BARENAKED in BUSAN - A day in SPALAND
Updated: Feb 17
Well, it wasn't just any day. It was my birthday. In my 20's, I kept a streak going for 8 years of spending my birthday away from home, either out of the province, or out of the country. That was my idea of the best birthday. School, pregnancy and kids in my 30's stopped that streak dead in its tracks. And here I am now, on my 40th in Busan, starting a new tradition: TRY SOMETHING THAT YOU HAVE NEVER DONE BEFORE on your birthday.
So SPA LAND it is, which just so happens to be inside the Guinness Book of World Records' Largest Department Store, Shinsegae Centum City. Easily accessible by subway, as the station, Centum City, is connected to the mall.
Spa Land isn't your typical North American spa where you go get facials and a massage. Public bathhouses ("jjimjibang" 찜질방 ) exist in every corner of the country and are a big part of Korean culture. You can go solo, but it's generally a social or a family outing. It involves soaking up in hot tubs of varying temperatures, and aggressively exfoliating every nook and cranny of your body, all the while being head to toe, completely BARE.
If someone had suggested I try a bathhouse in my 20's, my body-conscious self would have defiantly said, "NO WAY!" In my 30's, it would have been a pondering, "maybe" followed by lots of excuses to ultimately avoid it. But now, as a mama of 2, turning 40, with my daughter as my trusty companion, I've finally conjured up my inner Korean confidence to JUST GO WITH IT.
Thank goodness for step-by-step instructions for bathhouse virgins...
In Busan, Spa Land is the mother of all bathhouses. It has 18 tubs with temperatures ranging from 20 to 43 degrees Celsius, 13 themed saunas, an outdoor foot spa, a quiet relaxation room with tv's and massage chairs, a couple of cafes, a restaurant, and the list goes on. The bath area is gender-segregated, but the rest is unisex, where couples, families and friends hang out in matching spa uniforms and somehow magically wrap their hand towel into cute Princess Leia buns on their heads. How and why, is still a mystery to me.
Kids 7 and up are allowed in. After a quick mother-daughter pep talk on "playing it cool", "not staring, pointing or laughing", we went in to the spa, hand in hand, pretending like we were pros at this. Molly, almost 8, was at the perfect age...old enough to quietly enjoy the experience, but not old enough to really care being naked in front of strangers yet. I LOVE that she didn't hesitate to come with me! I admit, she was kind of my buffer in the buff, as she often gets more attention looking less korean than me.
It's easy to spot the first-timer tourists giggling and awkwardly trying to cover their privates with the small hand towel they are given at the entrance. However, the local Korean ladies, of all ages, shapes and sizes, strut their stuff without batting an eye. Spa Land is a tourist destination, so even though the koreans don't care to look at you, other tourists probably will. Less chance of being stared at if go to a more local neighbourhood bathhouse than Spa Land!
We had the BEST time, and came out feeling refreshed, and rejuvenated. We finished off with a mango Bingsu, a delicious frozen dessert with lots of fresh fruit, shaved ice, mochi and ice cream. YUM!!
I wish I could say I would totally feel comfortable going to a jjimjilbang with friends, co-workers or other family members, but I'm not there yet. Maybe when I turn 50? For now, Molly was the perfect companion to take and I couldn't have asked for a more memorable birthday in Busan.
For more photos and details on Spa Land and its claimed healing properties, this is the best link I could find, as Spa Land itself doesn't seem to have a website. Click on the photo below and look for 360 degrees VR photos and videos.