In search of enlightenment and a nice, hot bathWinter has made its first appearance of the year. It may prove to have been just a reconnaissance mission but during a three-hour drive last weekend from Seoul to Deoksan, in Yesan district, South Chungcheong province, all I saw were rows of shoulders hunched against the cold. I knew it was time to head for the hills to indulge in the pleasure of hot springs and bracing scenery.
It was obvious I had arrived in the countryside when I rolled down my window for fresh air and the smell of burnt wood and cinnamon suddenly became inescapable. Surrounded by mountainous hills, the roads in Deoksan are bumpy and narrow. The town, with a total population of just over 7,000, has mostly been known for its apple farms and Sudeok temple, an ancient monastery in the foothills of Mount Deoksung.
Now Deoksan has a new claim to fame: Spa Castle, a newly-built hot spring hotel, providing spa facilities inside a separate 20,000 square meter building. The spa area is set up like an amusement park. There are many sections including a tube slide rollercoaster, kiddy pool, three music pools where guest can enjoy classical, traditional Korean, or jazz music, a green tea pool, a herb pool, sake pool, European water therapy pool with water massages, and more. The spa facility uses around 3,800 tons of hot spring water everyday, and all of it comes from underground, which makes the 48,000 won ($51) entrance fee understandable.
I began by soaking in the rather artificial-looking green-colored water in the herb pool, I asked a junior manager at the spa, Han Sun-yub, what they actually put in the water. “We use a liquid form of herb concentrate,” he said. I was skeptical about the amount of concentrate because I hardly smelled anything at all.
I looked around for a more authentic-looking hot spring pool, something closer to how I imagined a hot spring pool should be. I had in mind a wooden frame, snow falling on my shoulders, and a clear view of the winter sky.
After some searching, I found the sake pool situated at the top of a stairway in a quieter part of Spa Castle, complete with a wooden frame and a nice view overlooking Deoksan. The only thing missing was the snow, and, as it turned out, the sake. Just as I was about to get in , the frank Mr. Han delivered a disappointment. “Sorry. We used to put real sake inside this pool but it was just too much money. Now it’s filled only with spa water.”
After my less than perfect experience at Spa Castle, I made an early start the next day for an older hot springs with more history, The Deoksan Hot Springs situated inside the Deoksan Tourist Hotel, was my choice. The actual pool was built in 1918, but the place was made popular during the late Joseon dynasty as a mineral spring where people with skin disease, neuralgia or gastro-intestinal trouble , would come to drink the water. There was a picture of the original Deoksan hot springs taken n 1918 near the entrance of the hotel. It showed a lovely little outdoor pool decorated with rocks and surrounded by trees and flowers.
Nervous with anticipation, I asked a woman at the front counter if I could borrow a swimsuit, as I had at Spa Castle.
The woman proceeded to tell me that it is just a regular bath tub no more than five feet long, where family members can soak up the spring water one by one, draining the water out after one member finishes and filling it up again before the next person steps in. I asked if I could just look around and went in. The spa was all indoors and looked pretty much like the saunas I have seen in my neighborhood back in Seoul. Curious about the quality of the water, however, I put both my hands into the main pool and attempted to smell the fresh springs. To my surprise, the water felt extremely soft and, although not strong, there was a hint of a fresh, evergreen smell.
Two straight days of testing the waters left me feeling physically drained so I sought spiritual refreshment at Sudeok temple, an old monastery that is said to have been built during the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. - A.D. 660), although there are no precise records of the exact date.
On the day I visited, there were numerous tourists in Sudeok temple. Monk Jee-hyun, who resides there, said that there are around 6000 visitors per day on weekends. There are seven sections to Sudeok temple, including the main chanting hall, Daeungjon, built in 1308. At present, Daeungjon is designated as National Treasure No. 49. Monk Jee-hyun explained, “The monastery was repaired in 1528, 1751, 1770 and 1803. However, only Daeungjon retains the original wood pillars and roof from the Baekjae Dynasty.”
In front of the Daeungjon is the “Three-storied Stone Pagoda,” (Tangible Cultural Property No. 103) constructed during the mid 10th century. Although the pagoda retains much of its original beauty, much of the stonework has been replaced as the original stones have collapsed.
Sudeok temple is also known for its meditation houses set aside for female monks. Kyonsongam is the most renowned of these, as well as the Hwanheedea, where the female monk Ill-yup (1896-1971) once resided.
Before becoming a monk, Ill-yup was an elite, modern woman who founded the first Korean woman’s magazine titled “Shinyeoja (meaning “A Modern Woman”). She was also a Catholic until 1933, when she became the student of monk Man-gong who played a significant role in invigorating modern Son Buddhism in this country. I’m sure it was inspiring but, as with the hot springs, the perfect experience still eluded me. There were just too many people.
The visit to Sudeok temple naturally led to a dabble with mountain hiking as, next to Daeungjon, there lies a tempting trail surrounded by streams and trees decked out in autumn leaves; it leads to the top of Mount Deoksung. After an hour of stumbling over the rocks and some heavy breathing, I realized that I was nowhere near the top. I decided to climb back down and visit the residence of Kim Jeong-hee, a scholar and calligrapher (1786-1856), located northeast of the hot springs area.
It took around 20 minutes by car from Sudeok temple to get to the Kim residence (Tangible Cultural Property No. 43). Flecks of deep red started appearing as row after row of apple trees provided the appropriate autumn scenery for the drive. Kim’s residence was a typical aristocrat’s house, complete with an anchae, where the women resided and a separate sarangchae for the men.
The front garden had one tall, distinguished ginkgo tree with half of its yellow leaves on the ground, making a harmonious contrast with the beige and light brown walls of the separate chambers in the house.
As I walked outside to my car, a middle-aged ajumma stopped me and handed me a slice of apple. “They were picked from my apple farm just 30 minutes ago,” she said. After the last bite, I bought 25 apples and hurt my back carrying them to the car. I knew it was time to head back to the hot spring pools.
by Cho Jae-eun