A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Linda Chell


You will spend an hour trying to find Hurshimchung in Busan spa by yourself using your poorly-translated tourist map before deciding that this process seems counter-productive to your goal of relaxing. You hail a cab and then realise that you have been walking in the wrong direction the entire time. Arrive at Hotel Nong-Shim and be slightly perturbed by the building’s appearance as an unpromising brick lump with Vegas detailing. Enter. Marvel at breathtaking casino gaucherie including a neon-lit water-feature decorated by golden nude statues. Wonder if gaucherie is a word. Be a little smug later when spell-check confirms it is.

You will follow the signs and go upstairs. Ask for spa and jimjilbang and pay your 10.000 won. Then you’ll take your locker key the first set of lockers in your gender’s assigned area and put your shoes in them before proceeding to the maze of clothes lockers so vast that they are divided up into lettered sections like a parking lot. Upon finding your locker, you will strip completely naked and put all your clothes inside. Keep your toiletry bag and a quantity of cash in something waterproof. You grab a couple of towels and enter the sauna.

Gape a bit at the site that awaits you beyond the grippy rubber mats. You are now under an enormous glass dome, decorated with traditional hunting scenes. In the centre of the room there is a huge yin-yang shaped pool with fountains pouring water into it and sculptures of frogs. Beyond this there appears to be a stone grotto. To the left of this grotto, a café. To the right, a wall behind which tumble small but punishing water-falls. Directly behind you are showers and banks of showers. Up some grippy stairs are igloos for steam and heat, massages and exfoliating treatments. A door leads outside. A muddy-looking corner pool gives off an aroma part herbal, part rotten egg. There is a small pool for children.

It will not have escaped your notice that you are stood naked among several hundred naked members of your gender, all of whom appear to be Korean. You’re used to be stared at, having been in the country a little while, used to children pointing and teenagers saying “hi” with no follow up, but now you are naked and so are they. Eyebrows are raised at your tattoos. In a steam room an elderly woman gestures that you have large hips and then gives you a thumbs up. Younger children look you over all over and try to grab their mothers’ attention. You are very aware how much you are sweating in the sauna and how pink you turn in hot water.

Never mind that. You step in to the first tub. You will quickly pull your foot out with a yelp because it is so hot and an older woman laughs at you a bit and gestures towards the other half of the yin-yang pool. This is more like it. You slip into the water and feel the skin tingle as the heat creeps up your body. Looking around, you do what they do- you lie back on the ledge and paddle your legs. You grab a plastic basin and pour water over yourself. This is good. You try a hotter pool and see how long you can stand it. Then you follow the pointing figure of a woman who points to a freezing cold pool that makes you numb for a little while and that you can’t quite bring yourself to sink into, so you just stand there and splash yourself til your heartbeat quickens and you’re ready for a hot pool again.

There are three small pools in an alcove of the grotto, one fed from the stone mouth of what appears to be the head of Charles Darwin that seems to be salty for healthy washing. The other two are fed my greening copper stag’s heads and their fragrances change daily. You get grape in one and rosemary in the other, which makes you light headed and floppy. So you decide to step outside. There is a warm pool, and freezing cold pool and a steam room with a TV in it so you amuse yourself hopping between those for a while pretending to yourself that you actually believe that this process is “good for health” as they say. Then you go inside to stand under the waterfalls and feel like the fat is being pounded off your body. You will take your money to the exfoliating area and point to a treatment that looks just expensive enough. Then a middle aged woman in soaking nylon underwear will cover your face in cucumber mulch, slap you with wet towels, crack your neck and scrub every inch of your body with brillo mittens until their isn’t a dead skin cell left on you.

You sit in a warm pool with a towel around your head and watch for a while. You watch old women with stooped backs and wrinkles gossip and laugh in their groups. Young women with high breasts scrubbing themselves raw in front of mirrors, rinsing and repeating. Women with caesarean scars and suction cup marks on their backs. Mothers with babies and little girls washing each-others’ hair and playing with water wings. You take a deep breath and realise how important this is, how glad you are you came.