I had read about SpaLand before heading to Busan, but I sort of put it out of my mind because we had so few days to spend in the city. We were only in Busan for about 4 nights and I had so many other "more important" things for us to see and do while we were there. Unfortunately, our last full day in town was met with serious wind, chilly temps and rain. Since most of the things I wanted to do were outdoors, we decided to change plans and head to SpaLand instead. What better way to spend a rainy day than inside in hot rooms and hot water?
So, SpaLand is a gigantic "spa" located in the largest Shinsegae department store (which will be a post all its own). SpaLand is huge! I read that it can accommodate 1500 people at one time. While it wasn't filled to the max while we were there, it sure seemed like everyone in Busan had the same idea we had for getting out of the rain and chill. Most of the people we saw were in couples or groups and there were few single people milling about. In fact, the whole experience felt way more social than one would imagine. In the west, people visit the spa to be relaxed and escape phones, conversations, interactions, etc. Not so in Korea. People were on their phones in the "heated rooms" and in the "cooling areas". If they were not on their phones, then they were speaking with each other and joking with each other and just generally having a great time. No one used their "inside voices" either.
Spa Land User Guide; so you know what's expected when you arrive
Admission to the spa is 15,000 won each (roughly $15 USD) and one can stay for four hours on this admission. We ended up being there for maybe three hours, but were so drawn and ready to go that we couldn't stay the fully allotted time.
We wanted to experience every single hot room they had so popped in and out as we could. The spa provides a uniform for each person to wear while in the hot/common areas and it sort of felt like we were all in a really posh prison. Everyone wanders around looking exactly the same which sort of created this interesting mentality for me. I felt like I was fitting in. I was sort of feeling like I was wearing camouflage and no one would know I wasn't local. Yes, I'm well aware that my physical characteristics would never be confused with Korean physical characteristics, but for just a small amount of time, I felt like I could pass. That is until I went into the public bath area.
Spa Land is huge! A map of the available areas.
While the hot rooms are co-ed, the public bath areas are not. This is because the public bath area is totally naked. Yep, you lose all your outward protection and bathe with hundreds of nude gals or guys depending on your gender. And this is where I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Now, everyone looks at everyone else when they're naked. It's just a fact. Sadly, I am not comfy being naked in front of others and find the fact that I needed to walk from my locker to the bath to be a harrowing experience. Locals are not shy and they just walk with confidence from place to place. I, on the other hand, mustered up as much confidence as I could and then draped my tiny hand towel down the front of my body. Yep, I was the uncomfortable one wandering around with a towel covering me.
My method did catch on with the other westerner in the bath area and maybe one or two Koreans as well. It's ironic, the method I was using to feel more at ease actually caused more attention than if I had just walked around without the towel. But I just couldn't let it go. I continued with the towel as I moved from hot pool to hot pool and finally taking the long walk to the outdoor spring.
I was beginning to get wrinkly from the water and feeling a bit lightheaded from the heat. I guess 3 hours of exposure to high temps was getting to me. I decided it was time to head back to the locker room and out to the world again. So, with my trusty towel draped in front of me I scurried back to my locker where I quickly dried and got dressed again. As I went to throw my towel in the hamper I noticed many of the Korean women standing around naked, speaking with each other and laughing and having a good time. I love that this is a social activity for them.
As we left the Spa both feeling refreshed, drained and our minds flowing with our experiences, we wondered if we would ever do this activity with our friends. I have to say, I'm not sure I can. I mean, I wouldn't care if they were naked in front of me, but I have a definite block of being naked in front of them. And this is a lesson that I need to take from Korea (and Japan and other cultures with a history of public bathing), if you can't be naked in front of your closest friends then you're missing out on a vulnerability and an intimacy in your relationship. Being naked with them isn't the only way to achieve this intimacy, but I think it's probably a good metaphor for it.