Feeling steamed

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Feeling steamed

Bliss is hot, wet and 90 minutes from Seoul. It's lazing in hot spring waters, watching snowflakes fall and sipping Earl Grey tea in the frosty air.

I'm in Asan, a small city in South Chung-cheong province that is home to three hot springs, Onyang, Asan and Dogo. I'm taking a weekday retreat, recharging my batteries, and missing the crowds that often fill these springs to capacity on weekends. I'm alone. And I couldn't be happier.

Onyang, the best-known mineral spring on the Korean Peninsula, is my first stop. The night before taking to the waters, I check into the Onyang Grand Hotel, which is said to be the only five-star accommodation in the province.

The Onyang Grand doesn't quite live up to its name. But Onyang is a small town -- 30 minutes on foot will take you anywhere in this mecca of mineral springs -- so I don't expect luxury. My room is toasty, heated by the network of ondol piping beneath the floor. I sleep on the linoleum flooring on a cotton Korean-style mattress, covered with crisp white sheet. I dream of hot water and cold air.

The next morning, I head to Onyang Oncheon ("hot spring" in Korean), which is on the hotel's grounds. Springs in the area have been in continual use for 1,300 years. Many of the Joseon Dynasty's kings spent their holidays in this hot spring, and I have decided to treat myself accordingly -- as a princess.

The water at Onyang is exceptionally hot. It bubbles from the earth at 59 degrees centigrade (138 degrees Fahrenheit) and must be mixed with cool water lest patrons be poached. (Hotel guests pay no fee; others pay 5,000 won or $4.)

I undress -- soaking in mineral springs is traditionally done naked, with men in one section and women in another ?and enter the bathing area. It is nearly empty. No one seems to go to hot springs on snowy weekday mornings. The solitude is lovely.

There are three indoor tubs and one outdoor pool. The baths are filled with cool, warm or scorching water. Nearby is a sauna built with maekbanseok, a type of granite believed to have curative properties. Along the walls and in a corner are sinks and showers and two massage tables. I have booked one for exfoliation and a rubdown.

In Korea, you bathe before stepping into the spa. So I scrub myself thoroughly with soap and a bathing towel at a washing station, rinse off and then proceed to the tubs.

I alternate between indoor and outdoor tubs for half an hour, then switch to a Sahara-dry sauna which I alternate with a cold-water pool for another 30 minutes. My favorite is the outdoor pool: I love the fresh air on my face and the hot water enveloping my body.

Although I could have lingered all day in the outdoor pool, I go for my exfoliation and rubdown (35,000 won). The service begins with a vigorous scrubbing with rough green towels and just a bit of soap. The process isn't painful. I get increasingly groggy as my masseuse works.

She lightly washes my hair, then massages egg yolk into my scalp and then wraps my hair in a towel. She spreads some ground green beans on my face and then coats the paste with diced cucumber. Next, she rubs a mint lotion onto my feet. I'm beginning to feel like a giant Caesar salad.

Then the masseuse wraps my lower body with a cocoon of steamy hot towels. Next, she rubs baby oil on my upper body and starts massaging my shoulders. The ensuing 30 minutes are an amazing mix of massage and acrobatics, the latter on my masseuse's part. She flips me over, stands on me and uses the weight of her body and the strength of her legs to knead my muscles. There is no pain, just relief. Afterwards she coats my body with strawberry yogurt, smoothes my heels and then shampoos and massages my scalp.

The treatment takes more than hour, and I leave relaxed and smelling sweet as a strawberry with my skin feeling silky smooth.

In the afternoon, after a light lunch, I go to Asan Spavis, a brand-new hot springs amusement park. It's a 20-minute drive from Onyang. Asan Spavis is packed on weekends, but there are very few visitors on snowy weekdays. The spa has two large indoor pools, a sun room, an oriental herb sauna and a small lemon-scented hot spring tub.

Men and women bathe together at Asan Spavis -- wearing bathing suits, of course. Admission to the swimming pools and bath is 15,000 won; for the bath only, it's 7,000 won. Swim suit rentals are 3,000 won; bathing caps are 1,000 won.

Here, I regret going alone. Everyone is sitting and chatting with family and friends. Soaking isn't a meditative, solo activity. Children are laughing and splashing. Grandmothers are relaxing in a large whirlpool. Young women are aging prematurely on tanning beds.

I step outside. It's still snowing. There are two small whirlpools filled with near-simmering water mixed with herbs. A large swimming pool is just a few steps away. Families are romping in the hot water on this cold day.

Nearby are private changing rooms and bath houses for men and women. Inside the ladies' bath house are 23 different types of whirlpools, herb baths, mud baths and scented waters, all at different temperatures.

I first soak in a citrus-scented bath with water that is supposed to smooth the skin and relieve stress. Then, I step into a tub containing a silver powder that is supposed to moisturize dry skin and smooth the skin tone. Water bubbles softly, stimulating every part of my body. In all, I test three whirlpools, spending 15 minutes in each. The soreness of my soles and stiffness of my shoulders -- the remnants of Onyang -- disappear.

I proceed to the bathtubs and then to the saunas; jade, herbal, marble, dried mud, charcoal and more. The jade sauna is a small room made entirely of jade, a stone believed to revitalize cell growth and prevent wrinkles. As soon as I enter, I began sweating. It's 70 degrees centigrade (167 degrees Fahrenheit) and I last about 10 minutes. (Saunas are believed to promote blood circulation and cleanse toxic wastes from the body. An entire dump site floods from mine.)

Next, I try the charcoal sauna, a wood room where burned charcoal is suspended in a corner. Traditional medicine practitioners believe that charcoal relieves stress, smoothes the skin and cures minor skin problems. The sauna's temperature is pretty close to the jade sauna. I flip the small hourglass that counts in five-minute increments, sit on the wooden bench and get the distinct feeling that time has just stood still.

I burst from the sauna, rinse my body off with a quick shower, leap into the cold bath and then head to the outdoor pool. I now know why Scandinavians roll in the snow after broiling in the sauna.

A glutton for pampering, I next went to Dogo, the most serene of the springs. The Paradise Hotel at Dogo Hot Springs offers a 90,000-won-a-night package that includes admission to the springs and breakfast for two people. For an additional 10,000 won, you and a guest can also go horseback riding. The resort has tennis courts, a golf course and a horseback riding circuit; its outdoor swimming pool is only open in the summer.

Dogo's water smells a bit sulfurous. But other than that, it's not very different from Onyang. With fewer guests the day I visit, the entire experience is wrapped in silence and calm. I barely remember speaking to anybody. It's a solo moment that takes me to another world, forgetting everything else.

by Ser Myo-ja
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