Bathing, and then binging
The city, about an hour by bus from eastern Seoul, is nostalgically rustic, unlike many of the satellite cities on the outskirts of Seoul. A wait for the village bus can take more than an hour. Bathhouse owners put out signs indicating hot springs, even though they use regular tap water.
To get a taste of the town’s rusticness, try finding a bank at its city terminal. You have to look carefully to see the small credit union stuck on the other side of the street. Still, the place has the allure of small-town life for visitors from the city.
The food is generally good, with restaurants serving what could pass for homemade meals, and in most bathhouses, you can bring snacks and drinks for the outdoor bath.
Pocheon had its heyday as a rising town for hot springs in the mid ‘90s, when it was an ideal destination for hikers to Mt. Baekun. The town is right next to Idong, a township famous for its galbi, so it was easy to soak for a day before heading one town over to chow down at night.
There were about most 10 “hot springs” bathhouses in or near Pocheon at that time. Almost half, however, closed down between 2000 and 2004, because the county had found that many of the bathhouses in the area hadn’t been inspected ― and probably wouldn’t have passed if they had been ― for water temperature and other factors to qualify as a “hot spring.”
Only three official hot springs now operate in the region.
To compensate, though, the remaining three have turned to specialized bathhouses, like Myundeok Spring (call (031) 533-5066 for information) offering carbonated baths.
The effects of carbonated bathing are well known to swimmers, who find that it helps them swim faster and increases their endurance.
The water doesn’t actually fizzle, though some carbonated baths at indoor spas do.
Myungdeok is located a nice span away from the city bus terminal, past a scenic drive overlooking a stretch of rice paddies. It takes about 20 minutes by taxi from the terminal, but it’s nice and quiet, even though the place’s orange fixture from the outside might not look completely natural. It has several kinds of saunas, some dry and some wet, and some with exotic herbs and ginseng.
The highlight of Myungdeok is its outdoor bath, surrounded by dried bamboo branches.
The water is a bit lukewarm, which could be disappointing for people who are used to bathing in scalding water that turns their skin into a pinkish lobster shell.
But the air is noticeably fresh in the outdoor pools. It feels good to tread on an icy floor after emerging from a hot bath. If you go before 9 a.m., you can get an early-bird discount, and the paucity of customers means you can paddle your feet in a giant tub all by yourself.
But aside from Myungdeok, most bathhouses in Pocheon come with great outdoor baths, though not carbonated.
Ildong Jeil Hot Spring ((031) 536-6000 for information), a sulfur spring and one of the three licensed hot springs in the region, has the most impressive outdoor bath with a large pool for children.
Just don’t expect the air to smell like lilacs. The water has a sulfur base. It’s slippery and spreads a stinky mist in the air.
If you’re planning a visit, however, go early. Jeil is spacious and well maintained, yet it’s also one of the most crowded bathhouses in the region. Plus, by the afternoon it’s got pieces of black moss from the granite surface floating around in the water.
Ildong Saipan ((031) 536-2000), isn’t far from Jeil and is also one of the most popular bathhouses in the area. It’s got an outdoor bath built out of jade, which is supposedly good for one’s digestion and blood circulation according to ancient Chinese medical texts. The main tub outside the bathhouse is currently being renovated and is open only on weekends.
Ildong Saipan isn’t a hot spring, but it’s got the most elaborate interior of any bathhouse in the region. There are three tall palm trees sprouting out from the tiled floor.
It’s also got a glass ceiling. On a clear night, people bathing in its tubs can see the stars right through the glass, something a person can’t do in the city, much less in a regular bathhouse.
For those with children, one option is to check out Sinbuk Hot Spring Fantasium, a spa resort with a large coed pool. It takes a good hour from the bus terminal, but it’s by far the largest hot-spring resort in the area and overlooks a mountain.
One of the noticeable things about Pocheon is that you see an awful lot of barbecue restaurants named “Idong Galbi.” About half an hour away from the terminal is a place at the entrance of the Baegun valley called “Idong Galbi-chon,” which literally means, “village of barbecued ribs.” About 50 barbecue joints are in the vicinity.
The price is moderate, and the facilites often have gardens with waterfalls or a mill to add that certain country touch. The ribs in the area are grilled on charcoal that has additives extracted from black oak.
The reputation of the barbecued ribs in the area stems from the generous portions of meat typically eaten by the soldiers and military families from the bases near the area. Restaurants around town serve up to 9 and 10 ribs for a price ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 won ($18 to $28). Three people can easily have their fill with only two orders.
The entire city of Pocheon is a paradise for galbi-lovers. For a late lunch, feel free to drop into any of the barbecue restaurants in Ildong, where most of the bathhouses are.
For something more eclectic, and popular among the locals, try Chogajip Sundubu Boribap ((031) 533-0966). It’s owned by an ethnic Chinese family in Korea, but the place has got some of the best handmade tofu I’ve had in years, set in a rustic Korean-style house.
For purists, Pocheon might not be the best option.
After all, it doesn’t have the fanciest bathhouses in the nation, nor does it have the freshest and cleanest water.
But if you’re an adventurous traveler willing to cruise around the town on a village bus or on your own two feet, the city will do for a half-day trip outside of Seoul.
by Park Soo-mee
To get to Pocheon, take a bus from the East Bus Terminal. For more information, call the tourism office for the city of Pocheon at (031) 538-2291.