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Korea's most outrageous sauna: Spa Land Centum City

By Frances Cha, CNN
July 29, 2013 -- Updated 0225 GMT (1025 HKT)
Located inside Shinsegae Centum City, the world's largest department store, Spa Land is an upscale, yet affordable playground for adults -- kids under 13 aren't allowed inside. Located inside Shinsegae Centum City, the world's largest department store, Spa Land is an upscale, yet affordable playground for adults -- kids under 13 aren't allowed inside.
Busan Spa Land: No ordinary bathhouse
Massive outdoor foot bath
Women only
Bingsu hangout
No photos in here
Maze of rooms and pools
Yellow earth
Salt room
Roman bath
Pyramid room
SEV room
Welcome to 'Bali'
Private TVs
Beauty zone
Air capsules
Hotel dining
  • Spa Land Centum City offers refined, upscale spa experience
  • Even spa-jaded Koreans are awestruck by this state-of-the-art spa
  • Water in Spa Land's baths comes from hot springs 100 meters underground
  • Walls of pyramid room are set at a 52-degree angle to "collect energies from the universe"

(CNN) -- Here's a tip for traveling in Busan: whatever time you've allotted for a venue or attraction, triple it.

No, quadruple it.

Everything in South Korea's second largest city (after Seoul) is better than you think it's going to be, and you'll want more time to explore and enjoy.

Case in point is Spa Land Centum City, a gigantic, modern jjimjilbang (Korean-style sauna/spa) located inside Shinsegae Department Store Centum City, reportedly the world's largest department store, which opened four years ago.

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Before seeing Spa Land, I had set aside an hour for a visit -- the usual amount of time I allot for soaking and scrubbing at a Korean bathhouse.

Coming from Seoul, I was skeptical about how different one jjimjilbang could be from any other. The capital, after all, is well known for its extravagant spas.

Boy, was I mistaken.

A spa like no other

Centum City's Spa Land takes the jjimjilbang concept to an entirely new place.

While Seoul jjimjilbangs tend to be mobbed 24 hours a day with families and groups of friends, Spa Land presents a more refined, upscale and leisurely experience.

Despite state-of-the-art facilities, admission fees are reasonable -- ₩12,000 ($10.50) on weekdays and ₩14,000 ($12.25) on weekends. Students get a slight discount and -- here's an interesting kicker -- children under 13 aren't allowed inside, an unheard of concept in Korea, where families often make weekend rituals of jjimjilbang visits.

Another unusual feature is the four-hour limit on stays.

Most Korean jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours and often serve as a crash pad for over-indulgent partiers, many of whom prefer to sleep off the effects of the night in a spa rather than face the repercussions of coming home late and smelling like the inside of a brewery vat.

How to do Spa Land right

The first thing Koreans want to know about a jjimjilbang is whether the water is special enough to bathe in.

The water in Spa Land's baths and pools is pumped from two types of hot springs that lie 100 meters underground, and which are sterilized 36 times a day.

The "sodium bicarbonate hot spring" is the "beauty bathtub," said by the spa to "remove your dead skin cells and make your skin and hair shiny."

The "sodium chloride hot spring" is "similar to seawater" and has a "heat-preservation effect" that is "good for blood circulation and helps to relieve pain from neuralgia and backache."

The spa ritual itself is familiar.

Visitors change into cotton shirts and pants handed out at reception. Then they head to communal areas.

There's a tarot card reading station set up near the entrance, but most people beeline past this and head straight for the outdoor foot bath area.

Here there's a large heated pool for wading back and forth, as well as private booths where couples often play games on their phones while perched precariously above pools of water.

The salt room is made of bricks of salt.
The salt room is made of bricks of salt.

Theme rooms

Spa Land has dreamed up a variety of themes for its many steam and sauna rooms.

These range from extremely hot (I couldn't enter this one without yelping in pain) to extremely cold (the Ice Room has a cute, fake jellyfish aquarium) to the gimmicky.

How gimmicky?

The walls of the pyramid room are set at a 52-degree angle, "which has been said to be the easiest angle to collect energies from the universe," according to the spa.

The SEV room "radiates electrons from SEV" meant to "metabolize your body rapidly."

The theme rooms are fun to take pictures in.

The downstairs snack bar serves bingsu (a beloved Korean shaved ice dessert) and various vinegar drinks said to be good for the skin.

Customers can take the snacks and eat them all around the bathhouse.

Upstairs there's a restaurant and cafe run by chefs from the Westin Chosun Hotel.

Alcohol consumption is limited to 500 ml per person, to prevent sauna accidents and overly rambunctious parties from disrupting the austere atmosphere.

Hot and steamy.
Hot and steamy.

Bath time

My favorite spot in the spa is the outdoor rock pool in the women-only bathing area.

I soaked under its sodium bicarbonate waterfall for a good 20 minutes before my appointment with the seshin ajumma (scrub ladies) in the scrub room.

For 25 minutes I beached myself on a plastic slab, and gave myself over to the capable hands of a professional scrubber.

Clad in black bras and panties (standard scrub uniform), she scoured my entire body with two loofahs.

"Young ladies are the most sensitive," she said in an amused voice when I squeaked a little. "The older ladies always ask for the hardest pressure."

I emerged red and raw, but wonderfully clean.

It was the best extra ₩20,000 ($18) I've ever spent in spa.

Next time I'll plan on three hours for a visit.

Make that four.

Spa Land, Centum City, 35 Centumnam-daero, Haeundae-gu, Busan, South Korea; +82 51 745 2900; open daily, 6 a.m.-midnight

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