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Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Mugwort Health Center of Ganghwa-do

Mugwort. It's a weed that grows wild in many parts of the world. Here in Korea, people use mugwort for many different reasons and in many different ways. The first time I was exposed to mugwort was in a sauna where they had a mugwort hot tub. There was a sign on the wall that tried to explain the medical benefits of soaking in this tub, but of couse the translation was really terrible and I couldn't get much out of it. The only thing I learned from that tub was that mugwort is good for "gynelogical diseases"...Sometimes the translations aren't the best, but the idea of soaking in a hot tub that people with gynelogical disorders seek out was especially troubling. I jumped in anyway.

A little more reasearch and it turns out that Korean's have been using mugwort since Korean people became Korean. The traditional Korean creation myth invloves the Dangun (more on him in a later post), who's father was the son of god and his mother was a former bear. Dangun's mother was transformed into a human by a lot of prayer and a sacred diet of garlic and mugwort. Dangun is credited with civilizing and culturing the Korean people, and with teaching them how to use traditional medicine medicine, specifically how to use mugwort. As you can see this herb plays a very important part in Korean culture.

Mugwort Health Center

When Deborah and I were visiting Ganghwa-do, we noticed that there was a Mugwort Health Center. We has some time to kill, so we decided to check it out. The first thing we did there was to make mugwort soap. This soap is very popular because it is good for alleviating the many different types of skin disorders that seem to plague Korean people. After the soap making the real fun began.

The pot

I was under the assumption that this place was just a sauna that specialized particular focus on mugwort. While this is true, there are no baths and no showers here, so if you come, come clean. The first thing we did was to strip naked, put on long, cult like skirts. Why a skirt? Well, we needed unobstructed access as we sat on pots of smoking mugwort. Yes...what I'm trying to say is that the first thing we did at this clinic was to literally have mugwort smoke blown up our asses. It wasn't blowing so much as billowing, but it was a rather awkward experience none the less. It was very hot and burning mugwort doesn't smell too great, so it wasn't the most comfortable thirty minutes I've spent on a pot. Afterwards I felt a little silly and smelled like I had spent the night sitting too close to a camp fire.

Ball pit and lounging

Next we put on some shorts and went to go play in a grown up version of a ball pit. This was a hot room filled with little marble sized pellets made of mugwort. We wallowed, burried each other, and slid around until it was time to move on to the next area. The next room was like a napping room filled with more mugwort. I was getting a little tired of this miracle herb and the room was really hot, so we didn't stay too long. The last thing on the menu was sticking your feet in foot warmers filled with the little mugwort balls. This was quite comfortable. After a while we sipped some mugwort tea and headed for the locker rooms. We heard a lot of stories about the wonders of mugwort, but my favorite was the one about a man who couldn't hold his soju. He was only able to drink about a bottle before he was too drunk. If you've been to Korea you know this situation would be a social disaster. The man started drinking mugwort tea during the day and also while he was drinking soju. Thankfully, he is doing much better and reportedly he can drink all night. 

The whole health center experience took a few hours. By the end I was pretty tired of mugwort and tired of smelling the smoke residue left of my body. Did I feel any healthier? Not really I guess, but it was an interesting and funny experince, yet one I'm not sure that I'm in a rush to do again.

How to get there

Once in Ganghwa-do, take local bus number 2 and look for this big pink sign. Everything on the island is in Korean, so if you don't speak Korean it may be a bit confusing. Your best best to to grab a local tourist map, point to the bus driver, and let him know you are going here. He'll probably be kind enough to not let you miss your stop.

The center is rather unassuming, but you should be able to spot it. The whole experience only cost 15,000 won (plus 8,000 for making the soap which is optional).

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions!

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