Siloam Sauna ~ A Day at a Korean Jjimjilbang

Sometimes, you need a hot bath. Since there are few bathtubs in Korean apartments, we are given the public sauna–that mutually nude tradition from Roman antiquity. I’ve always liked baths, hot tubs, jacuzzis, any kind of pool. But a Korean jjimjilbang is completely different. Conan went, hilarity ensued. Anthony Bourdain went (in his show: Parts Unknown), contemplation ensued.

It’s a wonderful place for relaxation, if you can get past the shared bathtubs and the nudity coupled with dramatically conspicuous pubic hair. The pure joy of a 44C tub in winter outweighs any dangling encroachment or short & curly incursion. Don’t misunderstand, it’s a public kind of privacy. Yet one needs to be ready for extreme nudity of all sizes and ages, because, of course you don’t look, but you do see. Once past the initial nude shock, you can sit in dry Swedish saunas, wet aromatic steam-rooms, jacuzzi baths, and tubs ranging from icy to scalding. It’s an exercise in temperature toleration. My skin usually resembles a lobster after about an hour of cold to hot body shocking.

I put on the cozy pajamas they give you, and meandered to the common co-ed room. Here is the real deal. You can find beehive caves where temps hover around 100 C, Himalyan rock salt floors, personal cocoons, ice rooms and all manner of sweat chambers. There is usually a restaurant on-site, or a snack bar. Ice cream, water and ramen are the best choices. Once you’ve gotten the perspiration going and achieved perfect ice cream to spicy soup balance, lie on the heated floor and relax.

The Siloam Sauna near City Hall in Seoul was freaking packed when we arrived on New Year’s Day 2016! There were buses of Chinese tourists outside and I felt like the Star Wars quote: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Sure enough, it was a mess inside. Bodies occupying every available shower, very little space in the tubs and just too much everything. I posted up in the salt room, got some salt and gave myself a scrubbing. It was a bad idea to come on the universally most hungover and thus most crowded day of the year, but here we were. The buses left after a while, and the place thinned out.

Siloam is a massive place, with an exercise room, large restaurant, plenty of unique common rooms, and clean for its popularity. Dragon Hill (in Yongsan) might still win on size and presentation, but is also consistently and annoyingly crowded. I think on a normal day (not January 1st), this place might be better for the crowd averse.

Here are some pictures of the common chilling areas, and more information here.

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My sample routine for beginners:

  1. Pay the fee (between 6-12,000won) and get a locker.
  2. Undress, rinse in shower, get in warm tub, then hot, then cold. Move to dry sauna, cold shower…repeat.
  3. Once sufficiently heated, rinse with cool water and change to pajamas.
  4. Visit all the available sweat chambers, starting with hot first, and ice room between.
  5. Drink a bottle of water, eat ramen noodles and ice cream.
  6. Nap, read, chill, people watch.

49 Jungnim-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul

Winter Soups in Korea

The winter in Korea is brief but harsh. January and February’s air holds a pure and constant chill, permeating skin and infecting the bones with an icy fever. The ubiquitous sauna can assuage the frost, but the best remedy for melting the snowman inside remains Korean soup. It comes in many fashions, with two main types: Jiggae, a stew formula; and tang, a brothier cousin. Under those umbrellas lie some mystically delicious recipes. Here is my list for the current winter season.

We start with my ultimate comforter. It’s chuahtang. Tiny, ground up mudfish make for a spectacularly thick and hearty broth with noodles, rice and green veg.

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Next, at a nice riverside restaurant, we ate homemade kalguksu, which are hand-cut noodles in a creamy broth. Also pictured is kimchijeon (kimchi pancake) and mandu (dumplings).

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This is sundaejiggae (blood sausage stew). It’s a hangover or pre-bedtime food usually. Spicy and filling, but with a tendony texture that might not be for everyone.

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These are amazingly simple but delicious North Korean style mandu (dumplings). The thin broth is fantastic, the pajeon (green onion pancake) is fried perfectly, and the spicy soup was just right.

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Near the Seoul Arts Center in Seocho, there is a famous beef gukbap restaurant. The place was packed on a Saturday afternoon. Every table was eating the same thing: either this tender beef soup, or barbecuing meat at their table. The place was full of smoke and great smells.

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Seolleongtang (oxtail soup) is a shockingly thin gruel with nothing but boiled bone broth, green onion and some slivers of brisket. You add the rice, salt and pepper. The simplicity makes it ever so healing.

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The sister soup of seolleongtang is this, gomtang. I honestly don’t know the difference, but I believe in its salubrious powers.

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Here we have a shared pot of gamjatang. It’s got crock pot softened pork leg, potato, onion and mixed veg in a spicy broth. It’s massively filling. You’ll need a walk after consuming this.

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Our first meatless soup is a stomach settling sundubujiggae. It’s tofu soup mixed with kimchi, turnips and spicy broth. Some varieties have clams or mussels.

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The classic peasant/student dinner. Ramen noodles with a donkatsu (fried pork cutlet). It’s nothing special, but it’s cheap, quick and comes with unlimited kimchi.

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A super simple late night snack soup is kongnamulguk. It’s just bean sprouts and green onions. This place gives you an egg to toss in for some extra substance. The rumor is that this soup gives men…power. <wink>

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Outside of Seoul, in Namyangju, is this amazing mushroom and whole duck soup. The broth is full of fatty bubbles, matched with the massive pile of green onion and some potatoes and carrots at the bottom. I felt pleasingly full afterward, not uncomfortable, but definitely walking slowly.

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Buddaejiggae (army stew) might be one of the craziest and most anachronistic dishes in Korea. During the Korean war, poverty and hunger were rampant, but not for American soldiers. In fact, they had extra, and gave the leftovers to their Korean partners. Thus, we find this patchwork potion of hot dogs, spam, ground beef, beans, tofu, kimchi, ramen and onion. The magic is hard to understand until tasted. It always reminds me of The Simpsons, of Seymour Skinner’s flashback to the food he was served in his Vietnamese prison: “…I spent the next three years in a POW camp, forced to subsist on a thin stew of fish, vegetables, coconut milk and three kinds of rice. I came close to madness trying to find it here in the States, but they just can’t get the spices right!”

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Fermented soybeans might not sound good, but don’t knock it until you try it. Doenjang jiggae is tofu and those same soybeans mixed with turnips and kimchi. It’s a very common soup served free or at the most 2$ a bowl at many BBQ restaurants. It’s great for the body.

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I know I left out some others, like a personal favorite, samgyetang, (chicken soup) which is sometimes considered a summer food, but the food options never end here in South Korea. Es ist eine kulinarische wunderland or il paradis culinaire.

(I’ve been watching Netflix with subtitles and google translate is so fun.)

 

Petite France ~ A Place for Selfies and Romance (if you can ignore the ridiculousness)

“Little France” outside of Seoul, in Gapyeong, could also be called “Gauche France” or “Faux France.” It’s a ridiculous caricature of the world’s most visited country. We saw tiny alleyways made of hollow plaster, fake wooden framed cottages, cute cafes that sell ddeokboki for 7$, lame replicas of Parisian iconography, broken fountains in manicured cobblestoned plazas and generic ideas of France as imagined by someone who believes French culture to be epitomized by puppets, mimes and berets. It’s not wholly without charm, it’s just a smarmy charm. A charm that requires ignorance, the Michael Bay kind of charm. Yes, it’s a movie, but nothing is real. The place is replete with symbolic French roosters, Little Prince statues, and dubiously authentic memorabilia.

Yes, I know. I’m in Korea. What did I expect? You don’t get the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” for hundreds of years and then leap into the modern age with a fully realized vision of globally relevant cultural minutiae. Once I got past the fake, forced cute of the little hillside village asking “you think you’re better than me because you’ve been to France?” routine, and suspended my haughty disbelief, I enjoyed our time there. It’s a beautiful setting, the air is clean, people are happy and holding hands, and if you squint your eyes real tight, only letting in the dimmest glow, maybe you could think yourself among the winding streets of Montmarte or the grand boulevards of the “City of Lights”…until an ajumma pushes you out of the way to take 13 solemn pictures in front of a two meter Eiffel Tower.

Here is a collection of several of the hundreds of pictures we took this cloudy, breezy, late fall afternoon in “Petite France.”

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