Carolus Thermen Spa Experience

I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.


Bad Aachen

It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.

On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.

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The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.

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Thermal Bathing

I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.

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I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.

The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.

Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.

After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.

The Saunas

After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.

It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden. 

While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat. 

Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.

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The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.

There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.

Oriental Bathing World

Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.

While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.

The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath.  Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.

Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!

Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.

Steam Sauna Treatment

When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore.  I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.

Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.

With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.

Dry Sauna Infusion

The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.

Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.

When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.

When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.

Aufguss-jpeg-bd20441e6780d0aba624404db27c711dYou know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.

Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.

As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.

Break Time

After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).

With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.

Feeling Like Fresh Bread

It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.

It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.

When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.

Spa Spell

I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit. 

My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.

When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it.  There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.

In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures. 


Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂

Chuseok in Jeju Part II

Wasn’t that in September? Yes, it was. Beleagured by work and play, by deadlines and soul crushing political discourse, it’s taken me a little while to get everything put together. The good news is that the second half of my Jeju trip was much better than the first half and includes a glimpse into Korea’s kinkiest theme park. My Loveland photos may be NSFW for you, I know they were for me! 



Seongsan Ilchulbong Crater

ÇѶóDBThe weather was once more gray and drizzly, hot and humid, but with some sleep, breakfast and coffee behind us, we were enthusiastic to hit the road. I had done a bit of research on the crater that morning because of how the walk around the waterfalls turned out. I found some bloggers who claimed it was a 20 min walk if you just went straight up and about 40 minutes if you were a slow hiker. (it still took me about 45 that day). I felt better prepared for the hike ahead, but then we arrived late due to heavy traffic.

Our original schedule would have allowed us to get up to the top and come back down in plenty of time to see the famous “diving women”. However, the delay meant that the only way to climb to the top and see the divers was to race up. I decided that it wasn’t worth making myself ill, so I chose to climb at my own pace. It was another one of those hikes that should have been fairly easy but was made challenging by the weather. I soon realized that it wasn’t just us pudgy white girls that were having to stop and take breathers regularly. The Koreans, who so often zip by on mountain climbs, were also struggling in the humidity, and people of all ages and shapes were taking frequent breaks along the way as well as showing signs of being out of breath.

PS, the humidity was so bad that nearly all of my photos from the trip were adversely affected by the moisture, creating blurry and haloed pictures that I’m ashamed to put online. I tried to pick the best for the full album on Facebook, but I’m borrowing some tourist advert pics here. Sorry!

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When we finally reached the top, it was clear the effort was worthwhile. The crater was formed by a volcanic eruption about 5,000 years ago. Since then, the wind and water erosion have moved the vocanic soil around and connected the crater with the mainland by a narrow land bridge. The view from the highest segment of the ring overlooks the deep bowl and surrounding stone ring. The crater itself was filled with green and the sea spread blue-gray in the distance. We bounced around the viewing platforms, which were made as giant steps to allow people to stand above those in front of them and not have to jostle for the front line. We took photos for ourselves, for random strangers, and had strangers take photos for us as well. Everyone at the summit was in a celebratory mood and it was exhilarating to be at such a beautiful natural display while shoulder to shoulder with a hundred or so happy and excited people.

As I predicted, we missed out on the diving women, but further research shows that it’s not actually that much to see, since all the action takes place under water. We managed to find some pure Hallabang juice (which I was very curious about since it’s famous and unique to Jeju, it’s a variant on the orange/tangerine theme, sweet and light, not at all tart) and a place selling chicken skewers in time to scarf down lunch before the bus headed off to the next locale.

Lava Caves

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The lava caves at Manjang Gul are a unique kind of cave formed by flowing lava rather than by water erosion. We have some in North America. In fact, I got to hike the Ape Caves’s by Mt. St. Helens a few years ago and those are the longest congigous lava caves in North America (Hawaii boasts the longest in the world, btw). I was interested to see the ones in Jeju, but was a little sad to find out only a 1km stretch of the tubes is open to the public. Safety, safety, safety. In Oregon, we hiked the Ape Caves alone with only our own flashlights for guidance, scrambling over piles of rocks and at one point navigating an 8ft wall with only a short length of rope secured to the rock to aid us. In New Zealand, there were limestone caves that would require special gear and plenty of squeezing through narrow gaps and were still open and unguarded. But in Korea, the cave was carefully lit with color changing lights and each rock formation that might have been even the teeniest bit not-flat was cordoned off to protect people from climbing on it. It certainly helped me to understand why my students thought my trip to NZ was so dangerous.

Nonetheless, as we descended into the cave opening, the cool underground air was a welcome change from the stifling late summer humidity above. It was also fun seeing sections of the cave fully lit. The last time I’d explored a lava cave, I could only see a small portion of it at a time. There were signs and infographics explaining various formations, and there were certainly better photo opportunities than in any of the unlit caves I’ve been in. I really appreciate the fact that Korea has made so many interesting things so accessible to people with small children or physical limitations. My only complaint? You can guess by now, not enough time. I hear there’s a pillar of sorts at the very end of the tunnel, but we never made it because about ¾ of the way down, we realized we had to turn back if we hoped to make it to the bus on time. And I wanted to be on the bus on time, because our final stop for the day was Korea’s kinkiest theme park: 

Loveland (NSFW pics)

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When I first saw Loveland on the tour itinerary, I thought, oh it’s probably some romantic couples oriented thing with tunnel of love rides and romantic couples cafes and two person everything. Then I did a Google Image search, and channeled the voice of George Takei.

Coming as I do from Seattle, where 50 Shades of Gray was dissected in minute detail for it’s many inaccuracies and misrepresentations, I might have a culturally different idea of “kinky” from most of the rest of the world, so, just to be clear, Loveland is really Sexland, but not anything wild. Pornography is not legal to make or own in Korea yet, so the park is a much more unique experience for Korean visitors than it is for those from countries with a thriving pornography industry. It’s mostly vanilla with the occasional nod toward the existence of other flavors. However, if artistic renditions of naked sexy parts offend thine eyes, scroll past quickly to the next section.

The park is filled with larger than life statues of erotic and sexual poses. Full bodies, body parts, foreplay and coitus. There is a giant hand stroking a giant vulva on the ground, as though someone is trying to bring mother earth to orgasm. There are several climbable giant penises. There are no “do not touch” signs, so basically everything is interactive for all the photo ops you want and several statues are designed to be only part of a picture and are clearly in need of a partner. There are a couple of gift stores and a sort of museum of smaller sexual art depicting vibrators and masturbation aids from around the world, wooden carvings of penises, and miniature dioramas of sexy scenes in ancient and modern Korean cultural settings.

The best part about the park, however, was the fact that once inside it, all the people seemed to be totally free from sexual embarrassment. People who, in normal life, would blush or stutter to talk about sex were suddenly giving full belly laughs at the little clockwork couples who you could make fuck with the crank of a handle, they were grabbing statues’ breasts and butts, gender roles mattered less and less as people posed with sexual statues the same gender as themselves without fear or homophobia, they asked total strangers to take pictures of themselves in compromising poses, and even when I squeezed my breasts into the outstretched statue-hands of a woman in ecstasy, I got no rude glares, but only smiles and thumbs ups. It was like some unspoken agreement that hey, we’re all adults, we all do this stuff or wish we could, so there’s no point pretending today. Oh, and not once did anyone of any national background try to use the freeing atmosphere of the park to skeeze on or harass another live person.

Rain Rain and more Rain

By the time we got back to the hotel, we knew 2 things: 1) there was no way on Gaia’s Green Face we were climbing Mt. Halla for 7 hours in that weather, and 2) we were definitely having a good vacation. We stayed up far too late, sitting by the pool and chatting while watching other groups around the courtyard play a variety of drinking games, and even got to help one lucky girl ring in her birthday by joining the sing-song. We went to sleep hapy in our decision to skip out on the mountain and to spend our last day of vacation on the beach, enjoying the water even if it rained and maybe even finding a secret hidden cove on our own.

The next morning brought a slightly different reality. Some time while we had slept, the weather turned for the worse, from merely rainy to outright typhoony. The main difference is of course the wind. For beach going, we weren’t too bothered by rain, since you get wet when you swim anyway, but the experience at Jungmun told us how bad the riptides here could really be, and we didn’t want to sit on the beach all day and not be able to swim again. During breakfast I watched the palm trees blow sideways. Our day’s buses were scheduled to leave late, so my friend and I tried to go sit outside under a canopy for a while to see what it might be like. Even under the canopy, we quickly became soaked and we had to hold on to everything we brought with us lest it be blown away by the wind. Finally, we had to admit defeat and start looking for a rain plan.

The tour group decided they would run an extra bus to the downtown area, so we started our search there. Downtown Jeju City is not terribly different from other large Korean cities, but we still wanted to do something unique to Jeju. The main obstacle here is that Jeju is famous for it’s outdoors. No one comes to Jeju to stay inside. All the activities are outside, even many of the museums are combination museum and park. Finally, I located the Yongduam Seawater Sauna and Jimjilbang. Jimjilbang are all over Korea, but I hadn’t actually made it in to one at the time of this trip, and on top of that I gathered that this one is unique because it pumps in water from the sea for some of it’s bathing pools.

Samseonghyeol Temple

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When the bus dropped us off, we spotted a sign for a museum and headed toward it, but before we arrived, we passed by the gates of a temple. I’m a sucker for temples. I expected it to be Buddhist, because so far that’s what every temple I’ve been to here in Korea has been. In Japan, there were Buddhist and Shinto temples, sometimes side by side. In China, there were Budhhist, Daoist and Confucian temples. Since arriving in Korea, I’ve realized how little I actually know about Korean religion pre-Buddhism, despite the fact that I actually minored in East Asian Indigenous Religions at school. It’s not from a lack of interest, but I realize I haven’t read a single book on Korean religious history. As a result, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the Samseonghyeol Temple in Jeju city is not Buddhist at all, but rather it is a temple to honor the three gods of Jeju Island. (side note, this doesn’t mean I know more about Korean religious history, since as it turns out, Jeju history and culture is separate from mainland Korea. Mainland Korean shamanism is called Muism or 무교 and I’ll be reading about that for while.)

tumblr_ndl8rli3vk1qkyzm3o1_1280According to the legend told at the temple, the first inhabitants of Jeju Island were three demi-gods who came to earth in a great flash of light and energy, and emerged from three holes in the ground. The temple is built on the site of these three holes, and no matter how much it rains, the holes never fill up with water. The demi-gods were named Go (고 / 高), Yang (양 / 良), and Bu (부 / 夫). They wore animal skins and hunted for food. They were of great strength and cunning, but they were alone. One day, a ship arrived on the coast and an old man came out to meet them. The old man said that he was a king of a distant land and that when they had seen the great flash of light, he knew that he must travel there with his three daughters to find husbands worthy of them. The demi-gods accepted the women as their wives and their new father-in-law gifted them with the five grain plants and several livestock animals including cows and horses. In fact the last horse to leave the ship landed so hard that it’s hoof left an impression in the rock that can still be seen today.

The marriage service was held at what is known today on the island as Honinji (literally “marriage pond”). Before the wedding ceremony, the young demi-gods bathed in this pond. Neaby there is also a cave called Sinbanggul that has three rooms and where the brides readied themselves beforehand, and the newlyweds spent their honeymoons afterward. Both the pond and the cave are landmarks preserved as the three holes are.

The couples used the gifts of grain and livestock to establish the first farms of Jeju. They began to trade with other countries including China, Japan and mainland Korea (which historical records support). Once the farms were well established, they decided to each create their own separate governments.  In order to decide where each family would begin their own districts, the three demi-gods each shot a single arrow into the sky. The arrows landed on three different parts of the island: one in Il-do, another in I-do, and the third in Sam-do. These names are still in use today.

I find it interesting that the founding demi-gods were effectively hunter-gatherers. The descriptions of their animal skin clothing and hunting lifestyle indicates that they were very similar to our own understanding of pre-agrarian human cultures. Typically, gods and demi-gods in origin myths have all the trappings of civilization which they then bestow upon the humans as gifts (or sometimes have stolen from them). When the king and his daughters arrive, they are depicted as wearing beautiful clothing of woven and embroidered cloth, and bring gifts of grains and livestock. This is an obvious transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural civilization. The transition is often told in myths, but this one was unique to me because the roles of human and divine were reversed.

The Tamna Kingdom remained a separate country until the 1400’s when it was absorbed into the Jeoson Dynasty of Korea. Even after this, the people of Jeju were still treated as foreigners and travel was restricted so there were many conflicts and more than one uprising. In 1910, Japan annexed Jeju along with the rest of Korea. And finally, today, the Island of Jeju is the  first and only self-governing province of Korea.

20160917_153121.jpgAfter watching an informative film about the history and mythology of the shrine and the island, we wandered through the paths in the quiet woods. There are almost 1000 trees in Samseolhyeong. The other buildings included the museum where dioramas of the myth were displayed along with some of the original writings and ceremonial clothing from the earliest rituals performed starting in 1562. Additional alters, shrines, dormitories and halls were added over the years, but most were destroyed during Japanese occupation. Although the site of teh three holes is the same, the modern temple complex was rebuilt here in 1970. The walk through the trees was a refreshing break from the hot and humid weather. We admired many bangsatap (small stone towers built for luck) and more than a few dol hareubang (the stone grandfather statues that are the iconic image of Jeju).

We emereged feeling newly educated and refreshed and ready to enjoy our afternoon plans at the spa.

Jimjilbang at Yongduam

Just about every blog I’ve read about Korean jimjilbang starts off with “eeeek! Nakedness!” or some equivalent. I’ve seen people refuse to even try to go for fear of nakedness, and I’ve seen people talk about how they plucked up their courage and averted their eyes and tried it anyway. But pretty much everyone feels the need to talk about how scary it is to have to get naked, be seen naked, or see other people naked. It seems a great many westerners are well and truly freaked out by the prospect of being naked in a non-sexual setting. This may tell you some things about western culture?

The jimjilbangs are not unlike the Japanese onsen. These are strictly gender segregated, and they are about enjoying the baths. Nakedness is not shameful, scary, or sexual here, it’s just how you bathe. When we got to the front counter, I managed to communicate to the woman there that we wanted to do the baths and the saunas (it’s a different price point, but only by about 2$). We were given pink T-shirts and shorts (the men had blue) and a few small towels then directed to the women’s entrance. This place seemed to be owned or at least operated by and for Chinese tourists because the vast majority of the signs were in Chinese and Korean (not much English around). We put our shoes in lockers in one room and headed further in. In the main changing area, there were more lockers where people were able to change and store clothes and bags. I wasn’t sure yet what our pink clothes were for, but as we tried to change into them, a somewhat beleagured staff member patiently explained in Korean and then again in Chinese that we only needed the pink clothes to go up to the second floor.

We quickly stowed everything in our lockers and headed, yes naked, into the bathing area. This room had 6 pools of different temperatures and mixtures as well as a dry sauna and a wet sauna. But before we could start soaking, we had to scrub. About a third of the room was dedicated to getting clean. It’s important when sharing a bath with strangers that everyone cleans up first, so we got some soap and scrubbed down with the rest of the ladies. We were the only non-Asians in the place, but people mostly ignored us. The scrubbing process is not a shy rinsing off. Think about everything you do in the shower to get really clean and know that that’s what everyone was doing here. It seemed it was also possible to hire someone to give you a massage, or even give you a good scrubbing while you sat at one of the cleaning stations.

Once we were scrubbed, we headed over to investigate the pools. There were several sea water pools, as wells as some fresh water, and some herbal infused. Some pools were still and others had jacuzzi jets. One pool even had a jet in the ceiling that when you pressed a button, sprayed an intensive force of water downward, letting you stand under it to pound away at the muscles of your back and shoulders. We started in a marginally hot sea water pool that was filled with volcanic rocks along one edge. When we got too hot, we moved to the cool water pool. We tried the super jet. We wandered in and out of the jacuzzi pools. We even tried the iciest pool to maximize the hot cold contrast. Gradually, my stiff muscles from days of bus rides and hiking began to unwind. The dry sauna smelled intensely of cedar and was too hot and dry for me, but my companion enjoyed it. I visited the wet sauna which was hot and steamy, but the walls of the room were made of a mosaic of semiprecious stones like amythest and rose quartz in geometric patterns.


After a couple hours of this, we decided it was time to investigate the mysterious “second floor”. We dried off and put on our pink clothes and followed the signs to the stairwell. The second floor turned out to be a clothed co-ed area where people could relax, eat, watch tv, and sleep. Jimjilbang are a popular overnight destination for people traveling on the cheap because they are open all night and offer these communal sleeping areas. (It turned out the basement had even more sleeping areas and a dedicated DVD room!) We got a simple meal from the small restaurant there, enjoyed the coin operated massage chairs, ate some ice cream while admiring the view of the sea, and finally decided to explore the unique jimjilbang rooms.

jjimjilbang-insideThere were 3 special rooms along one wall of the second floor: the red clay room, the amythest room, and the gardenia room. The rooms had little doorways and were quiet and dark inside. Places where people sat on mats or lay with their heads on wooden blocks to relax or nap while enjoying the atmosphere. The red clay room was warm, but not quite sauna warm. The walls were red clay and it resembled the inside of a clay oven. I don’t think I could have stayed for long in the heat anyway, but we were driven out by one man’s snores before that. The gardenia room was a truly sauna level of hot. There was a stong floral (presumably gardenia) smell in the air, but the heat was too oppressive. My bare feet singed on the floor as I hopped to a reed mat for protection. There were many women sitting on the mats but the air was too hard for me to breath for long and I hopped back out without even sitting down.

20160917_185732The amethyst room is by far my favorite. I had fallen in love with the beautiful stone mosaics in the wet sauna below, but this room put them to shame. Jasper, quartz, amythest, and many others were used to create beautiful scenes of village life and cherry blossoms. The temperature in the room was Goldilocks level’s of “just right” and I lay on the floor there for a good 20 minutes enjoying the play of the low light on the colored stones, feeling like I had crawled inside a geode.

With only an hour left, we headed back down for one more round of soaking in the baths and it was with some reluctance that we took our final shower and donned our street clothes to make our way to the bus rendevous. Even leaving ourselves 45 minutes to travel what should have been 10, we almost didn’t make it. There were no taxis anywhere to be seen and the city bus stop had no timetable to show us if another bus would even come. We asked some clerks at a convenience store to call a taxi for us, which they did attempt to do, but we were told no taxis were available! Just as it seemed all hope was lost, we finally flagged one down and made it back to the group with minutes to spare.


The Moral of the Story

This trip taught me a couple very important things.

One is that even if I’m going with a group, don’t rely on anyone else to know what’s going on. By the third day, I had no choice but to do my own research because our entire primary and secondary plans for that day were scratched. I skimped on researching Jeju because I spend so much energy researching New Zealand (and then speeding through my rough drafts to get them done before leaving for Jeju) and because I thought a tour group of locals who had done the annual island trip more than once were likely to know what they were doing. I basically looked at a few pictures on google enough to know that I wanted to go to the places they listed on the itinerary and left it at that. I know now, based on my experiences and research that I would have chosen a different plan for myself even if I’d still ended up going to nearly all the same places.

The other is the value of traveling with a good friend. Experiences that would have been a big fat bummer if I’d been alone became endurable or even fun and silly because of the company. I like travelling alone, too, but just like Taean’s many travel disasters were mitigated by the presence of my Busan Buddy, the Jeju trials were made well by my Seattle Sister. We took turns managing each obstacle and when one of us got overwhelmed, the other was there to pick up the slack. I really do believe that it turned what could have been a mediocre holiday into a great memory.

There were hours of bus rides and long evenings by the pool and crazy mornings trying to pack everything we needed for the day in tiny bags and that made up at least as much time as the beaches, museums and parks. I’m not dedicating a lot of blog space to the story of how I got irrationally upset my towel wasn’t dry overnight and she busted out a hair dryer to get it dry for me, or how she got super seasick and I spend a couple hours of ferry ride dashing around the boat to bring her things to help her feel better, or how we stayed up late into the night philosophizing about the better angels of our nature or the etymology of the suffix -izzle, but that does not mean that these were less meaningful and impactful portions of my holiday experience.

Sometimes the company and the journey are the destination.