One of the main reasons I was looking forward to visiting Seoul was to eat some bibimbop and get a Korean scrub down in a jimjilbang. But visiting a Hanok house and experiencing historic tea houses was a very romantic cultural surprise hidden amongst the skyscrapers and urban hustle in the sprawling city of Seoul.
We stayed in the Gangnam neighborhood to be close to some of the areas Daniel wanted to visit from when he taught English in Seoul. I think most people are familiar with this neighborhood because of the popular song “Gangnam Style.” Just look up the video online and you will know it when you hear it. They used to play it in my Zumba class. It can’t be denied. It is a very catchy song and a fun neighborhood if you like great food and lots of international shopping. However Gangnam is a bit far from the center of the city where most of the tourist sites exist. Next time I would stay in a Hanok guesthouse.
Hmmm, let’s see, Korean BBQ places, bibimbop…Seoul has so many great places it’s really hard to say where to go to eat it. Everything we tried was delicious. However it seems that if you walk a block away from the main avenues you will find “food streets” with back to back shops of every type of food imaginable. We found a lot of good international eats as well. We mostly stuck to a strictly Korean diet except when we came across a “New York” style pizza place where the owner studied with everyone from famous pizza shops around the world including de Faro’s in Brooklyn and Tony’s pizza school in San Francisco, we just had to try it and the place was packed, in Gangnam area.
In central Seoul there are a few areas with preserved Hanok (Korean traditional houses) you can visit. A very interesting cultural detour from the modern, concrete and neon jungle of Seoul. The Bukchon Hanok village has beautiful hills, alleyways and streets where you can wander the labyrinth of old Hanok houses, some have been turned into boutiques, museums, cafes, tea rooms and guest houses where you can stay. Get a map at any of the tourist info centers around Bukchon with highlights of where to wander, north on Anguk station. Some houses offer interactive craft workshops like gold inlay, talisman stamping, indigo fabric dying and knot tying.
Most of the Hanok houses that are not shops are privately owned. After wandering along we happened upon one that opens its doors to tourists to view with a guide. The houses are gorgeous and with hand-crafted design features of paper sliding doors and wood beams. The house we viewed was built without any nails, like a wooden puzzle.
Another unique feature was that it was built with a natural heating system that funnels heat from the kitchen under the house to heat the floors. Hanok houses are also designed to utilize the view, the landscape and the seasons. Our guide served us tea after the tour in a room with a beautiful view of the city.
A stroll around the neighboring Insa-dong area, south of Anguk station, reveals lots shops with local crafts. I was excited to see traditional Korean tea bowls and tea ware since Korean potter inspired Japanese tea ware. At one tea house called “Beautiful Tea Museum” I bought a really nice tea bowl made by a local artisan and drank some subtle chrysanthemum tea. Korean tea houses also serve matcha which is used in Korean tea ceremony, but mostly they serve herbal teas and various types of black and green steeped teas. A great place to try is the Dawon tea house which is set in a Hanok building and art museum. It is supposedly one of the oldest tea houses in the area, with a very cozy and lively atmosphere. We tried the matcha green tea and pyramid of cookies. A warm and romantic respite from the freezing cold winter.
Insadong is also home to a very colorful Buddhist temple and a huge music mall with hundreds of small shops selling every musical instrument under the sun. Daniel just had to check that out of course!
A really fun word to say – jimjilbangs – which are sometimes called “saunas” – are a very different experience from a typical American spa. They are bright, loud, energetic, affordable and busy places. Whole families and groups of friends go to hang out for hours or even stay overnight. We attempted to go to Dragon Hill spa but when we arrived they were closed for renovations which seemed like a good thing, because of the ugly, cheesy, Las Vegas design from the outside. So we went to Siloam sauna which has seven floors or so with different activities on each floor. There are separated men and women’s dressing rooms and baths and co-ed floors where you need to wear bright orange shorts and a T-shirt that they supply for you to sweat in. Overall it’s a very strange but unique experience.
The saunas are called “fomentation” rooms and each one is different. At Siloam there is a jade sauna where the wall and floor is full of jade rocks, a charcoal sauna, a clay sauna, a room where the air is pumped with extra oxygen, and an ice cold igloo room which is basically a large freezer to sit in. There are many other sauna rooms to try full of people in their orange outfits getting sweaty together. The baths have themed tubs with jade, charcoal and a mugwort bath. There is a cafe and a room where you can chill out and watch a movie with others, it feels like a big, slumber party. There is also an area where you can take a nap and some people spend the night here or use it as a place to crash before taking off on a flight since it’s open all night. Overall it was an interesting experience but we were not into wearing and sweating in unflattering clothing and the decor at Siloam feels more like an old gym rather than a spa.
A far better choice is Spa Lei near Gangnam area, but it is a women only spa, which made it more comfortable for me. They also have a few floors, but the decor is a tastefully designed spa environment with dim lighting. Because it is only for women you can go naked into the saunas, they give you a robe to walk around in. They have jade, clay and other types of saunas. Indoor baths on the first floor, an outdoor bath on the roof. A massage jet bath, hot pools and my favorite was a sea kelp flavored bath that felt cool on your skin. They have a wood burning sauna and chill out areas as well as a very dark loft of cubbies where you can take a nap if you feel tired. They have a little cafe too for smoothies and snacks. You can spend at least a few hours here relaxing or more. http://www.spalei.co.kr/eng/e_spa1.php
I thought Spa Lei was a great place to try the Korean style body scrub. Imagine a brightly lit, open room with a bunch of plastic covered tables where naked bodies are being vigorously scrubbed by Korean ladies wearing lacy black bras and panties and scrub mits that take off at least a few layers of dead skin. It’s like a human car wash. Prepare to get scrubbed all over, and I really mean all over. It’s not for the shy. But you will never, ever feel skin so smooth and baby soft afterwards. In San Francisco I go to Imperial Day Spa and in New York City I go to Juvenex for a similar treatment. I recommend!