Body and Seoul

Travelers are flocking to South Korea to experience the country’s distinctive health and beauty treatments.

WORDS Jess Swanson
January / February 2019

Located in the Korea Strait off the mainland peninsula, Jeju Island is so unlike the rest of the country that it’s nicknamed the “Hawaii of South Korea” for its lush greenery and tropical temperatures. And the indoor pool at the WE Hotel Wellness Center on the island’s south side is unlike any I’ve ever encountered: Its design was inspired by a womb.

I’m here to try a slew of the country’s newest and most unique wellness treatments, including this curious hydrotherapy session. I’m introduced to my masseuse, Kim, a smiling woman dressed in a wet suit that seems more appropriate for training sea lions, and follow her into a dark, cavernous room glowing with soft pastel lights.

“It’s supposed to be very calming—no shock,” Kim explains as she descends into the water. I dip my toe without a shudder and sink into the 99.7-degree Fahrenheit pool water, meticulously heated to mimic the temperature of amniotic fluid.

Kim instructs me to float on my back as she props a yellow pool noodle under my neck and another under my knees. I am weightless. With my ears submerged under the water’s surface, I can hear classical music playing on aquatic speakers. I begin to be lulled to sleep as Kim pulls on my limbs and joints, rhythmically twirling me in the water like a synchronized swimmer. When she gently nudges me awake 45 minutes later, I’m reminded of a newborn’s compulsion to cry upon leaving the womb.

On Instagram, celebs such as Jimmy Fallon and Chrissy Teigen post ghoulish selfies in Korean sheet masks. It might seem gimmicky, but South Korea’s beauty industry is on the rise, set to top $12.7 billion by 2022. To meet the new demand, the country is taking myriad wellness treatments beloved for centuries and expanding them in innovative ways.

Tea is to Jeju as wine is to Napa Valley. Osulloc is the country’s leading brand, andits eponymous museum—located beside expansive green-tea fields—demonstrates the beverage’s healing qualities. Classes led by a tea sommelier are slowly paced with an emphasis on subtle movements, such as placing an index finger on the teapot’s lid while serving. It feels more like a meditative session of tai chi than a culinary lesson. Afterwards, I glide down a winding footpath to the Innisfree Jeju House, also on the museum’s grounds, where cosmetics made from the island’s raw materials (volcanic ash, green tea) are sold. Picnic baskets and other treats are offered, and guests are welcome to splay out on the sprawling manicured lawns. I indulge in a matcha green-tea milkshake and watch the sun set behind rows of tea plants.

Back on the mainland in Seoul, buildings soar overheard and cars whiz past. But that commotion feels far away at the golden-hued flagship boutique of the luxury cosmetic brand Sulwhasoo (meaning “snow flower”), on a tree-lined street in the Gangnam District. For the past 50 years, Sulwhasoo has focused on creating antiaging products, but the company now also caters to the wellness needs of its patrons with two new spas operating out of its main store, making it the largest such facility run by a beauty brand in Korea. Sulwhasoo’s treatments utilize traditional Korean ingredients such as jade, pumpkin and white porcelain, all staples in ancient medicine.

During the Joseon Dynasty, women steeped ginseng in their tea and sprinkled ginseng flowers into their bath to soften their skin. The sleek Cheong Kwan Jang Spa 1899 similarly embraces red ginseng—believed to strengthen the immune system, aid digestion and speed up metabolism—in the 21st century. From the first sip of welcoming tea to the calming foot bath, each treatment incorporates the prized root.

After an hour-long facial employing half a dozen products to clean and hydrate my pores, I emerge feeling like a snake that has just shed a layer of dull skin. For the rest of my trip, I stare narcissistically at myself in mirrors, admiring my new glow. And when it comes time to return home, I squeeze as many Korean face masks into my carry-on as I can.


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