It happened like this.
One weekend two weeks ago, I took the bus to Gwangju to see a bamboo forest and ended up spending the night in a very crowded, very hot jimjilbbang. Most of the night felt like a fever dream. I was soaked in sweat and surrounded by the sounds of muffled laughter while shadows stooped and tiptoed around me all night whispering to one another and throwing bamboo mats here and there.
It all came to this deranged climax when the entire jimjilbbang woke up at about 4:45AM to screams. Every hardly-sleeping body around me jumped up and ran to the balcony to watch whatever chaos was unfolding. What with the running shadows, the heat, the orange lights coming from saunas, and the sweat around my neck, I very much felt like I was reliving a scene from an apocalypse movie made in the 1990’s. So, with that, I got up, showered, and soaked in a wooden tub for a short time with some ladies who were also (strangely) awake at 5AM and drinking iced instant coffee. Then I caught a taxi to the Gwangju bus terminal.
The nice thing about traveling alone is that you can make these sort of decisions without ever having to explain your reasoning or where you’re headed to next. This is key because sometimes, at 5AM, you can’t really explain anything or think further ahead than the next 5 minutes.
When I travel, I usual draw up a rough itinerary of too many things and no concrete time-tables. I feel like it lets me flexible without ever getting bored. If one plan fails, I just pick a different one. One of the ideas that I had toyed with before going to Gwangju was seeing the sunrise at Yulpo beach. Sitting in the Gwangju bus terminal that early morning, I knew I had about an hour before sunrise. I had also figured that Yulpo beach was about the closest beach to Gwangju. What I hadn’t figured out until sitting there was that Yulpo was about an hour and a half away, and the first bus wouldn’t leave until 15 minutes before sunrise. I was totally bummed. I thought about the other things I had put on the “maybe” list for my second day in Gwangju, but they all sort of paled in comparison to my plans to see Yulpo and the nearby Boseong tea plantations. So, I did what I think you can only do when you’re tired and you don’t have to explain yourself: I bought a bottled Starbucks Frappuccino (I figured it was the strongest, least nasty drink the in the convenience store, SINCE ALL THE COFFEE SHOPS WERE CLOSED AT 6AM, THANKS KOREA), a sweet bread thing, and a one-way ticket to Yulpo beach.
On the drive to Yulpo I dozed in and out as we stopped at numerous nothing towns on the back roads of Jeollanam-do province. Adjummas got on the bus, and then got off. Fog blanketed the hills, the naked trees and tiny green temples; real, damp, early-morning fog. Then, about 20 minutes before we hit Yulpo, the bus started descending from what must have the highest peak and unfolding beneath us I could see tea plantation after tea plantation carpeting the mountain like a runway before they dropped off at the sea. It was beautiful.
There are moments when you’re traveling alone where suddenly your alone-ness becomes very apparent because you realized you hadn’t thought through your plan. I arrived at Yulpo beach at approximately 8:30AM on a Sunday morning in early March. The sand was desolate. Church bells tolled out a hymn. It was beautiful. But I had no idea where to go next.
The town was empty save for a few adjummas carrying baskets. No restaurants were open. No coffee shops in sight. Both my cell phone and my ipod were dead. The beach was dotted with curvy pines and empty for miles. I plugged in my cell phone and ipod inside the bathroom on the beach and sat down on a bench to write in my journal. A family walked past. Despite the fact that I was hungry and not sure what I was going to do to fill in my time, I was happy to be alone and have a moment of tranquil peace. Rare, for Korea.
That’s when I saw it. A big glass building right on the beach, Yulpo Seawater Green Tea Spa. Basically, this is a spa/jimjilbbang/onsen/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, where you can bath in a green tea bath or a seawater bath, all while sitting in tubs that look out on the sea. I had read about it when I was reading about Yulpo but somewhere between the Gwangju bus terminal and actually arriving at the beach, I had totally forgotten that it was on the itinerary.
I was intimidated, but I walked in, paid the entrance fee, and stripped naked with the early morning adjumma bathers. At one point while we were bathing, one lady cupped her hands full of water and lifted it to my face. “Green tea” she said in English, showing me that the water was tinted green. “Yes, it’s green tea!” I responded in Korean to her amusement.
I’ve been to a few jimjilbbangs in Korea. But the last time I bathed in anything other than plain old water was in Japan when I went to an onsen. I don’t know how to describe the difference, but there is quite a difference. Of course, the seawater bath and the green tea bath are supposed to be very good for your health. I couldn’t read the signs plastered above the tubs, but I could feel a difference in my body after soaking for a good hour or so. It was by far the best bathhouse experience I have had in Korea.