These relaxing places, also known as 온천 Oncheon in Korean, 温泉 Onsen in Japanese, and 温泉 Wēnquán in Chinese, are found in many places in the region. Around the Pacific Rim, there is a lot of volcanic activity. Hot springs originate deep underground and are brought up to the surface.
For people to use them, the temperature must be gradually stepped down. Other places just have the pools of water for sightseeing only, as the water in those locations is too hot for people to use.
While they may be intimidating at first due to the heat, because natural hot springs originate from sources below the surface of the earth, they often have water that contains minerals that have some good effect on your body.
Benefits of Hot Springs include relaxation, better blood flow, softer smoother skin, etc… and they are generally good places to blow off some steam (no pun intended).
A typical hot springs facility has several pools of water of varied temperature, steam room/sauna, and a cold pool. Its ok to use Hot Springs any time of year! It doesn’t have to be cold to visit one. Many people go year round!
Where Do The Hot Springs Come From?
Not all foreign visitors and residents, though, are aware of Korea’s hot spring culture. In order to bridge this hot, steaming gap, I met with Dr. Yun Seong-taek, a hot spring expert in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Korea University. From Dr. Yun, I learned that there are more than 400 hot springs in South Korea and, though distributed quite evenly, those in the southeast are the hottest.
Compared to Ring of Fire countries like Japan and Taiwan, the out-flowing temperatures of South Korean hot springs are on the lower side. Because of the lower temperatures, Korean hot wells usually do not reach all the way to the surface and overflow. So while Korea has hot springs, they are without the special effects found in places like Yellowstone National Park.
Korean Spa Vs. Hot Spring Spa
Basically, the difference is Hot Springsuses ground water from shallow wells with relatively low mineral content, while regular pools in jimjilbangs, saunas, and sentos use water that is heated up for bathing (like a big bathtub).
At hot spring areas, however, rain water penetrates deep into the earth’s crust, coming into contact with cooling magma. On its way down, high temperatures cause the water to react with minerals in the rocks, making the circulating water highly enriched.
Then through thermal convection the steaming water cycles back up to the surface again. Dr. Yun classifies the country’s hot springs into four main types: alkaline (most common), saline (usually near the coast), CO2 (bubbly), and sulfate (rotten egg fragrance).
Korean Hot Spring Process
You reach the spa. The first step is to pay at the counter, where you’ll receive a paper receipt. If you haven’t already done so, take off your shoes and find a shoe locker.
Hold onto the key—you’ll need to present this at the next station, the desk inside the changing room. Stow your personal effects in your locker and slip the key bracelet around your wrist or ankle. Shower thoroughly. Now you are ready to enter any of the pools in whichever order you like for as long as you can stand the heat.
The process is almost identical for every spa across the country—and there’s at least one for every neighborhood (look for the red neon signs that say “sauna,” or “사우나” in Korean). But Koreans are sensitive to varying levels of quality, especially when it comes to health, and the locals know that hot spring spas are the best.
Korean Hot Spring Etiquette
All Hot Springs in the region require you to have a clean body before you go inside of the community water. This means you have to take a shower first. Some places will allow you enter the water in a bathing suit. Most however, view bathing suits as dirty, so they make you take that off before you get into the water.
Additionally, in many places tattoos are not allowed, so if you have a small one cover it up with a small towel as you walk around. If its too big to cover up you may be denied entry depending on where you are.
Scared of being naked? Not a problem! It may seem intimidating, but if you are in Korea, or traveling to Japan or Taiwan and want to experience the culture, remember that local people are used to this custom and it is not weird.
Yes, because you are a foreigner, people may look at you because they don’t expect you to be there, or because you look different, but don’t let that scare you away. (you shouldn’t stare at the locals either…remember “their eyes are up here”).
Many people, even if they were initially apprehensive at the idea of a Hot Spring, are pleasantly surprised with their experience.
“It’s over 600 years old, but there’s been some remodeling,” I was told by the woman at the tourist information desk. Near the border of Gyeonggi Province, Onyang has a huge selection of hot spring spas and hotels. The oldest is the Onyang Hot Spring Hotel, first built in 1904.
Long before this, it was part of the Joseon royal family’s hot spring palace. While there are only four pools, the pistachio tones inside and the bamboo screen outdoors make it quite relaxing.
How To Get There
Onyang is serviced by buses from every major station in Seoul, by subway (bring a large book for the ride), and by train (disembark at Cheonan).
Deep in the heart of bamboo country, Damyang Hot Spring Resort, built in 2003, wouldn’t be out of place somewhere in the Mediterranean.
The spacious, white-tiled spa is a sanctuary for city dwellers, but beware the massage pool—the falling jets are like blasts from a pressure washer. Be sure to try the novelty pools saturated with bamboo sap, bamboo leaves, and green tea.
How To Get There
You may want to use nearby Gwangju as your base for visiting Damyang. A taxi from Damyang Terminal costs W10,000. Alternatively, there are nine local buses per day from Damyang Intercity Terminal (담양 시외터미널).
Price: Adults – W8,000 (Hot Spring) / W13,000 (Swimming pool + Hot spring) Hours: 06:30-21:00
Touted as Gangwon Province’s top hot spring, Cheoksan is conveniently located for sufferers of hiking cramps as well as polar bear swim participants. Midway between Seoraksan National Park and the city of Sokcho, this hot spring is said to have once been a lotus pond.
In operation since 1973, the Cheoksan Hot Spring Hotel is preferable to the nearby public spa because of its sublime mountain views and the variety of its pools.
How To Get There
From the Sokcho Express Bus Terminal, taxi fare is W6,000. Alternatively, catch city bus 3 or 3-1; both begin their routes at the Intercity Bus Terminal.
Price: W7,000 for adults Hours: 06:00-21:00
Bugok Hot Springs (부곡 온천) | Gyeongsangnam-do
They say that there was a stream in Bugok that was so hot you could do your laundry in it even in the winter. A hot spring prospector heard this rumor and decided to drill for hot water.
Soon he struck clear gold. Since 1973, over a dozen hot spring hotels have sprouted up in this sleepy town.
Those seeking an open air unisex hot spring can find one at Bugok Hawaii. Among the hotel spas, Hyundai Hotel is said to be the best.
How To Get There
A bus from Miryang Intercity Bus Station to Bugok costs W2,500.
Said to be the largest spa in Asia, the Hurshimchung Grand Spa takes the whole hot spring thing quite seriously. The great number of large pools, glass dome and high ceiling overhead, and open air section create a pleasant environment where you can always find some space for yourself.
At Hurshimchung, the alkali spring water has the highest level of magnesium of any spa in Korea, which is said to make the skin smooth.In addition to a wide range of regular pools at various temperatures, forty different seasonal bath types are available such as Chinese herbs, lavender, citrus, cherry, champagne, and pepper.
A hot soak does wonders for aches and pains, and the massaging waterfall showers allow for specialized body treatment that will leave you feeling like a stick of melted butter. But when the fingers get wrinkly, it might be time to hit one of the cedar-scented saunas.
How To Get There
A short walk from Oncheonjang Station. (line 1, ex. 1). See 10mag.com/hurshimchung for a map.
These days, the Yuseong hot springs (유성온천) have about as many hotels as Onyang, further north in the province. The Riviera and Hongin hotel spas are acclaimed, but the original is the Yuseong Hotel (built in 1915 and expanded in 1966 and 1992).
The main pool of the hotel spa is around 42°C, while the hottest is an incendiary 45°C. Options include a medicinal herb bath, a seaweed bath, and a chlorophyll-colored waterfall pool. There’s also a Finnish sauna hidden away behind the aisles of scrubbing stalls.
Regulars gravitate to the outside area shielded by a vine encrusted rock wall. It’s here that you’ll find the coldest pool, with an icy waterfall that will turn your brains to applesauce. A pitfall to watch out for is the weekend crowds, as tour buses from Gyeryeong Mountain often unload at the spa. Thankfully, children are consigned to a long narrow pool near the entrance.
How To Get There
Yuseong Hotel is a 10-minute walk from the Yuseong Intercity Bus Terminal and a bit farther from the Yuseong Geumho Express Bus Terminal. From elsewhere in Daejeon, take the subway to Yuseong Hot Spring Station (유성온천역).
Price: W5,000 for adults Hours: 5:00 am – 10:00 pm