ‘rub’) We should say sesinsa 세신사. (se means ‘wash’ sin means ‘body’ sa means ‘specialist’)
Most baths have a steam sauna and a dry sauna where some bathers rub ‘slimming’ creams on themselves, or wrap themselves in plastic sheets to sweat more. Plastic cushions (on sale at the shop for 6,000 won) can be used in the sauna to avoid sitting directly on the bench.
BATH ETIQUETTE NOTE 2: I made all my hot spring faux pas in Japan – I came out of a sauna all sweaty before leaping joyfully into a cold bath much to the HORROR of fellow bathers. That’s when my friend pointed out that I should have taken a shower first ..oops! Don’t do that.
GETTING OUT OF THE BATH
I can spend a good hour in the baths. First I soak in a fairly hot bath. Then I go to the outdoor bath to cool down. Then I head for the sauna. Then I rinse off and get into the cold bath. Then back to the sauna. Repeat. This really gets the circulation going. If you’re feeling very brave you could even book a professional scrub into the plan – a scrub should be done after soaking in a bath for about 30 minutes. I have one final soak in a hot bath before getting out.
BATH ETIQUETTE NOTE 3: Use your towel to dry yourself off a bit when you come out of the baths so that you don’t drip water all across the floor to your locker causing a slippery and dangerous health and safety nightmare behind you. There are often signs (in Korean) asking bathers to do this. Use the other towel in your locker to dry off properly. Drop your towels off in one of the bins near the lockers when you’re done. Once you’re dressed all that’s left to do is find your shoes and then find somewhere to have a refreshing beer.