Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Episode 14: In Which DFM Visits A Korean Bath House And Another Museum

I set my alarm for 9:30 AM last night because I wanted to get an early start on what was sure to be a big day.  I needn't have worried though, at 8:30 I was woken up by a message just too urgent to wait.  Apparently someone was opening an English school and wanted teachers.  Never mind that Nelson already told the woman that I wasn't staying around  long enough or intending to work, I just had to be woken to be given the message.  Oh well, I was already up more or less anyways since my next door neighbour was having an extra loud phone conversation and playing Nintendo at 8:00 AM as usual (she went to bed after 1:30 AM too, so I don't know how she does it, I'm actually impressed).

First up on the list of things to do was visit one of the saunas for which Korea is famous.  Saunas in Korea are actually public bath houses where everyone walks around naked and sits in various tubs of various temperatures for various lengths of time (there are separate areas for men and women).  Some of the high end saunas will have green tea, coffee, pine needles or other exotic additions in their tubs, but my bath house just had water.  (There was a sign that said it was sulfur water pumped up from a mile under ground or so, but who knows?)

It's not just a room of hot tubs, it's the experience.  There is a locker room aide who hands you all the towels you could ever need, in every possible shape, size and texture, there are little seats where you can shave at your own mirror, and a TV in the locker room with its very nice hard wood floor among many other niceties.

As for the hot tubs, there were four of them.  A Cold Tub with water at 23 degrees centigrade, a Warm Tub with water at 40 degrees, an Event Tub, which is another 40 degree tub but this time it has jets, and a Hot Tub with 45 degree water.  You wouldn't think it, but that extra 5 degrees makes a big difference.  The Cold Tub also had a "water fall" jet which seemed like a neat concept until I tried it out.  Three high pressure nozzles blast you with water from the ceiling and it really hurts.  I can see why no one else used them while I was there.

There were also two steam rooms.  One was 49 degrees and had jets spraying mist from the ceiling and round stumps on which to sit.  This room was very pleasant.  The second steam room was 69 degrees and the air tasted like hot chocolate (which I love).  69 degrees is very hot.  There is a 3 minute egg timer in the room, but I couldn't make it even a minute and a half (according to the timer, assuming it was a three minute timer).

The price was about $5.50 and it was more than worth it.  I was skeptical that sitting in hot tubs could be as enjoyable as all the websites say it is, but I am now a believer.  Half of the fun is trying to figure out in which order to rotate between the tubs and steam rooms so as to create the most comfortable contrasts in body temperature.

As mentioned before, there are more expensive bath houses that give users access to fitness rooms, game rooms, and massage parlours.  Actually, there was a masseuse at my place too, but I think that cost extra.  Regardless, this was an excellent first time experience and I think I just might splurge and spend a day at one of the fancier bath houses before I leave Korea since it is not appreciably more (you can even sleep there at night for no extra fee).

At the Sauna I met a man named Lee Young San who had visited Australia and met a Polish woman there and they are now married.  He was eager to show me pictures of her.  We also talked about his experiences with racism in Sydney, Australia and Moscow, as well as the attitudes of Koreans towards the Korean War and Americans in general.  Lee said that at least half of young Koreans resent Americans in some capacity because they now feel that they were used by America for political ends.  It was a long discussion and I won't bother trying to type it all down here.  Long story short, Lee Young San invited me out with him and some of his coworkers on Friday night.

Speaking of being asked out, Perry invited me over to his house on Monday night for dinner so that his wife can meet me and agree with him that I should stay at their place (his words).

I think I mentioned that I had cockroaches in my place and I finally caught one out in the open with my camera handy.

After returning from the bath house, I had some lunch (that's when I snapped the shot of the 'roach, which is why I included it here) and set out to find the National Museum of Korea.  I knew the general location and even which turns to make, but after a while I became disoriented and started to get worried that I had missed it somehow.

Most of the way there I was against a wall for the American military base.  Can I just say that most of Seoul, even the old side streets, have some sort of charm to them (I think), but that walking by anything to do with the American military base just makes your soul die?  The colour of everything is a light yellow-beige/brown combination, there is barbed wire everywhere, and the military police guarding the gates never smile ever (and they wear the ugliest beige uniforms).  If you have the displeasure of being above the fence on a high side street looking down, you see that many of the trees are dead too.  So I was very happy when I finally came to the beautiful Yongsan Park, a breath of Korean life in a sea of American inspired death.  (That's not me being a bleeding-heart either, it's just an observation)

The first non-pale, yellow/beige-like colours I saw in over twenty minutes of walking.

Crazy post-modern Korean art, or just a tribute to The Adam's Family?

There was another workout park, but this one was the most fun yet.  I actually spent a good fifteen minutes playing around on some of the more novel pieces of equipment.  In an attempt to keep the drain on my blog's image limit down I'll only post two of the most notable.

This is a treadmill that is made of rollers.  You have to hold onto the handles (which are unfortunately a bit low even for me), but the sensation of never being in control as you pull endless Fred Flinstones is quite neat.

This is the best piece of equipment I've seen yet.  It is an inversion rack.  You stick your ankles inside the pegs so that your feet won't fall out, and you use the welded wheels to rotate the entire contraption upside down.  There's no worry of getting stuck, because the entire device is spring loaded so that you will rotate back to an upright position the moment you let go of the wheels.  This was great fun to use, and felt wonderful on my back.

The design of the museum itself was worth the walk.  This picture doesn't do it justice, but as you walk around you get to see something new and exciting from every angle.

My guide book said that the cost was $2.00 for admission, but today it seemed to be free as nobody would accept my money no matter how hard I tried to give it to them (tipping is a concept that does not exist in Korean culture either from what I've read).

As with the War Memorial Museum, I took way too many pictures to include everything here, but what follows are some of the highlights of the highlights for me.

Ancient Scream mask made from a sea shell, presumably purchased from a woman on the sea shore.  As with movable metal type and many other inventions, Korea has always been ahead of the West.

A mace, and various replacement heads.

Brass cleats worn by soldiers.  Wouldn't you like to see an Olympic Tae Kwon Do tournament in which the competitors use these instead of those padded shoes?  The next time you ask if a given martial art will "work" for you, remember that martial arts were designed to kill people, so yes, it'll work for you.

This is a large coffin and it had a great name, but I forgot it.  Some of my readers who know a certain College in a certain city may think this looks familiar.

The description of this oar-like object was "Beating Stick" and it is from the 19th century.  It was placed right underneath the bludgeoning clubs, so I'm pretty sure it was  not used for beating the dust out of rugs.  It is roughly 6 feet long, or maybe longer.  I'll take a wooden spoon or ruler any day after seeing this, thank-you very much.

In the Joseon dynasty it was apparently customary for every male over the age of 16 to wear an identification tag.  It had your age, origin or birth, social position, and any other pertinent information necessary to peg you into your position of influence and value in a rigid social hierarchy.  This tag is made of ivory and this indicates that the wearer was a high-ranking government official in 1784.

This is an ancient, royal chamber part.  I know what you're thinking, so I don't need to say it.

This was neat.  It was the only Buddhist sculpture in the entire exhibit (and indeed the only one I've ever seen) in which the subject is not sitting cross-legged or standing in some sort of meditative pose.  This one appears to be simply reclining back on one hand like she's watching TV.

I don't know how it got into the National Museum of Korea, but this is a bike from Vietnam that has a large pile of fish traps stacked where the seat would be.  There were some pictures of fishermen riding these bikes with all sorts of various traps piled up behind them like the Clampetts going to Beverly Hills.

One of the more magnificent sights (which is why I saved it for the end) was this royal bed.  It was so large the user had to climb stairs just to lay on it.

Without a doubt, the most incredible display was this giant pagoda.  It stretched from the ground floor nearly to the third floor (each floor was about twenty feet high I'd estimate.  If you look very closely you can compare the height of the pagoda to the woman standing beside it in the second picture.  This was a favourite of all the photographers in the Museum.

What a day.  It's good to be back on track and out seeing Seoul.  Tomorrow I have a climbing contest with some more Korean dining afterwards.  Should be exciting.  It's weird to think that pretty soon March will be over and I'm going to have to start worrying about how to get my KTX (high speed train) ticket to Pusan and how to get from the train station to the Aquarium?  Time is flying by.

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