The Pinnacle of Luxury

An enzyme dirt bath is the pinnacle of luxury in South Korea.

WORDS Jess Swanson
November 2019
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Illustration by Ryan Johnson

On the second floor of a nondescript office building in Gwangju, South Korea, I found myself lying inside a pine box, not unlike an open casket, in a pile of dirt. The dimly lit room smelled of crisp cypress and was filled with the soothing sounds of string instruments. It could’ve been my funeral except for the painfully awkward fact that I was conscious, naked save for a hair cap and pair of disposable undies, with a Korean woman in burgundy scrubs calmly shoveling heaps of warm earth on top of me.

This wasn’t a funeral home or some morbid escape room, but a luxe spa called Pyeon Baeknara Hyo So Gung, colloquially known as The Enzyme Palace. It’s believed to be the only place on the planet that uses microscopic enzymes to burrow into your skin and, as counterintuitive as it seems, improve your health. The enzyme burial is a hit with locals (reservations required) and gaining popularity with curious travelers, much the way those ghoulish face masks—worn by everyone from Chrissy Teigen to Jimmy Fallon—started in Korea and became popular worldwide. As a generally claustrophobic human, this specific treatment was the most terrifying I’d heard of, but as an editor it was also the most unique, so I signed up.

The dirt, I later learned, was not actually dirt, but a precise mixture of cypress sawdust, rice bran, winter daphne, charcoal and the enzymes found in cypress trees. The enzymes are tiny microorganisms that help cypress trees perform their biological functions, such as photosynthesis. Now 30 trillion of them were said to be seeping deep into my pores to improve my immune system, skin complexion and blood circulation. I couldn’t see them but I could certainly feel them: My skin was hot and tingling, especially around my chewed cuticles.

“It’s easy to feel like you’re dead,” the Korean therapist said via a translator, as she shoveled the enzyme dirt on top of me, covering my entire body except for my head. “You might be thinking of your life, everything you have yet to do … you should reflect on that.”

The main thing I felt like I had to do was get the hell out. Contemplating one’s death, I found, is more palatable when it seems decades away—not minutes. As the therapist continued to shovel the special soil on top of me, I found myself caring less about the creepy-crawlies penetrating my pores and more about the pounds of hot earth making each inhale as strenuous as a pull-up. For the second time in my life (the first being inside a porta-potty at a music festival) not a single breath was taken for granted. But I controlled myself and committed to seeing this treatment through.

The session was said to last 15 minutes—less than two snooze cycles on my iPhone alarm. But time goes a little wonky when you’re claustrophobic and buried up to your neck in invisible microorganisms. I tried to distract myself by listing places I still had yet to visit: Machu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, my clean hotel bed.

It wasn’t working so I tried to eye the other six people buried alive in this room with me. Were they struggling too? I couldn’t see over the edge of the pine box. Why couldn’t I hear them? Were they all so mentally strong that this was actually comforting to them?

When you feel the end is near, decency, I learned, falls to the wayside. “How much longer?”

I wailed out to no one in particular. My translator, mortified, attempted to lend some context: “Miss Swanson, this is the pinnacle of luxury in South Korea.” And then, registering the grief on my face, whispered, “10 minutes.”

It wasn’t the consolation I’d hoped for. Beads of sweat propagated on my forehead, and I had an insatiable urge to itch my nose. I squirmed like a rabid zombie yearning to reach out of its grave, but the spa therapist shouted me down before I breached the surface. “The first session is the most difficult,” she said. “It gets better the second time.”

Shamed into continuing, I tried to focus instead on the alleged healing of the enzymes as they weaseled their way into my epidermis. Just as I seemed to have conquered my claustrophobia, the spa therapist entered my periphery, smiling. She leaned in, and I felt a wave of relief. My freedom was mere moments away.

But she rubbed the enzyme dirt over my cheeks, mouth and eyes, covering everything except for my semi-functioning nostrils (only one works—I have a deviated septum). Clearly this was an elaborate plot to murder me. I wondered how long it would take for the enzymes to devour my last traces. It was the perfect crime.

I was blind. Footsteps approached. Surely the murderess would be plugging that last nostril. But she wiped the dirt from my face and dug me out. I leapt out of the pine box so grateful to be alive that I didn’t mind the strange looks from my fellow enzyme comrades.

As for the healing properties, I can’t vouch that my immune or circulatory system improved. I wasn’t sure if my experience went exactly as it was intended, but this must be what running a marathon feels like—agonizing, but boy does it feel good when you’re done.

Jess Swanson

Jess Swanson is the senior editor at American Way and Celebrated Living. She graduated from Columbia University School of Journalism. Her reporting has taken her from the python-infested Everglades swamps to a bubbling onsen in Tokyo to a lava-spouting volcano in Nicaragua.

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