Hot rocks are just a part of saunas' appeal

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Hot rocks are just a part of saunas' appeal

Talk about a grueling summer. Twenty-year-old university student Jo Yu-mi has spent most of her two-month vacation with her mom at a massage parlor in Yangjae-dong. One day, it's sweating amid heated rocks. The next, it's strolling the hilly paths behind the Chuncheon Okgama Massage Room.

"Here you can let off steam, take a nap, drink coffee outdoors, read, or take a stroll down the path," says Miss Jo, who ranks this as one of the best breaks she has ever had. "Where else can you enjoy all of this in the center of Seoul?"

Going to bathhouses and massage parlors is once again a huge fad in Korea. Bathhouses feature tubs brimming with hot and cold water, and sometimes green tea, where patrons soak communally for hours. Massage rooms are like Western saunas, where people sit in dry heat while swathed in towels, robes or gym clothes.

Many of the massage parlors are more than 3,300 square meters in size. They offer other leisure facilities, which is why some are billed as "the city's newest playgrounds."

Entrance fees are generally less than 10,000 won ($8). Bathhouses are open 24 hours a day, all year long. This has made them popular among couples, families, even housewives organizing social gatherings.

Nowadays, some businessmen are using massage parlors for team dinners and year-end events. Lee Chang-sik, 36, attended his company's year-end party at a massage room. "It was the most memorable year-end party in my whole career," he says. "I'll never forget how we let off steam together, then went to the Internet room to play computer games, and later drank lots of beer in the garden. It was a blast."

The Sesimcheong Sauna in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi province, has a cold-water soaking pool that, at 330 square meters, is the size of a swimming pool. Hur Hoon, 26, spent a day with his girlfriend there, sitting in the bath, swimming together and relaxing. "Heck, it was more fun than an ordinary date, and it also costs less," Mr. Hur says.

At the Laseung Sauna in Seongsu-dong, Seoul, new dance classes have become big hits. Housewives come for free, hour-long aerobic, jazz and sports dance classes. Each class can handle up to 60 people.

Other massage parlors have giant-screen televisions for people to watch. Most put extra emphasis on food. Seoul's largest Chinese restaurant, Harimgak, even operates its own massage parlor called the Harimgak Elvan Rock Sauna. Here, customers can sample Chinese and Korean cuisines.

As massage parlors become increasingly popular, competition with public bathhouses may grow. So far, there are many more traditional bathhouses than massage parlors. But that may change as people abandon tubs for hot rocks.

by Son Min-ho, Lee Kyong-hee

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