Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die tomorrow.

James Dean

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Let's get naked ... my night at the Jjimjilbang

Last night, with much hesitation, I decided to do something that is a very common Korean pastime, but something that would make many westerners uncomfortable. I visited the jjimjilbang (korean bathhouse / spa). These can be found all over Korea, in almost very town. In Daejeon alone there are probably hundreds (ok overexagerration but at least 20 or 30). Basically it's a public bathroom where you go to bath amongst many other people.
My friend Kristina and I decided to give it a try as we had heard wonderful things about it. I was very hesitant to go because as a white person I already garner enough stares so I could only imagine what it would be like as a white, naked person. However, I swallowed my pride and told myself that I am here to experience Korea. We arrived by subway to the Yusong spa district area of Daejeon. This area is known for it's natural hot springs and abundant spas. We weren't too sure where to go once we got there but when we stepped out onto the street we were inundated with hotels and signs advertising their saunas. We chose the closest one and walked in. As we descended the steps we were met by a very lovely woman who informed us that the cost would be a measly 5,000 won (about $5.00). We were given a key for a locker, handed 2 towels, instructed to remove our shoes and shown to the change room. The change room itself looked like anything you would see at a pool or gym, with rows of lockers, the walls lined with mirrors on one side and women in various stages of dress blow drying their hair and applying their makeup. There was an old woman behind a counter selling various bathing products, soaps, wash cloths, packets of face masks and body lotions.
We could feel all eyes on us as we walked into the change room and found our lockers. Of course the lockers we were assigned were at the very far end of the room. This later turned out to be a good thing as we were next to the door to the pool so we didn't have as far to walk in our nakedness. Taking a deep breath we removed our clothing. At this point I realized that people had lost interest in us and no one was even looking at us anymore (or at least that's what I told myself). We gathered up our bathing products and made our way to the pool area. The room we entered had a giant tub in the middle (it looked like a big hot tub) that could hold about 30 women. Around it were other smaller tubs, all with digital displays of the temperature. The temperatures ranged from 44d down to 23 d. Along the sides of the room were the actual showers. Before you can enter the main pools you have to bath. We each found a shower and preceded to wash, using our soaps and shampoos etc. Amazingly I very quickly forgot that I was naked and no one seemed to be paying any attention to us.
After the bathing ritual was completed we made our way to the pool. We chose one of the hotter ones (34d) and it was so relaxing. Apparently the water contains special minerals that are good for your skin. It felt like sitting in a giant hot tub. Over in the corner there was a spot where you could pay for massages and other things. There was a sign advertising the different options but it was in Korean so we weren't really sure what they were offering.
We spent the next hour wandering from pool to pool, combining hot and cold. All the pools had jets that you could turn on and off and some had fancy fountains in the middle of them. They also had 2 different saunas. We spent some time in the cooler sauna but after a few minutes I decided the heat was too much for me. As I found refuge in the cooler pool, Kristina headed into the even hotter sauna.
Reluctantly after about an hour and a half we decided that it was time to leave. We were both tired and hungry and as much as we wanted to stay we knew it was time. After a quick shower, we dressed and headed back out into the city.
It was a great experience and one that I will definitly be repeating, very soon. For $5.00 you can go and stay for as long as you want. They are open 24 hours and quite often people will go and sleep there. If you are travelling to another city, rather than spending money on a hotel many will just check into the jjimjilbang and sleep on one of the many lounge chairs around the pool.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

It's a pink world ...

Spring has arrived in Korea and it came in a gust of pink. Not only has the rain finally stopped, and the yellow thing has returned to it's place in the sky, but the cherry blossoms are in full bloom ...and they are everywhere. There aren't words to describe just how beautiful this city looks right now.
Last saturday I headed to the north end of Daejeon to place called Sintanjin, with my friend Kristina, to attend the annual cherry blossom festival. I wasn't sure what to expect but I was very excited. I was envisioning cherry blossoms everywhere and walking under a canopy of pink flowers. Imagine my disappointment when I arrived and saw nothing but bare branches and white tents. We quickly learned that because of the cold spring the blossoms hadn't bloomed yet. Basically we were at a cherry blossom festival without any cherry blossoms.
We decided to stay and make the most of the day anyway. There were mile of tents lining the street, all of them offereing a variety of food. The air was ripe with the smell of bbq and chestnuts being roasted. There were giant pigs being cooked over flames, mounds of clams the size of dinner plates and piles of octopus, squids and other sea creatures that I couldn't even name. We wandered the street checking out all the unusual things in every tent. The fact that we seemed to be the only foreigners there did not go unnnoticed and many of the tents owners called out to us in broken english encouraging us to come and try their foods.

We wandered off the street and into the main grounds where the actual festival was being held. The festival is sponsered by and held every year on the grounds of the Korean Tobacco and Ginseng company (strange combination) and I think they are the main industry in Daejeon. On the way into the festival there were booths inside handing out free samples of ginseng tea and bottles of water. Inside there were more cherry blossom trees, minus the blossoms, and I could picture in my mind how pretty it would look in a weeks time.
What surprised me were not only the amount of people but all of the families. Spread across the lawn there were families, kids, parents, grandparents all doing activities together. I don't just mean little kids, but kids of all ages right through high school and they seemed happy to be there. It's not like in Canada where once a kid hits adolescence you have to force them to be seen with their parents. Korea is a very family oriented culture but never was this more apparent to me than here. We had fun watching the different events, including a paper airplane contest, where old men lined up to see who could throw theirs the farthest. We tried some unusual foods including some kind of cucumber drink that tasted like nothing more than the juice out of the pickle jar. I had to force that one down. We wandered for a few hours and went home tired and only mildly disappointed at the the lack of cherry blossoms. However I vowed to return in one week when I knew they would be in bloom.

A week later I returned to the scene of the festival and it looked like a different world. It was exactly the way I imagined it would be with canopies of pink everywhere. What did surprise me was the fact that the white tents were still there. The festival, which was supposed to have ended last week, was still happening. There were still pigs on the bbq's and octopus on the tables and the amount of people there seemed to have doubled in a weeks times. What had changed was that the bare trees were now covered in cherry blossoms. They were everywhere and it was spectacular.

I wandered for an hour or so up and down the streets lined with these pink blossoms, just in awe at the sheer beauty of it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A scary moment ....

Before I begin I would like to stress that up until today my experiences here have been nothing but positive. I have met all sorts of Korean people. Some of them have been over friendly and helpful, going out of their way to make sure that I am happy and comfortable. Others have been curious, from a distance, watching me on the bus or walk down the street while others have been indifferent to my presence. One thing they have in common, they have been non-threatening. Before I left Canada I knew that there was a small fraction of people in Korea who do not like white people and resent us being here. I knew that at some point I would encounter one of these people but when it happened I was left shocked and shaken.
This morning, as I do every morning, I boarded the bus to go to school. When I got on this morning the bus was 3/4 full but there were some empty seats towards the back. I noticed a man standing in the aisle at the back but I didn't pay him much attention as it is common for people to stand on the bus, especially if their stop is soon. I sit down and immediately the man comes and stands beside my seat. For the next 5 minutes I can feel him staring at me, now I have gotten used to being stared at, but in this case it felt really uncomfortable. I tried not to let it bother me and I certainly refused to awknowledge him looking at me. I just stared out the window hoping that he would either go away or get off the bus. Suddenly he lifts one of his feet up and places it on the seat beside me, partly on my leg. I move over because the last thing I want is his dirty feet on my black pants. After another few minutes he moves his foot under the seat and up tight against mine and then partly on top of mine so that I can't move my foot. I manage to get my foot out from under his and move over a little bit more. This entire time I refuse to look at him and sit there calmly, although my mind is racing trying to decide what I should do. Suddenly he lifts his leg again and places it on my arm and starts running it against my jacket, getting close to my face.
At this point I am starting to get a little scared and decide to move from my seat to the front of the bus, closer to the driver. I get up from my seat and he puts his leg out so that I can't get by. I am half standing in the aisle and he has his two legs on either side of me so that I can't move. I try pushing past but he won't budge. I was verytempted to give him a swift kick but didn't want to risk making him angry or cause a scene. At this point I see other people on the bus watching, they all looked shocked and unsure what to do, but nobody offers to help. Somehow I manage to get over his legs and move to the front of the bus, where I stand in the aisle. After a few minutes he follows me there and starts standing close beside me pushing me against the seat. This entire time I refuse to look at him or give the appearance of being anything but calm, although inside I was shaking. I'm sure this infuriated him more.
I still have a long way to my stop but decide that I have had enough so I push the button to get off the bus. I make my way to the back doors and wait for the stop. The man follows and precedes to stand almost on top of me, practically pushing me down the stairs. I am starting to think wildly about what I will do if he gets off the bus too, but luckily the bus stops, I run off and he stays on. I managed to stay calm the entire ride but now I start shaking, both out of fear and and anger. I sit down on the bench in the bus shelter, still shaking when this ajuma (old Korean lady) comes over and sits down, giving me the warmest and friendliest smile that I have seen in a long time. I decide that I can't let one lunatic taint my view of Korea and Koreans. After all there are creeps in every country.
In a few minutes another bus arrives and I get on and go to school with no other incidents. When I arrive at school and tell my fellow teachers, they are shocked. They tell me that this man is crazy and next time I should punch him in the eye. Hopefully there won't be a next time but if there is I may take their advice.
I don't know if he targeted me because I was white and he didn't like that or if he really was crazy and I was his victim for the day. Regardless I will start avoiding the back of the bus and sit a little closer to the driver.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

My adventure with scissors

Today I did something a little more adventurous in Korea. Something that required me to communicate to a Korean person beyond saying annyong hasseyo or kamsa hamnida (hello and thank you). Yes - I went to get my hair cut, and not just a minor trim but actually change the entire style. I hadn't thought about how I was going to talk to the stylist or tell her what I wanted and I didn't really have a plan. I kept hoping that I would think of something or magically know the korean word when I go there. I was a little stressed about it because I had heard horror stories from other people about bad hair cuts but I knew someone who had gone the week before so I decide that I should go to the same place.
I head out on the bus early in the morning because I figure if I wait to late I may lose my courage. It was a beautiful morning and a great time for a new, shorter and stylish hair do. The place where I have to change buses is beside a park and suddenly all these kids come out of a building and start playing in the park. Normally this wouldn't be unusual but they were all dressed in traditional Korean costumes. I don't know what that was about but I couldn't resist a picture. Anyway back to my story. I arrive at my stop and I locate the hair place. It called CharlesLee hair (the owner I am assuming). I go through the door and into a small room with a couple of barber chairs ,a few sinks, a desk and some wine bottles (?), but no people. At the end of the room there is an elevator door. It was very strange. I stand there for a few minutes not really sure what to do but thinking maybe someone will come out. Of course no one does. So I leave. Maybe they are just on a break. I come back in a few minutes but still no one. I leave again and wander outside, peeking in the door every few minutes to see if someone is there. Finally I go back inside, take a deep breath and push the button for the elevator not really sure where it will take me, or what to expect. The door opens and in I go. There are buttons for 2 floors, both labelled in Korean, but one of them also said the word hair beside it, so I took my chances and pressed that floor.
When the elevator opened I was in a whole other world. There was a woman standing at the door waiting for me. She ushered me over to these comfy chairs, took my coat and purse and offered me drinks. I felt like I was at some 5 star spa. Another girl came over and took me to the sink and washed my hair and gave me a scalp massage, it was amazing. Finally I was taken over to my stylist and I start trying to explain to her what I want done. She's looking at me with this blank expression on her face, probably thinking what the hell is this woman talking about. I'm starting to panic because this woman does not understand me and I don't know what kind of hair I will end up with. Suddenly another stylist walks by with the exact hair that I want so I turn around and say "her". I want my hair to look like her. The hairdresser's face lights up and she says "nay, nay, I understand.
As she's cutting my hair there's a man in a full black suit walking around making sure everyone is happy. He reminds me of a pit boss at casino making sure everyone is doing their jobs. The woman next to me has some wierd contraption attached to her head. She had rollers in her hair and this machine came out of the ceiling and 2 people came over and started hooking all these wires onto her head. It looked like something from a sci fi movie where they are trying to read her brain waves. Finally my hair is done. I put on my glasses and look in the mirror with some trepidation but then breathe a sigh of relief. She did a fabulous job and I love it.
Now it's time to pay and I'm wondering how much is this going to cost. A place of this caliber at home would cost $50-60 at least. She says 12,000w which is about $12. My jaw drops. I don't know anywhere that you can get a $12 hair cut at home, not to mention a shampoo and style as well. On top of that if I come back 5 more times I get a free hair cut. I know where I'm going next time.