National Museum of Korea & Jjimjilbang 찜질방

the National Museum of Korea

the National Museum of Korea

I went to the National Museum of Korea for the first time on Tuesday, on an English speaking tour with my friend Renee and her foreign exchange student from Germany. If I had to describe the museum in just a few words: gigantic, impressive, overwhelming! The museum has only been at its current location in Yongsan (near the army base) since 2005. Before that, it had been in a few of the palaces around Seoul, was moved to Busan for safekeeping during the Korean War, and even housed in a former Japanese General government building (there were lots of protests). Our tour guide was a sprightly old gentleman (Mr. Yang) who was extremely enthusiastic and a super fast walker (we were struggling to keep up). His English was really good, but we sometimes couldn’t hear him over the sounds of thousands of schoolkids (it’s summer vacation) and other tour groups. We were lucky because it was just the three of us on the tour! Mr. Yang informed us that the tour would take 70 minutes (it started at 10:30 and ended promptly at 11:40!!) and first explained the logo of the National Museum: it has three sets of stripes (three columns of different widths) stacked in three rows. The three rows represent the three floors of the museum. The left most set of stripes is shorter and represents the past, the middle set of stripes is shortest and represents the present, and the right most set of stripes is the longest and represents the future.

"Korean" Buddha vs. Traditional Buddha

“Korean” Buddha vs. Traditional Buddha

with Mr. Yang

with Mr. Yang

We could tell Mr. Yang was very proud of the Museum’s collections, and very proud of Korea. He kept saying things like, “We learned how to make this type of pottery from the Japanese, but then we learned to do it much better!” or “Korea was such a small country, but look at this old map, we conquered much of China!” When he showed us the three types of large, bronze bells (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), he said, “Look! The Korean bell is the best because it has a pipe (near the top, by the hook) that makes the bell sound clearer and lets the sound travel further than the other two bells!” (I’m used to hearing nationalist ‘propaganda’/exaggeration- in the Tang Museum in Xi’an, we heard a lot about how the ancient Chinese were the smartest and discovered all these things that took the West many more centuries to discover…)

10-story Pagoda

10-story Pagoda

My favorite display were the various Buddhas. There was even one Buddha with Korean facial features! In front of the famous 10-story pagoda (erected in 1348), Mr. Yang paused and asked a tourist to take a picture of the four of us. He says he always takes a picture in front of the pagoda, to post in his blog! He gave us his blog address and asked us to check back later to see our picture. At the end of the tour, Mr. Yang said we had only covered 5% of the museum! I can only handle so much museum at one time, so I’ll have to make a few trips back to the museum…

On Wednesday, I went with Renee and the exchange student to a Jjimjilbang, a traditional Korean bathhouse. It’s fully nude (of course, separated by gender), so that’s why it’s taken me a full year to work up the courage to go! The Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan is the most famous Jjimjilbang in Seoul. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The basic entrance fee is 11,000 won- this allows access to the common areas (arcade, food court, saunas, heated pools, outdoor pool- empty when we went due to the rain). Upon entry, we were given a numbered wristband with a key, and locked our shoes in our shoe cubby. Since we were on a mission to get a body scrub, we skipped all the other stuff and headed immediately for the locker room. After stripping down to nothing except for the wristband, I tried to cover myself as best I could with a tiny towel (not very successful). The Koreans around me were strutting around naked…

We then went downstairs, showered, and waited our turns for the body scrub. Renee loves the scrub and gets it once a month. We opted for the deluxe package (25,000 won for the 20-minute body scrub and 35,000 won for a serenity massage). When it was my turn, an old Korean ajumma swiped my wristband to charge for the service, and told me to lie down on a “bed” – looked like a hospital bed that was covered with vinyl. She donned her “Brillo pad” gloves and started scrubbing away. It was PAINFUL. She showed no mercy. She got into every nook and cranny. And she was fast. Renee said she looked over at me and saw that my butt was fire engine red! I shed SO MUCH dead skin, it was disgusting. I probably lost a pound of skin. I was told to shower really quickly before the “massage.” Whatever it was, it’s not what I would call a massage. It was not serene. It was not relaxing. It was PAINFUL. The ajumma dug her elbow into my back. She used some wooden “massage” tool and dug into my arms and legs. There were times when I wanted to shout out in pain, before she told me to roll over. The head massage with the shampoo was the only relaxing part of it! At the end of the 40 minutes, she smiled and said, “All done!” and shooed me off so that she could hurt her next customer.

My skin feels very smooth and is probably two shades lighter. But I have some red welts on my arms and certain parts of me are still tender to the touch! Maybe in a few months, I’ll get another body scrub. But I’m going to steer clear of the “massages!” I left my phone at Renee’s place so I didn’t have a chance to take any pictures at all…

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3 responses to “National Museum of Korea & Jjimjilbang 찜질방”

  1. drzejan says :

    It was thinking about going to this museum but… in the same time I was afraid that I will hear this propaganda about how things were invented in Korea and how they are better compared to Japanese ones. Yeah… our bells are n-times better that yours!!!1…

    But maybe, some day I will decide to go there (but my bike so far looks more interesting 😉 ).

    What device did you use to take picture of this pagoda? It looks nice 😀

    And it’s a pity that this Korean massage was in fact some way of torture. But going to public bath? Nope, my culture background does not support activities like this 😉

    • OliviaM says :

      Andrew- I would still recommend going to the museum! It’s very interesting. And there’s so much to see. If you want to skip the propaganda, skip the tour and just do a self guided tour.

      I used the panorama feature on my iPhone 🙂

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