The word sauna is an ancient Finnish word which means the traditional Finnish bath as well as the bathhouse itself. The oldest known saunas were pits dug into a slope or hill and used as homes during the winter. The Finns used the sauna as a place to cleanse the mind, rejuvenate and refresh the spirit, prepare the dead for burial, and – because it was usually the cleanest structure and had water available – as a place to give birth. The sauna is still an important part of daily family life in Finland and most homes have a sauna.
Saunas can be found in most cultures: Finland, the Baltic countries, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, the UK, southern Europe, Central America, the US, Africa, Japan, Australia and Korea.
In Korea, the sauna is essentially a public bathhouse. Families come to enjoy the day together, with the men and women taking showers, whirlpools, and massages in separate parts of the facility, but coming together for the saunas.
A friend and I decided to try to local Korean sauna I had heard so much about. I have enjoyed dry saunas in the spas and hotels I have stayed in over the years. My country club offered one as an amenity in the ladies’ locker room. My friend, a client of my partner and our business, is in the middle of a detox program and wanted to use the sauna to help “sweat” out some impurities. So we set out on a Sunday for an adventure!
We passed the entrance to the Spa and had to double back. Not expecting the facility to be marked by a gate with a ceramic family of giraffes on the crossbar, we missed the turn-in the first time around, sure it was the entrance to a safari-type park. When the Spa came into view at the end of the drive, the parking lot was quite full. I felt like I was looking at a small town casino: two huge sitting lions graced either side of the staircase to the entrance. Once inside, I don’t know if casino is the word I would have chosen to describe the place.
We entered, taking our shoes off, getting locker keys and a set of pink gym shorts with top. Then we were ushered into the women’s locker room. Various shapes, sizes, and ages of females were walking around nude (as I had been told we had to be when I called for information).
We put our shoes in one tiny locker and our clothes in a larger one across the room. Grabbing a towel the size of a small guest hand towel, we walked into the shower room. With a wall of showers on one side, four whirlpools in the middle, each with a different temperature and mineral content, a wet sauna, a cold pool in the middle of the room, and the open massage and body scrub area on the other side, the room was moist to say the least. Moms, with little ones, young girls, older women in head scarves: this was a real cross-section of the female condition.
Showered and in our pink outfit (the guys get blue), we entered the co-ed portion of the Spa. A restaurant, rows of pink fake leather couches, trimmed in Victorian curlicued white wood, and various saunas greeted us. Some people were asleep on the couches or on mats on the floor. Some ate. Some watched T. V. Children played. Gongs would chime and a soft Asian voice would say something. Often that would create a mad rush into one of the sauna rooms. We were not in Kansas anymore.
First, we entered The Pyramid Room. The walls are covered with 23 carat gold to help cleanse impurities. The pyramid shape channels metaphysical energy. This sauna felt good. At 115 degrees, I hadn’t started to sweat yet when my friend started to feel a little light-headed. This is often the case when doing a detox.
We left The Pyramid Room and entered The Ice Room, the equivalent of a cold plunge pool. Chilled to just above freezing (35 degrees), it was suggested that you rub your towel over your skin to get the best out of the stimulation to blood flow. The floor was covered with grass mats and it was too cold to comfortably be barefooted on the floor without them.
After several minutes, we went into The Salt Room. Made from 350 million year old salt rocks, this rooms aids in rejuvenating the skin. The temperature gauge said 120 degrees. The floors had cloth mats over the grass mats and, if you were not resting on the cloth, you would end up with a huge red mark on your skin. The walls were too hot to touch for long. I was just beginning to glisten when my friend said she thought she should leave because she was feeling a bit nauseous. Again we went into The Ice Room to lower our body temperature.
There is a Yellow-Soil Crystal Room heated to 115 degrees and unique to Korean culture. It combines infrared rays with the absorptive nature of the yellow soil to extract toxins within the body.
The Base Rock Bath Room contains amethyst crystals, yellow soil and a bed-like slab of imported Japanese Siraka, a mineral said to have fantastic healing abilities. This room is heated to 127 degrees.
The Fire Sudatorium, or sweating bath, is made from elvan stones. The intense heat (165 to 170 degrees) is said to be exhilarating.
There is The Oxygen Room, the “Hawng-Toe-Ssut-Jjim” Room (yellow soil and wormwood steam room), and the Bulgama. This is the room everyone runs into when the gong sounds. It contains amethysts crystals and the elvan stone – a unique living stone. When the gong sounds, it means that a flatbed car loaded with the stones, which are heated to 155 degrees, is brought in on tracks and heats the room up dramatically.
Enough sauna. We decided to have the Body Scrub and Massage. So back into the shower room we go, to shower and wait for out table which is one of about eight behind a sand-blasted glass wall depicting characters from The Simpsons. I kid you not. Apparently, this T. V. show is huge in Korea.
All the tables are in a row and each has a tiny lady clad only in bra and panties…some matching and quite lovely and some not so much. Each table is covered in turquoise plastic and once on the table, your tiny lady pours a bucket of water over you and applies a salt rub that is vigorously worked into your skin with loofahs…not once, not twice, but trice. Interspersed with a bucket of water being flung on you after each phase of the scrub, by the end, I felt as though I had auditioned for the final dance scene in Flashdance. Oh, what a feeling.
Then the tiny lady washes and oils you and begins the massage. There is a language barrier so if you have issues with range of motion there is no way to communicate that to her. Front, back, back, front…at one point, I felt that I would slide off my table and bounce along all the other ones until I reached the floor! I was fine with everything until – on my stomach – she climbed on the bottoms of my feet with her knees. Holy Seoul! She could tell by the frantic waving of my arms that this was not something I was keen on. When she climbed up on my buttocks with the same knees, it actually felt good…
The massage is a bit rough. You feel a little slung around. There is slapping and cupping…must be the Korean way. No gentle Four Seasons pampering here. Because you are in a big room with everything else going on, it is not quiet and soothing. And it is wet! I think I came in with a few more freckles than I left with, but my skin did feel smooth. On the way home, my friend told me that every time my tiny lady would finish one part of the treatment, she would take her bra off and wash herself. Maybe she was afraid I had cooties.