Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cherry Blossoms and Jjimjilbangs

Last weekend, Alex, his co-teacher Emma, and I took an 8AM bus, three hours South to Jinhae, for the biggest and most-famous cherry blossom festival in South Korea. I slept and read my book on the way, so it wasn’t bad at all. It also didn’t hurt that the drive was absolutely gorgeous. Most of South Korea is, though. Our bus took us to the Masan bus terminal where we then grabbed another bus 30 minutes South to Jinhae. There are no bus terminals in Jinhae, which unfortunately factors into this story a little later…

But in the meantime, the three of us strode along never-ending rows of cherry blossoms. Emma led us along a lakeside path that was absolutely stunning. There were Koi swimming alongside the dock that came out into the water. The weather was warm and sunny – a welcomed change to the prior chilly weeks. We hiked and hiked until we were exhausted, so we found this wooden platform in one of the outdoor workout areas and plopped down. That moment was, by far, my favorite of the weekend. I closed my eyes and savored the peace and quiet; the only sounds were chirping birds flying through the cherry blossoms. Whenever I’d open my eyes, a mass of beautiful white buds against a clear, blue sky filled my vision.

We eventually made it back down to the festival where I consumed everything from cherry blossom paste-filled pastries and pink cotton candy (called sam-sa-ta ) to a freshly-peeled potato on a skewer, spirally-sliced into potato chips. Mashisaiyo!—The festival food was splendid!

I found two used clothing stores next door to one another, so, naturally, I had to check out the Korean vintage and resale shop scene. I was impressed. I made it out with a gaudy and wonderful (yes, they are synonymous in my book) cardigan, a black vintage top, a beaded shoulder bag emblazoned with the word “Jerusalem” and a three wise men scene (It’s AWESOME). Oh, and an adorable vintage dress. All this for $24. A steal in the world of first-rate used clothing. (pictures in the following post)

At about 5:30 PM, we were ready to grab a bus back to the terminal in Masan and then ride on home… Too bad a thousand other people were trying to do the same! We stood at the bus stop with at least 30 others, and every time a bus would come by, it was full—I mean full. Stuffed. Brimming with bodies. It wouldn’t even stop most of the time. When it would, the brazen ones would push their way to the front and jump on, the bus door unable to fully close. I hope they were okay when those mountain roads got windy up ahead…
Well, this went on for a couple of hours. We tried everything to no avail—getting on at an earlier bus stop; getting on across the street. Everything. The bus would either still be full, or the bus driver would shoo us away and not let us on. There was a train station in Jinhae, so we finally ran over there to see if we could get tickets. Nope. Sold out. Every train for every time that day was sold out. We didn’t want to have to pay a ton for a hotel, so we opted to stay at a jjimjilbang for the night (they usually run about $7 per person. There are hot baths, saunas, sometimes workout facilities, and if you stay the night, you sleep on a mat on the floor in a giant common room). We asked and discovered that the nearest jjimjilbang was a good 20 minutes away by bus. So, by golly, we grabbed a dang bus (non-packed, thank goodness), and the bus driver said he’d tell us when to get off. We sat up front near the driver—which also happens to be where the elderly sit. A drunk 60-something-year-old lady kept trying to talk to us. She’d smile and then grab our hands and kiss them. I gathered (maybe?) that she used to be a nurse and, despite the fact that we told her otherwise, she continued to tell everyone that we were from L.A. Endearing, at first. Then she wouldn’t stop kissing my hand and I was like, Okay, I’m really tired and achy from walking all day and I don’t really want to talk anymore and I definitely don’t want to be kissed!

Well. I thought it, at least…

Finally. I saw the beautiful neon-illuminated words,찜질방 – jjimjilbang. We said goodbye to the old lady, who once more kissed our hands. And thank you to the driver who so graciously decided to help a couple of lost waygook, instead of very-easily saying, “Screw you!” There was a restaurant in the sauna/sleeping area, so I ate a burger and  tonkasu (pork cutlet. I was starvinggg!). I then went into the women’s area and took a hot bath in the spa area. I made it snappy, as I was being stared down like crazy (which isn’t really anything new, but I just wasn’t in the mood to sit and take it this time). Alex and I were exhausted so we each grabbed a blanket to lie on and passed out on the floor.

Yeah, right. It was so noisy and probably 100 degrees. I somehow managed to fall asleep, but was soon awakened by some Korean people trying to squeeze into the area next to us. I turned over and laid there with my eyes closed when I suddenly sensed something… I quickly opened my eyes to a foot with crooked, crusty toenails moving toward me. Gross! I scooted down a little and tried not to think about it. That same foot would later kick Alex in the head in the morning…
At around midnight, I was jolted awake by the sound of several drunken Korean women sitting in a powwow nearby, talking to one another using their outside voices. Oh. My. Goodness. I tried shushing them, and it sort of worked. But by then, I was sopping in sweat from the suffocating heat and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I got up to go drink some water and get a wet towel. Carefully, I maneuvered my way through the hundreds of resting bodies strung out all across the floor. It was really something – there were just so many people passed out, side-by-side! It almost felt like I was at some sort of disaster relief shelter.

Anyway, fast-forward to morning. I somehow managed to get a few hours of sleep, but my poor back was not happy with me. Alex and I quickly gathered our things and caught an early bus back home. We then crashed until mid-afternoon.

Oh Korea… I’ve decided that I’ll give jjimjilbangs one more shot. To spend the night at, that is… They are absolutely awesome for a day visit. But if I happen to have another one of these experiences, I may just have to stick to love motels


  1. That looks like a human being cooked!

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