After oysters, take a mud bathIf train stations, unrequited love and snow are the elements of epic Russian romances, walking along an abandoned winter beach serves the same purpose for Korean authors. The phrase gyeoul bada (meaning winter sea) has been used in numerous Korean songs and films to conjure up images of bitter- sweet romance.
Living in this frenzy we call Seoul, it is difficult to make time for leisurely trips during the weekends, when most of us want to lie down on the sofa, call up Domino’s Pizza and wait for those TV shows that give us such guilty pleasure. For busy urbanites living in the big city, the easiest way to have a “gyeoul bada” experience is to drive for about two hours along the western shoreline to Daecheon Beach, in Boryeong city, South Chungcheong province.
The beach is 100 meters (110 yards) wide and 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) long and has millions of shells. Apart from its beautiful beach, the city is famous for its mud and its oysters. There is an oyster village nearby, called Cheonbuk Oyster Complex, where rows of tent restaurants offer roasted oysters and oyster sashimi. The city’s Oyster Festival took place from Dec. 2 to 10. Although I was tempted to go then, a close friend of mine, who was born and raised in Boryeong warned me about the overwhelming crowds that show up around festival time. “You have to stand in line to get into the restaurants. Besides, oysters taste better around the end of December or early January,” she said.
The route from Seoul to Daecheon is a lovely part of the trip. We passed the west coast beaches and resort areas as well as cabbage and grape farms. About midway through the drive, there is the long Seohae Grand Bridge, stretching for 7,310 meters with a wide view of the sea from both sides.
After about two hours, I reached the oyster village of Cheonbuk, about a 30 minutes drive west of the Daecheon Beach. There are three main areas in Korea for oysters.― Yeosu, South Jeolla province; Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang province and Boryeong (as well as Seosan nearby). Oysters from Cheonbuk are of high quality as the foreshores around the area are clean with a good balance of sea and freshwater, and the depth of the sea is enough to keep the oysters cool all year round.
In Cheonbuk, one can see many oyster restaurants selling the delicious bivalves boiled, roasted and fermented with noodles or rice. In the oyster complex I visited, there were a particularly large number of “roast oyster” signs. I went into a small tent-like restaurant called Galili Roasted Oysters and ordered up roasted oysters and a bowl of gul kalguksu. (handmade noodles with oysters).
Oysters in Korea are either farmed or wild. Although wild oysters are preferable, most oysters are now farmed as pollution has made wild oysters scarce and hence very expensive. Park Yeon-suk, 59, the owner of Galili Roasted Oysters said, “We use fresh oysters only for oyster sashimi. For roasted oysters, because it is quite time-consuming to roast each oyster and split it up, we use farmed oysters because they are much bigger.”
Once the oysters are placed on the grill, with their shells intact, little bits of the shells start popping across the table like fireworks. Although some restaurants have protective covers to prevent any serious accidents, this particular restaurant did not and provided only an apron and a pair of gloves. The shrapnel was flying so fast that I could only finish half the oysters. With my forehead covered in perspiration I ran out of the restaurant as quickly as possible and went to Daecheon beach. Next to the Daecheon beach is Daecheonhang port where tourists leave for the islands nearby in the Yellow Sea. During the summer, visitors can tour around the islands. There are also fishing stations available. Walking around the port, I saw a few families fishing, with pots in hand, ready to make maeuntang, a spicy fish stew but no one seemed to be having any luck.
Apart from these unfortunate fishermen I could see many couples who were having an easier time catching something, namely each other. Hand-in-hand, they strolled along the ivory-colored piers, taking in the scenery while supporting each other so that they wouldn’t fall off the rocks. I was anticipating a fresh salty breeze but the temperature dropped dramatically the day I was there, heralding the first snowfall of the winter. My nose became so congested I lost my sense of smell. Feeling a bit of a cold coming on, I decided to try the city’s detoxifying mud therapies. Along with its well-known mud festival, held every summer, there are various places to go for year-round “mud care,” all using the mud from Boryeong’s foreshores.
The locals recommended two spots - the spa inside the large Hanhwa Resort and the Boryeong Mud Skincare Center, both located near the Daecheon beach. The former is an upmarket place for mud wraps ― the cheapest program, the “detox body mud pack” is 40,000 won ($42) and prices range up to 80,000 won ― the latter is a more affordable place sponsored by Boryeong City, which includes an inexpensive booth where visitors can apply their own mud wraps.
Mud packs have been used for centuries to cure chronic inflammation, relax the pores and draw the blood to the surface of the skin to relieve congestion and improve circulation.
For 5,000 won, I initially went into the skincare center for a dip in the public mud bath and a self-massage. There were five different baths filled with seawater, cold water and such, the mud bath being the main attraction. After covering my entire body with mud using a large brush provided at the booth, I sat next to the sauna for 10 minutes, waiting for it to soak in. After rinsing the mud in the shower, I entered the mud bath. The water is kept at 42 degrees centigrade (108 degrees fahrenheit), and five minutes in the greenish-grey water was enough to produce profuse perspiration.
I next went into the Hanhwa Resort to see how their facilities compared. I was unable to get in at first as I did not have a reservation but after pleading with the clerk he gave me a spot. Upon entering the spa, I asked the masseuse where their mud came from. She said, “the city provides it and the same mud is used in all the mud spas in Boryeong.” This includes the Boryeong Mud Skincare Center. The 40,000 won “detox body mud pack” was basically a masseuse slathering on the mud and putting me inside a heating machine for 20 minutes.
After realizing that the same mud was being used in both places, the 40,000 won seemed a bit expensive but the service was quite pleasant, and the aromatic bath, before the mud pack, put me in a peaceful mood for the session. Maybe it was a bit foolish of me to have two mud wraps in a row, knowing that mud is a cleansing element not a moisturizer. I think a third one might have made my skin cells metamorphose into fish scales, but the two sessions were just enough to relax my spirit and rejuvenate my skin so that I was ready again for the frenzy of Seoul.
by Cho Jae-eun