Monday, November 30, 2015

Seoraksan and Korean Public Bath Houses

Fall colors at Seoraksan mountain
There was a long weekend in October, so we took the opportunity to travel up north to South Korea's most famous mountain, Seoraksan. We caught a bus from Pohang to the city of Sokcho (about 6 hours north on the eastern coast) and spent the night in a jimjilbang (찜질방),which is a public bath house. 

It was my first time trying a Korean style public bath and it felt very different from a Japanese one, despite the routine being very similar. In both, you first remove your shoes and place them in a small locker, then go into the main locker room to undress and put your other things in a larger locker. You then go shower and clean your body with soap, and finally enter the baths. There are a variety of hot temperature baths, a cold one, and some saunas usually. There are also often massage chairs and the bigger bath houses have places to go and eat, drink and sleep (these areas are co-ed and you wear a pajama style outfit or a kind of yukata in Japan). 

While these basic things are more or less the same, the atmosphere feels really different. First, in Japan there are two very distinct types of bath houses: onsen, which are bath houses with water from real hot springs, and sento, which just use regular water (it may be treated to seem like a real hot spring, but isn't really from one). Japanese onsen are always very calm, peaceful and relaxing. Sento are more like jimjilbang: noisier, more crowded and (for me, anyway) less relaxing. I've heard that there are fancier jimjilbang that are more like onsen, which I am looking forward to trying in the future!

Korean Jimjilbang (Photo from here)
Japanese Onsen (Photo from here)

The first night at the jimilbang was pretty miserable, because it was a holiday weekend and insanely crowded with other hikers. Many big jimjilbang in Korea have a huge room where you can sleep, and many are 24 hours so you can stay there instead of a hotel. It's a really cheap option that's great for travelers, because it doesn't require any reservations. But do try to avoid the holiday weekends, because trust me, you will NOT be able to sleep.

The Jimjilbang we stayed in looked almost exactly like this. (Photo from here)

Seoraksan mountain is located in a national park and is part of a range of mountains that offer many different trails of varying length and difficulty. The trail we did started at a back entrance to the park (NOT the entrance with the temple and large Buddha). From there, you hike straight up for about 3-4 hours, with a lot of staircases on the steeper parts. I'm not gonna lie, it's pretty grueling.

The mountain range which Seoraksan is part of

"The Stairmaster From Hell" would be a good alternate name for this trail.

At the top, we followed a ridge to one of the shelters. This is usually where you get one of the best views on the trail, but unfortunately it started raining and hailing on us on the way up and there were strong, cold winds at the top. From the shelter we began descending again down the longer stretch of the trail (about 5-6 hours of descent). On the way down, you go through a gorgeous canyon, with beautiful foliage in the fall and some waterfalls, rivers and mountain views along the route. 

We had sunshine on the way up

Such beautiful colors along the trail!

Ran into bad weather at the top - hail, rain and strong winds made it pretty miserable

Cold and wet, but still enjoying what I could see of the gorgeous views

Whenever the mist cleared away, we caught glimpses of mountaintops and fall colors

This hike may have been rainy, cold and crowded, but it was still easily one of the most beautiful places I've ever been and definitely makes my top 10 hiking list. In total, we did 18km in about 10 hours, with 4 hours up and 6 hours down (but the descent would be much faster in better conditions). In addition to the gorgeous trail, there's a temple and large Buddha that you can see near the main entrance, as well as a cave not far down the trail from the temple. Seoraksan is definitely worthy of being South Korea's most famous mountain.

The canyon (closer to the main entrance of the hike, by the temple) was absolutely stunning

One of many beautiful waterfalls in the canyon

Be prepared for crowded trails, this is Korea after all...

A particularly nice giant Buddha at the temple near the main entrance to the park

In Korea, national parks feel a lot like Disneyland.

Cold, wet and exhausted, but so happy to have done this trail!

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