Sunday, January 9, 2011
The Dragon Hill Spa
My dear friend, Lex, decided to invite a whole whack of foreigners to join her on a trip to what seems to be considered Seoul's "grandest" jimgilbang yesterday evening. Lex digs on jimjilbangs, and she wanted to see how many pleasant foreigners shoe could crowd into one before she ends her winter visit of Korea and heads to Australia to pursue her masters.
Dragon Hill Spa is located very close to Yongsan Station - Yongsan being the area that holds Korea's largest US Army base. I mention that to note that the staff are very used to dealing with foreigners, so it wasn't a horrible thing for a large-ish group of us to descend on the place.
Dragon Hill is only the 3rd jimjilbang I've been to since coming to Korea. I kind of dig on the jimjilbang experience in some ways, but in other ways, I could really take it or leave it.
Basically, a jimjilbang is a public bath-house with bath rooms segregated by gender. Each bath area might have anywhere from 2-12 baths, ranging from 10-16 degrees or so, to the hottest I've seen being somewhere around 47 degrees. There are of course steam rooms, and dry saunas as well - some of the latter being co-ed.
Perhaps the strangest feature of the jimjilbang experience, for me anyway, is the co-ed "sleeping" room. Usually, this is a very wide-open and fairly well-lit stone tile floor heated from underneath. There are no mats - only stiff vinyl blocks for pillows - IF you can find one. I didn't measure the temperature of the floor, but it's hot. Myself, as well as most of my friends were waking up fairly regularly to wipe sweat off of our faces while spreading ourselves out as much as possible in an attempt to cool-down. It's a BIG room, and there was scant floor space available by midnight. You had to step-over people wherever you went.
You thought I was going to say that the strangest part of the jimjilbang experience is the nakedness. Well, that's partly true. I'm not a huge fan of being the extreme minority in a room where dudes of all shapes, sizes, and ages are swinging-about and not-at-all shy about looking to see if the tall foreigner has the same bits and pieces that they do. It's a little disconcerting, but one gets used to it.
I don't know - on the one hand, I like the fact that at the end of the night, or whenever you feel sleep chasing you down, there are literally hundreds of strangers packed fairly close-together (kids and all), in our little Dragon Hill shirts and shorts, and comfortable enough to go to sleep. Last night, the finale (I think) of a very popular Korean TV Drama was playing out on the flat screens around the main room and it seemed as though everyone was watching. I don't know that I've every had that experience outside of televised sporting events. I was charmed.
My friends and I visited the restaurants, got fruit smoothies, had some Korean beer, and then eventually found a clear spot up the steps near the "throne" in the main room. There, you bet your ass we played a game of Catan right under the steps of the Joseon-era throne. It wasn't disrespectful or anything, as we had seen plenty of people frolicking on and around it all night, but we did feel lucky to scam the best seat in the house, which would also soon become our sleeping area. Lex's friend, Ryan, and I were declared the Monarchs of Catan after the game and marked the occasion with a photo atop the throne. Being that I didn't have my camera with me that night, and being that Lex hasn't emailed me the photo yet, this one of the throne balcony in an empty main room (from google) will have to do...
At around 2am or so, the lights dimmed (only slightly) as the room seemed to be suggesting sleep. I tucked my bag into a corner of the throne area balcony, under the watchful eye of my friends, and went off to brush my teeth. When I came back, everything was still there, but a young mother and her 3 or 4 year-old boy had taken my spot. Before I could get a good look, Lex pre-empted my protest by letting me know that the little boy had cancer - how could she say know. Right - there was the little dude with a white face-mask and a shaved head, and looking none-too-well. I moved my stuff over a bit so that I was perpendicular to them, and lay my sweater down as a pillow, then, seeing as the little guy didn't have one, took-out my white t-shirt from the sweater and folded it up like a tiny pillow and offered it to the boy. He took it, put his head down, as did I, and I woke-up probably not more than a few minutes later to feel the little dude's hand rubbing my arm in his sleep. A good memory.
All in all, as much as I appreciated the time I had (good company and all), I don't know that I'll be going back to Dragon Hill Spa anytime soon. There's nothing particularly relaxing about it for me, and it's not exactly cheap if you want to spend a substantial amount of time there. Korean food and drinks are marked-up a fair amount - to nearly double the price of what they would be across the street from the spa, which is understandable, but frustrating when one is in there for the night.
But back to the relaxing bit. Yes, it is nice to wake-up and have the option of getting into the baths one more time before heading wherever it is you're heading, and it's cool to lounge-about in pajamas and in public with your friends, but that floor, even if you can get-over the hardness, is effing hot, and that's not how the Davey likes to sleep unless he's in the tropics and he has no choice.
Also, not to seem like a parting cheap-shot, but if I'm being forthright and honest, Seoul's "best" jimjilbang pales in comparison to what was supposedly a middle-of-the-road Onsen (Japanese public bath) that I visited in Kyoto. I guess Dragon Hill has been around a while, and I realize that everyone has his or her own standards of cleanliness, but I saw things in the Men's shower and bath rooms that would make your over-heated blood run cold.
Still, if you've never been - go, and try sleeping on the floor surrounded by people who are used to it, and see how it is for you. I'll do it again, but likely not until I do so in an attempt to save some cash on my next Korean road trip.