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The Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony

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Korean Tea

As we were saying goodbye, the instructor continued to praise our skills. “You did so very good! Very talented at pouring tea, the traditional Korean way!” We sheepishly accepted her acclaim, but I knew what she was really thinking. “Get these clumsy oafs out of my sight, so that I can finally start laughing my ass off!”

Traditional-Tea-Ceremony-in-Korea

The Tea Ceremony Experience is offered for free, three times a day (except Fridays and Mondays), in the Busan Museum’s Cultural Center. Our instructor, who was geared up in a hanbok (a traditional Korean dress), motioned for us to take seats in front of trays on the ground. Sitting Indian-style doesn’t present a problem for me, but Jürgen’s 6’6″ frame and lanky legs always require a couple minutes of painful twisting. The instructor looked on patiently while he arranged his body into the correct position. “Clearly”, she must have been thinking, “this lesson will present more of a challenge than usual”.

For the next twenty minutes we learned the procedure of a traditional Korean tea ceremony. Every movement is completed very particularly, from raising the napkin off the tea set and folding it, to pouring the water into the teapot. We were expected to be very calm, very exact; our instructor told us that the whole process is a form of meditation. While pouring and drinking the tea, you remain silent and still, concentrating on nothing but the simple tasks at hand, trying to complete them as perfectly as possible.

After three rounds, we were almost able to complete the ceremony without a mistake: grabbing the cup with the wrong hand, pouring out too much water, or laying the napkin on the floor upside-down. Our instructor was pleased enough, and after the torturous spectacle of watching Jürgen disentangle his legs and stand up, we said our goodbyes. I doubt I’ll be working a tea ritual into my daily schedule, but I can certainly appreciate the moment of collected quiet that it provides. And the tea wasn’t bad, either.

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July 27, 2012 at 1:56 am Comments (4)

Shinsegae’s Spa Land

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For our first trip to a Korean spa, we choose one of Busan’s biggest and most modern: Spa Land in the Shinsegae department store. Twenty-two baths, thirteen distinctively-designed saunas, relaxation rooms, steam rooms, foot baths and more were ours to enjoy for four blissful hours.

Shinsegae-Spa-Land

The jjimjilbang (as bathhouses are called here) is an essential part of life in Korea, found in every neighborhood, and popular with people of all ages. Most are open twenty-four hours a day, and offer Koreans a place to recuperate from the pressures of everyday life, bathe and clean, meet with friends, and even sleep. I don’t know what took us so long to finally visit one…

Oh wait, yes I do. I know exactly what took us so long: the nudity. I was just completely put off by the thought of disrobing and walking around naked in front of others. Jürgen might be from sexually-enlightened Western Europe, where people whip their clothes off at any opportunity, but I’m a good old-fashioned American prude, taught to be secretly ashamed of my body and hide it jealously from peering eyes. Public nudity is something I just don’t do, unless absolutely compelled. Like in prison. And, as we paid and then entered the changing room, that’s kind of what I felt like — going to prison. I was very distressed.

I’d love to report that my fears were unfounded and that, upon disrobing, I discovered the liberating joy of being naked among others. But… nope. It was uncomfortable, and Koreans have no problem with staring. I’m sure that it’s just the novelty of a foreign body, but we felt penetrating, curious eyes on us every time we walked over to another tub. But although I was constantly aware of it, I did eventually relax and was able to enjoy myself.

How could I not? The first room was gender-separated, and had around eight separate baths of sodium bicarbonate (for the skin) and sodium chloride (for the blood), heated to various degrees. Some had whirlpool bubbles, while others were still and serene. We switched from baths to saunas. There was a variety of styles to choose from, including Finnish (with wooden benches and suffocating heat) and Roman (with thick steam and a circular tiled bench… and naked Korean dudes staring at you).

Spas Korea

After showering off, we put on comfortable brown shirts and shorts which made us look like monks, and went into the gender-mixed area. Here, a variety of saunas awaited us. We tried the 52° “Pyramid Room”; according to the description, 52 degrees is the “easiest angle to collect energies from universe”. We laid down in the Hamam Room, which recreates a Turkish bath house and the “Body Sound Room” which is “based on the principle of bone conduction”, whatever that is. My favorite was the Yellow Earth Room, which is apparently good for mental stability.

In each of these steam rooms, we sweated like crazy, and took breaks between each in the pleasantly cool main hall, which had cozy chairs to lay upon. Perhaps more than anything else, I was most surprised by this aspect of the jjimjilbang — that people come here just to sleep. Everywhere you looked, people were snoozing; on the chairs, laying on the floor and (perhaps dangerously) in the steam rooms themselves. There was an entire section called the “Relaxation Zone” with at least a hundred recliners, each with its own personal TV. So many people were here, sleeping, watching soap operas or playing on their cell phones. Basically doing the kinds of things which Americans do at home.

We stayed at Spa Land for the maximum four hours permitted. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to remain any longer, it’s a restriction most jjimjilbangs don’t have — usually, you pay the entrance, and stay as long as you want. I’ve read that many families even spend the night, for the healing properties of sleeping on a hot, hard floor.

The price was fantastic. Regular entrance is ₩12,000 ($10.80), and we had coupons (available at Shinsegae’s Information Desk) for an additional 20% off. Four hours of first-class spa treatment for less than $10 is a crazy deal. And now that we’ve tried it out, we’re already looking forward to discovering Busan’s other jjimjilbangs.

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June 16, 2012 at 2:27 am Comments (4)
The Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony As we were saying goodbye, the instructor continued to praise our skills. "You did so very good! Very talented at pouring tea, the traditional Korean way!" We sheepishly accepted her acclaim, but I knew what she was really thinking. "Get these clumsy oafs out of my sight, so that I can finally start laughing my ass off!"
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