We had food. We had beds. We had a far too large television filled with KPOP music shows, beauty infomercials, and dramas. Now it was time for some culture.
Buddhism is still the spiritual king in Asia, even though Korea’s Christian population has steadily been on the rise the past few decades. Worlds away from what we know and grow up with in the West, I’ve always found an attraction to Buddhist temples. They’re beautiful and serene places meant for meditation and slowing down as the world continues to rush by at alarming speed.
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (해동 용궁사) is a rarity amongst Buddhist temples because it’s built on the sea coast. Typically these spiritual retreats are tucked away in the mountains and forests, away from the modern world. But not Yonggungsa. It’s proximity to one of Busan’s busiest and famous beaches and the city makes it a bustling epicenter for locals and tourists alike. And it’s not hard to see why. It’s gorgeous. Waves crash along the rocks at the temples’ base, shrines spread out against the sparkling blue seascape. Despite all the people milling around, taking photos of the large golden reclining Buddha, and admiring the view, there is still an air of peace here that is unique to the temples. The recorded chants from the monks are ever constant, people young and old doing through the steps of purifying themselves before and after they pray. I found myself observing them, wondering what they were wishing for.
A large Buddha overlooks the complex from the small mountain path behind the main temple, and it’s there I see an elderly woman, full prostrate. She bows once, twice, and three times, and then gets on her knees. She repeats this again. I want to know her story. Is this her local temple? Does she come here often? I’m not a religious person and I quickly got out of the church as soon as I could, but part of me is envious of those who have such a place to go to, to pray and wish. I find the idea of Buddhism far more attractive personally, though my knowledge isn’t nearly what it should be to make such a statement. I find peace in these places, finding joy in the multiple statues that line the shrubbery here. Offerings are made at the base of many a statue and in the grotto underneath the complex’s foundation, candle light flickering across the pools of water and the wet stone. It’s hard not to feel spiritual in such a place. We wandered around for a good while, admiring the architecture of the structure that’s been here since the 14th century. We had planned to do a temple stay to truly unwind, but never got to it sadly. I would have liked to have done it here I think, if only for the sea air that kept wafting our way.
The way in and out of Yonggungsa is lined with statues of the Chinese zodiac and we couldn’t help but to find our respective statues for a fun little pose (along with everyone else who was there). Your Chinese zodiac sign is determined by your birth year, rather than your birth month as like in Western zodiac. So, born in 1987, I’m a Rabbit. This apparently means I’m trustworthy, empathetic, modest, diplomatic, sincere, sociable, and a caretaker. Not too bad a description. Sora, on the other hand, is a Dragon. According to her sign, she’s lucky, flexible, eccentric, imaginative, artistic, spiritual, and charismatic. Frankly, I think that sort of describes her to a tee. I mean, I don’t actually know how flexible Sora is, but now I want to test it.
We spent a little time looking at all the stands in the mini market outside the temple where they sell everything from Buddhist prayer beads to snacks to sun hats (which I indulged in). We had taken a taxi out here as we had missed the bus and another wouldn’t come for a half hour, but on the way back we braved the Busan bus system to general success. Figuring our public transport in a foreign country, never mind one where you’re illiterate, is always a challenge that can throw anyone into an anxiety attack. But thankfully maps are generally helpful and if you can play match-the-symbol or at least know the pronunciation of your stop, it becomes much less stressful. And you’ll get lost at least once. If not a dozen times. But that’s part of the experience, and who knows what you’ll find along the way.
Our week in Busan was very lazy. We slept a lot. We lounged a lot. We went on a few shopping sprees. Good lord we ate a lot. We both dyed our hair (and I learned that all non-black Korean hair dye has lightener in it and I did not look good as a peachy strawberry blonde). But there was one indulgence we hadn’t quite gotten to: the spa. One thing I truly loved about living in Japan were the onsens: natural hot springs that were turned into giant bathing houses where you could scrub away the world, relax, and come out an entirely new person. Korea has something quite similar called jjimjilbangs (찜질방) and Busan’s most famous one, Spa Land, is at Shinsegae, the largest department store in the world. Talk about indulgence, right? Well, yes and no. The price isn’t actually that bad, especially for what you get. It only cost us $8.50 for four hours as he trekked down one morning for the “early bird” special, meaning we got in before 9AM. $8.50! That’s it!
This bath house had over twenty baths, saunas, and rest areas, all for your consumption. Going to public bath houses is fairly routine for many Koreans, as is the whole process on how to do it. By that, we mean you’re waltzing around and bathing naked with dozens of other people. The same is for Japanese onsens. It may be a bit shocking at first (Sora didn’t realize EVERYONE would be naked, and I took a particular sort of joy in watching her bug eyed expression as a fierce old lady whipped off her clothes in front of us), but soon you realize no one cares. It’d been awhile since I had done this, so even I was momentarily guilty of holding my towel in front of me as we wandered into the main bathing area to take our preliminary showers. But soon enough I carded it aside to show Sora how you were supposed to scrub and clean your body before getting into the baths.
I imagine the moment I was boobs out, she relaxed a little. Hey, it’s a culture shock, no shame there. And no one cares. They really don’t care. Body shapes of every shape and size are wandering around and no one is judging you. They are far more interested in the hot springs, cold plunges, hot tubs, and more. We might have gotten a few passing glances for the sheer fact we weren’t Korean, but again, those didn’t last long.
Baths ranged from a freezing cold plunge of 18C to a burning bubbling 45C one. We sampled them all, going from warm to hot to warm and finally making a pact to try the plunge, surely to everyone’s amusement as we squeaked going in and quickly running out to head to the outside springs. It’s an oasis in the middle of the city, completely quiet and calm while everything buzzes around you. It’s much like the temple in that regard. You can escape the world here and just be. It’s lovely.
Once we finished the baths, we got into our supplied pjs to take a wander around the complex. There’s lots of other things you can do at jjimjilbangs. When you enter, you’re given a bracelet with a chip in it, and anything additional you’d like to do or buy, you just scan your bracelet and voila! There’s a restaurant, which we indulged in, game rooms, an oxygen bar, multiple relaxation rooms where you can watch television or take a nap (which I definitely did), and additional spa services. There were also these giant massage chairs and since they only cost $1.50 as opposed to an actual massage that was more like $40, we decided to give it a go. Let me tell you, I’ve never been violated by a chair before. It’s an interesting experience. This chair has full arms and legs that squeeze you within an inch of your life along with a multitude of rolling gadgets that massage your entire body, including your ass. I was about three seconds ahead of Sora in the program and ended up warning her with various squeaks and exclamations when the chair got a bit handsy. But let me tell you, we were jelly by the end of it. It didn’t skimp on anything and lasted a good fifteen minutes. Not bad for $1.50.
After snoozing for a bit we discovered all the various saunas, each with their own theme and properties they helped with. Charcoal rooms for your vitality, pyramid shapes rooms for balance, an ice sauna for circulation. Our time was running low, so we weren’t able to spend a ton of time in any of them sadly, though we did check out the foot bath outside.
Spa Land destroyed us in the most pleasant of ways. We headed back to the apartment and despite it only being mid day, just called it a day. We fought bitterly to stay awake, unable to make good on plans to go to the beach or anything. We were no longer human. Everything was loose. Was it actually possible to be this relaxed? Why can’t I feel my legs…
But we felt we deserved it, and we would need to save the energy, because our five day stint in Seoul was coming up next…