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Spa pensions: Koreans embrace a new way to endure freezing winters
Cool designs and hot tubs make for an inspiring take on communal bathing
Relaxation or stress relief in Korea commonly comes in the form of “sweating things out.”
Lying on hot floors or eating a tongue-burning spicy dish of soup works fine, but for many, regardless of the weather, there is no better way to de-stress than sitting in a steaming hot tub and then getting scrubbed within an inch of their lives.
The communal bath culture, which originated in the early 20th century with the introduction of public bathhouses, still remains popular -- people visit bathhouses with their children, friends and neighbors, catching up in the sauna while enjoying a day of intense scrubbing and grooming.
Recently, this old passion for a hot dip started to move away from the neighborhood public bathhouse to small lodging facilities called “spa pensions,” combining private bathing facilities with popular travel spots around the country.
Spa pension manager Kim Min Seong Jae, who runs what he calls a healing center one hour's drive north of Seoul, believes that people now want a more personalized experience in their own enclosed space rather than taking a splash in communal baths.
“If you haven’t experienced sitting in a hot spa in freezing temperatures with mist rising from the surface, a glass of wine in hand, you will never understand how good that moment feels,” says Kim. His spa pension Yonaluky is located in the city of Paju.
Boxed in a long mustard-colored building, Yonaluky does not quite look like a resort, but the subtle sound of trees rustling between mysterious slits in the facade, and white clouds of vapor ballooning from the rooftop, hint there is more to the experience.
Thanks to the maze-like structure of the building, the pension offers a completely closed-off private outdoor spa area for each suite.
Apart from the view of the sky there is not much to see, but Kim, who developed the pension's concept, believes his state-of-the-art spa facilities make up for it.
With bitterly cold temperatures, winter typically draws the most customers during the year, according to Yonaluky. It has been fully booked throughout the entire season.
“In the winter there are a lot of limitations to outdoor activities especially for families with children,” says Julie Kwon, an office worker who recently visited the Paju spa pension with her family.
“Sitting in the spa together, we talk about different things, and it helps bring us together and alleviates stress."
Spa services vary in their ways of operation. Yonaluky is one of the few places that offers a fully equipped hot water rotation system, meaning temperatures in the pool can be maintained for hours even in freezing cold weather.
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“A lot of places charge you by the tub,” says Kim. “At Yonaluky, you can use the spa for as long as you want without getting cold." Spa hours start upon arrival and end at midnight so that the outdoor spa area remains quiet for guests looking to get an early night’s rest.
“I want this to be a place where people come to use the spa, not where they come and realized there is a spa,” Kim said. The manager is looking to build more outdoor spas across the country, modeling on the outdoor hot springs in Japan but with a Korean twist to it.
There is no official number of registered spa pensions, according to the Korea Tourism Organization, but some existing pension operators are adding spas to their facilities to attract more clients.
A spa pension-designated portal, appropriately named “Spa Pension,” has almost 100 registered pensions and offers a snapshot of spa pensions across the country.
Spas vary from indoor to outdoor, tub-like to pool-like, luxurious to horrendously tacky, with decor spanning anywhere from dinosaur-themed rooms to candle-lit corners.
“We added spa facilities because a lot of other places were following the trend,” says Nam Chang-sub, the owner of Sea View Pension in Gangwon province.
With a sprawling view of the beach on the east coast just outside his pension, Nam believes it is still the overall traveling experience that counts.
“I think the view is most important for my visitors,” says Nam.
Nam recently swapped his small whirlpools for larger-sized spas, but he said not everyone comes for the spa experience.
Amongst his guests, it is mostly younger couples and families with children who want to use the hot tubs while looking out at the ocean, according to Nam.
“We can do without the spas, but this way, we can cater to those with even more specific needs,” says Nam.
Yonaluky, 1652-509, Beopheung-ri, Tanhyeon-myeon, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do (경기도 파주시 탄현면 법흥리 1652-509 번지); +82 31 959 1122; www.yonaluky.com; rates start at ₩350,000.
Sea View Pension, 575-5, Daepo-dong, Sokcho-si, Gangwon-do (강원도 속초시 대포동 575-5); +82 33 633 9745; www.badaview.co.kr; rates start at ₩70,000.