When Pearl Lee and her sister Karen Lee, both in their late 20s from Hong Kong, decided to visit Korea again, they wanted to experience something uniquely Korean for the beauty treatment they gift themselves on every trip they take.
After learning about spa therapy using hanbang, or traditional Korean medicine, they booked a session each at Yeo Yong Kuk, a hanbang spa located in Jamsil, southern Seoul, that was gaining popularity on Klook, a travel and experiences platform.
According to Pearl, she and her sister tried the Sulhwasoo spa, a luxury spa by Korean cosmetics brand Sulwhasoo, during their last visit to Korea three years ago. Sulwhasoo is a brand that uses traditional Korean medicine as its base ingredients. The sisters said they wanted a more “deeper experience with hanbang,” and ended up in Yeo Yong Kuk.
“We loved the spa experience at Sulwhasoo but if it was a bit more on the beauty side, we kind of wanted to try more medicinal treatment, a healing session and really know about our body and health,” said Pearl.
The main difference between a hanbag spa and a regular beauty spa is that every visitor gets their body type checked before a session so that the “treatment” or “healing session,” according to Zio Choi, the manager of Yeo Yong Kuk, is more personalized.
The brief body type check at Yeo Yong Guk uses Sasang typology, which divides people’s body types into four — Taeyangin, Taeeumin, Soyangin and Soeumin — and suggests type-specific medical herbs and procedures for effective treatments.
Traditional Korean medicine has its roots in Chinese and Japanese medicine but experts say Korean medicine developed on its own over hundreds of years and became distinctively different by the 17th century, especially with the development of Korea’s own therapeutic regimens — the person-centric Sasang constitutional classification and Saam acupuncture methods. Choi said the spa sessions at Yeo Yong Guk are based on Sasang constitutionals and the Saam acupressure method.
“Please sit down in front of this kit,” Choi told the Lee sisters while they were taking the so-called “O-Ring” test on Oct. 24. While forming the shape of an “O” with your right thumb and index finger, you have to place your left hand fingertip on small containers with different medicinal herbs. For certain herbs, your O-shaped fingers will remain strongly closed even though Choi tries to pull them apart. But if the herbs are not suitable for you, your fingers will be easily separated.
After the test, Pearl found out she was Taeyangin, while Karen was Soyangin.
“Pearl, as Taeyangin, you must be an extremely passionate person. One thing that you need to ensure is to pay close attention when putting the wheels in motion, and it’s always important for you to listen to others rather than assert yourself. You might urinate a lot, an indication that you are healthy,” Choi explained. Choi also said it’s better for Taeyangin people to focus on muscle stretching exercises such as yoga rather than on weight training and also added that a meat-based diet is not recommended, advising Pearl to eat more seafood and vegetables.
“For you Karen, you are Soyangin. You might have a heavier upper body with aching shoulder muscles. You are also likely to be sociable, friendly and emotionally intelligent. For Soyangin like you, the key to staying healthy is managing your emotions as mood swings can have a negative impact on your internal organs and cause health problems,” Choi said. For Soyangin, mushrooms and seafood are effective in preventing adult diseases. Choi encouraged Karen to eat pork, duck and seafood, instead of chicken, which is harmful to the body of Soyangin people. The news devastated Karen.
“But it’s good to hear what I should watch out for and what is good for my body,” said Karen. “No wonder I always had digestive problems along with skin irritations when I had fried chicken. I was going to have chimaek, [a combination of the words chicken and maekju, or beer] since I’m in Seoul, but I’ll have to pass on that. It’s so sad.”
Choi suggested that Karen and Pearl try different spa treatments that use herbal oils and massage devices.
A treatment that’s unique at Yeo Yong Kuk is hwasadoksul, an aesthetic procedure that involves the use of a snake-shaped ceramic massaging device made of baekja (white porcelain), cheongja (green celadon porcelain) or regular clay. On one end of the device is a fang-shaped part that is used to stimulate the skin in a specific way.
“While applying this technique, you will see the massager move in a grid pattern that effectively stimulates the cells responsible for natural regeneration,” said Choi, adding that it’s also an alternative device to acupuncture needles as it’s illegal to perform acupuncture in a spa facility.
“Basically, we acupressure areas that we deem necessary based on your body type using this massager that is made from different materials,” said Choi. “It won’t be as effective as receiving acupuncture, but it’s still better than just rubbing your body with your hands or a hot stone.”
According to Choi, many foreigners visit her spa because of such unique procedures that have a foundation in traditional Korean medicine. Together with a traditional Korean medicine doctor, Choi opened the spa a few decades ago but changed its name Yeo Yong Kuk about 10 years ago and moved to its current location. Choi’s partner now works at a laboratory to create all the essential oils, lotions and creams using traditional Korean medicinal herbs. Choi said that is why the products used for spa treatments at Yeo Yong Kuk have higher doses of natural medicinal herbs.
“Other hanbang-based cosmetics brands can’t do that as their products have to have the minimum amount suitable to be used without causing any trouble by the general public,” said Choi. “I think that is why many foreigners want to experience the hanbang spa treatments here.”
Choi said her spa has always had many foreign visitors but the number has increased a lot recently. Eighty percent of visitors in the past month were foreigners.
“The nationalities are also becoming very diverse. Before Covid, we saw more Japanese and Chinese, but now, we have many American and European customers as well,” said Choi.
Choi believes the increase of foreigners in recent months is in part due to the government’s efforts to promote Korea’s “wellness tourism.”
The Global Wellness Institute of the United States expects the size of the wellness tourism market to grow to $1.13 trillion by 2025, growing by 20 percent annually. To jump on the bandwagon, the new Yoon Suk-yeol administration decided to include “promotion of wellness tourism” in its 110 national administrative tasks and has been aggressively promoting related industries.
The Korea Tourism Organization and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism recently organized the Korea Travel Fair on Oct. 12. Buyers in the tourism industry from 17 different countries visited Korea to engage in business to business meetings at the Silla Hotel in central Seoul, checking out different tourism products in three different categories — luxury travel, Korean medical tours and wellness tourism, and performing arts.
Many buyers from Asia and also the United States are eyeing local opportunities, scrambling to learn more about wellness tourism.
A travel agent in Washington, Indiana said wellness tourism related to traditional Korean medicine especially draw attention as they are unique to Korea. She said there is great potential for packages that combine traditional medicine with other nature experiences and meditation programs in different parts of the country.
The Korea Tourism Organization kicked off the first Korea Wellness Travel Festa on Oct. 1 to boost wellness tourism in the country. A new website has been created to introduce diverse wellness travel options in the country. Until the event comes to an end at the end of this month, different coupons can be downloaded on the site wellnessfesta.kr. According to You Jin-ho, Executive Director from Tourism Product Development Department of the Korea Tourism Organization, who organized the event, information about different wellness tourism destinations will continue to be added to the site, hopefully in more languages.
“The trend of traveling has been changing and people around the globe are all looking for healing experiences even when they are traveling,” said You. “Being fatigued by the long Covid-19 pandemic may have played a role there. Korea has decided to focus on wellness tourism from this year and the country actually has a lot to offer, especially in parts of the country near forests.”
In fact, Choi’s Yeo Yong Kuk gets all its medicinal herbs from such area. She said the quality ingredients are all in Korea’s mountainous ranges like Gangwon and in Sancheong County near Mount Jiri.
That is why it’s no surprise that Sancheong County, home to about 1,000 different medicinal herbs, holds the annual Sancheong Medicinal Herb Festival. This year’s festival, which was in its 22nd edition, had its two-week run early this month, and was participated in by different hanbang-related businesses around the area.
For those interested in a wellness program that’s related to hanbang, but closer to Korean nature, Sancheong County’s Donguibogam Village is a good option. The village sitting next to Mount Jiri has an array of facilities related to traditional Korean medicine, including the Traditional Korean Medicine Museum, a traditional Korean medical clinic, restaurants that serve dishes using natural ingredients from Mount Jiri, a facility where you can experience the energy known as “ki,” among many others. The Korean Medicine Recreational Forest offers lodging services right by the forest for visitors who want to stay longer than a day. The village’s name, Donguibogam, is also the name of a famous Korean book compiled by royal physician Heo Jun (1539-1615). There are different walking courses inside the village as well, offering visitors a chance to learn about different medicinal herbs that appear in Heo’s book. After a hike, visitors can experience a foot bath with drops of medicinal herbal oils according to their Sasang type. For more information about the programs inside the village, visit dv-eng.sancheong.go.kr.
WELLNESS DESTINATIONS IN KOREA
Hongcheon County, Gangwon
Healience Seonmaeul is a resort in the midst of a forest in Hongcheon County in Gangwon, sitting 250 meters above sea level. The resort was created by neuropsychiatry specialist Dr. Lee Si-hyeong. The doctor established this nature-friendly resort that serves healthy meals three times a day in 2007 in the hopes of providing people with an example of a balanced lifestyle.
The meals provided are not salty, greasy or sweet. Visitors have to walk about one kilometer from their rooms to reach the restaurant. There are meditation sessions throughout the day. Many of the long-term visitors at the resort are recovering from cancer.
Cellular service is not available at the resort and none of the rooms have TVs, giving visitors the opportunity to spend time with themselves.
Lee said in various interviews with local media that he hopes people look out the large windows inside each room instead of looking at TVs and mobile phones all day. There are many trails available around the village. There’s also a library inside the resort that has piles of books to choose from. An overnight stay for two adults starts at 272,500 won ($191.30).
PARK ROCHE RESORT AND WELLNESS
Jeongseon County, Gangwon
This relatively new resort is a popular destination to relax and to keep fit as it offers an array of different workout and meditation programs. All the programs provided by the resort focus on recharging the body and mind.
On the basement floor and the first floor are large halls where visitors can practice mindfulness — a key concept of wellness that requires the practitioner to focus more on the psychological process where their attention is more on the present state without the intrusion of judgment. The second floor is equipped with a yoga studio, a room for group exercise, a library and a spa. On the rooftop, visitors can also enjoy a campfire and an outdoor jacuzzi that is open until 10 p.m. every day. The outdoor jacuzzi is especially popular among guests as it provides a great view of Mount Gariwang and Mount Duta as well as an art piece titled “Blue Stone” created by British artist Richard Woods.
For those interested in making healthy food using organic ingredients, there’s also a cooking class available. The most popular class is the soft-tofu-making class, as it’s one of the most famous dishes offered in Gangwon.
NATIONAL CENTER FOR FOREST ACTIVITIES, JANGSEONG
Jangseong County, South Jeolla
This forest consists of Forest Education Center that offers different activities including a tour around the forest and craft-making classes for families with little ones. There’s also the Forest Healing Center that offers different programs to relax your body and mind while focusing on getting positive energy back from the environmental factors of the forest. The cypress forest of Mount Chungnyeong where the Forest Healing Center is located, according to reviews by frequent visitors, offers a “priceless experience.”
The forest was created by a man named Im Jong-guk on his private land. He began planting cypress and cryptomeria in 1956. Currently, the forest has an area of approximately 2.4 million square meters and is home to 2.5 million trees. The walking trail inside this forest is frequently listed as one of the most beautiful forest trails in Korea.
At the Health Promotion Center inside the forest, visitors can check their blood pressure and heart rate and take an InBody test.
MUSEUM SAN, MEDITATION HALL
Museum SAN, designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando is a popular destination for art lovers. In 2019, the museum added a Meditation Hall to its site, providing visitors a place to rest their minds while they enjoy what’s on display. After enjoying the Stone Garden and the Water Garden, as well as the paintings and sculptures the museum offers, visitors can try the Meditation Hall for a true healing experience. Ando designed the new structure and created it to fit in with the original Museum SAN building. Taking up some 132 square meters (1,420 square feet), the dome-shaped structure sits on the northern corner of the museum’s grounds, next to the Stone Garden.
Stepping inside the Meditation Hall, thin windows allow natural light into the grey hall. The light let in by the arch-shaped window, which changes angle according to the time of day, is reminiscent of Ando’s famed Church of Light building located in Osaka, Japan. The exposed concrete of the inner grey walls works with the dome-shaped ceiling, creating a cozy atmosphere, while also adding a touch of sublimity with its resemblance to a quiet cave. As the main source of light inside the hall depends on the sunshine, the hall takes on a different ambience at different times of the day. According to the museum, the best time of the day to enjoy the stark contrast of light and dark is at around 2 p.m., when the sun directly shines down on the window. The museum explains Ando’s design is intended for “the minds of the people who meditate in a space that follows the movement of the sun.” Children are not allowed into the Meditation Hall.
While in Museum SAN, visitors can also experience the famous James Turrel exhibition hall. Known as the artist who “paints with light,” visitors will also be able to enjoy meditation or deep thought in the world of sky and light created by Turrel. The Skyspace is a space reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. Tickets to the Meditation Hall cost 35,000 won. Entrance to all three facilities costs 40,000 won.
Jongno District, Central Seoul
At this Tea Therapy studio in central Seoul, visitors can experience how a cup of tea that’s been brewed using the right ingredients for their body’s current condition can be used as therapy. The Tea Therapy studio was established by Professor Lee Sang-jae from the School of Korean Medicine at Pusan National University. While running a traditional Korean medicine clinic and cafe in Apgujeong-dong in southern Seoul, Lee said he wanted to establish a new concept of therapy studio that’s somewhere in between a clinic and a tea house.
Lee recommends visitors with symptoms like mild insomnia, indigestion and headaches to visit his studio to try different herbal teas. Although the teas are medicinal, Lee reassures that they won’t taste bitter. The secret is in blending the right herbs, Lee says. There’s an area in the rear garden of the studio where visitors can enjoy their tea while also having a foot bath.
JINAN RED GINSENG SPA
Jinan County, North Jeolla
Jinan is traditionally known as a ginseng-producing area. Goryeo ginseng, which is the ingredient of red ginseng, is a plant that requires extra care throughout the entire process from planting to harvesting. Unlike other crops, the cultivation process is not easy. As Jian county is a highland basin located 300 meters above sea level, it’s known for having a huge diurnal range. Due to this atmosphere, the location is perfect for growing ginseng. Fully grown ginseng is rich in saponins with a solid texture and a long-lasting scent.
The spa in this region offers diverse therapy programs that use extracts from red ginseng cultivated in the area. Visitors can choose from either an open-air bath looking out onto the famous Mount Mai, or try more the exotic experience of “Red Ginseng Bubble Sense Therapy.” The spa said that the latter is more popular among foreign visitors.
EDENHILLS BEAUTY HEALING PARK
Hongseong County, South Chungcheong
At the Edenhills Beauty Healing Park, visitors can create their own skincare products.
All visitors will go through a skin analysis and will be guided to decide which skincare product to make. Since every process is tailored to each participant, the program is only available in small groups.
Once the skin diagnosis is finished, it’s time to create your own skincare products ranging from a brightening serum, moisturizer or spot treatment cream. The company that established the park, C&B Bio, has more than 1,000 patented extracts in its portfolio. Participants will be offered natural extracts and essential oils for the bases of their products and will mix in additional ingredients according to recipes.
The program takes about an hour and 20 minutes.
The park is actually located in the garden where the natural ingredients used for the products, such as lavender, are grown.
It costs 25,000 won per person for skincare making experience.
Geochang County, North Gyeongsang
Visitors at Skylake can create their own skincare products using naturally derived medicinal herbs. Skylake is a cosmetics brand with headquarters in Geochang, South Gyeongsang. Unlike most skincare product manufacturers that build factories in the metropolitan area, Skylake settled down in this rural area near Mount Jiri to get easier access to natural ingredients.
According to Skylake, its key ingredient, other than the medicinal herbs, is a special herbal water created by using steam distillation to extract essential oils from high-quality medicinal herbs that have been aged and fermented. Since its products do not contain preservatives, alcohol or chemical additives, they can be used by anyone with sensitive skin.
Before creating your own skincare, all participants must change into a traditional costume that will be provided. Skylake said foreign visitors love taking pictures dressed in these traditional outfits as they create their own skincare products.
Programs start from 10,000 won.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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