A wonderfully invigorating jjimjilbang encounter at Silaom Sauna in Seoul
Asian cultures spend a great deal of attention on the well-being of the body. The ancient Chinese traditions promote a well-balanced ch'i (life force) to engender harmony between the mind, body and the environment. Among the holistic arts in the Indian "handbook" for wellness, Yoga and Ayurvedic medicines are recommended to restore mindfulness and vitality. The age-old Malay art of massage can aid better blood circulation while Thai meditation helps to soothe a troubled mind. Japan's sublime onsen getaways offer an oasis to connect with nature and if you are in Bali, kick back and relax in a tranquil setting as you experience a "lulur" scrub and a hot oil massage concluding with a floral scented bath.
A life force flows throughout Asia that is truly alive and once you have a taste of it, you will be ravenous for more. It permeates into all Asian treatments advocating that when the entire mind, body and soul are rested, true healing begin. In 2012, I was in South Korea and spending precious moments at a jjimjilbang (Korean bathhouse) offered just that – a wonderfully invigorating encounter!
From Incheon International Airport, the first thing I did was to head straight to Siloam Sauna located in Jung-gu, the historical heart of Seoul. Conveniently, it is located within walking distance from Seoul Station. This was my first trip to South Korea and I was all excited, looking forward to new experiences while exploring its capital.
Siloam Sauna, a traditional jjimjilbang, was highly recommended by Julian. Operating 24/7, the spa complex is complete with full spa facilities. The sauna and pools use natural Germanium-rich water drawn from 300m below the surface. It houses various fomentation rooms as well as a restaurant and snack bars.
Here is a brief layout of the five-storey jjimjilbang – the main floor (reception, locker rooms and a snack bar), basement (baths, pools and a body scrubbing area), 2nd floor (a restaurant, lounge, a sports massage room, an oxygen room and a foot fomentation area), 3rd floor (entertainment centre), 4th floor (fomentation saunas and an ice room) and 5th floor (red clay "cave" and sleeping areas).
It is easy to navigate one's way in the complex as simple directions are listed strategically on the floors and on the walls, in English and Korean. Korean body scrubs, salt exfoliating scrubs and sports massage services are also available.
Do note that the locker rooms, baths and sleeping areas are separated by gender. Men stick to their side and the ladies stay on theirs. However, the other areas in Siloam accommodate both sexes.
I have been to many spa retreats, have had my skin exfoliated in a full-body scrub with ground indigenous herbs in Bali, been soothed by hot stone massages, stretched in a Thai massage in Bangkok, pounded with herbal hot compresses, braved a strong Ashiatsu (barefoot) massage in the ancient city of Bagan, rejuvenated by a Tibetan healing massage at CHI, relaxed in an onsen in Kyoto and the hot springs in Rotorua, even pampered with a milk bath ritual. Yet, I had never unwind in a fomentation room.
Siloam unfolds an amusement centre of fomentation rooms laden with a plethora of "material" (e.g., salt, jade, loess, charcoal and ice, even oxygen) and maintained at certain temperatures to maximise their therapeutic benefits. For example, the charcoal room is kept at 22°C whereas the salt and jade rooms are kept at 60°C.
The first fomentation room I entered was the one filled with loess. At first glance, the loess looked like clay pebbles. Only through research did I realise that it is rich in minerals, consisting predominantly of quartz, feldspars, micas and calcium carbonate. Kept at 50°C, the slightly heated loess pebbles are believed (since ancient times) to be excellent at detoxifying the body. I laid in them, deep in a relaxation mode. Silence was golden here and much appreciated by all. After a while, I wondered how long it would take to reap the benefits of being in the fomentation room. Being in good health, I had hardly noticed any change after a good 20 minutes.
Since inquisitive in nature, I tried all the fomentation rooms, some twice or more, without noticing much difference. Locals who frequent jjimjilbang as a solace to recover from aches and pains would have a different story to tell you.
The cold room, looking very much like a huge walk-in freezer, was the only room in which I felt a profound impact. That was the room that mercilessly shocked all my senses! The dramatic cold demanded my full attention. Pushing myself, I stayed in as long as I could although shivering in discomfort, before running into the 60°C salt room for relief. I did this a couple of rounds before lying down for a long time in the comfortable 22°C charcoal room, almost dozing off at times.
Now let us head down to Level 1 and turn back the hands of time to the moment I first entered Siloam. At the registration counter, the receptionist handed me a key to an assigned locker in the changing room, where I left my belongings. I mean all my belongings, including every article of clothing. The only thing I wore, as would everyone there, was a band with the locker key attached to it, either on the wrist or ankle. At bathhouses in Korea and Japan, nudity is something common, shared by all ages of society. I believe in naturism and would enlist in a nudist colony if only the little island I live on had one. Bare skin is beautiful and should not be viewed as something scandalous. The subjects of most of my paintings (I paint when I can find the time) are poetic nude figures.
Comfortable in my birthday suit, I headed down a flight of stairs to the brightly lit bathing area in the basement level. It is common bathhouse etiquette to scrub yourself clean before entering any of the pools. Shower stalls and sit-down scrubbing stations are standard decor in any Korean bathhouse joint. I spent a good 10 minutes making sure I was squeaky clean. It is good to learn that hygiene and cleanliness are of utmost importance to Koreans and this scrubbing routine is an integral part of the jimjilbang culture.
There were heated pools and jacuzzis to soak in as well as an icy-cold pool to jolt the system. Three of the pools were heated medicinal baths – a mugwort bath, a charcoal bath and a jade bath. Do these mineral bathing pools really work? Although Korean spas swear by them, I can only share with you how I felt. My favourite was the heated mugwort bath. It was amazingly soothing! Soaking in these pools, relaxing and whiling away time was such a luxury. I was happy to indulge as moments such as this are far and few in my rather hectic lifestyle. It was a boon that we were not rushing for time since we were spending a night at Siloam.
One of the staff approached me and asked if I wanted a full body scrub (also known as seshin). Not realising what I was agreeing to, I happily said yes and followed him. Onto a white waterproof table I laid and an unforgettable experience unfolded. What had I got to lose? Well, apparently a lot of dead skin, as it turned out. He lifted my arms, turned me this way and that, not missing a spot scrubbing me vigorously with exfoliating gloves. Every fold, nook and cranny – even where the sun did not shine was brilliantly scrubbed. It was excruciatingly brutally, with me wincing all too often; the scenario was a borderline cartoon. This all took place in the brightly lit area with ample front row seats for amused spectators. The staff was sadistically happy with every sound I made. Here I repeat that I was nude!
When he was done, he very proudly indicated to all the dead skin covering the table before dousing me with water. This would have been the cleanest I would ever get in my life! I showered and dipped into the Antarctic-freezing pool before hopping into a warm one (as recommended by my cheeky, highly proficient "scrubber"). My skin was as smooth as a baby's bottom, tingling with sensation. I also felt much lighter after having lost pounds of dead skin. There was way too much excitement for a day at Silaom.
The 5th floor was the sleeping area with Korean-style bunk beds and sleeping pods with curtains. I slept like a log that night. I woke up the next day feeling fresh, clean and invigorated, all happy and ready to explore Seoul, the largest metropolis of South Korea.
Siloam Sauna Jjimjilbang 실로암사우나찜질방
49 Jungnim-ro, Jungnim-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
T: +82 2-364-3944
Seoul Station (line 1/4, exit 1)
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
19 March 2012