An Old Tradition Makes a Comeback in South Korea: Kiln Saunas

The thought of sitting in a 200 degree Celsius (about 400 degrees Fahrenheit) clay kiln may seem like some form of torture to some. But to South Koreans, these clay kilns used to produced charcoal at night, are doubling as luxury spas by day. The tradition of sitting in clay kilns went out of fashion in South Korea decades ago, however, The New York Times reports that the practice is making a huge comeback. 

The temperatures inside the clay kilns reach up to 1,400 degrees Celsius when charcoal is being made. For the next two days, as the kiln slowly cools, charcoal producers attract people who simply want to sit inside and sweat. The kiln doesn't cool too much. Even when people are allowed to sit inside, the temperatures are so hot synthetic clothing is in danger of melting.

"They come from all round the country to crawl into my kilns," said 73 year-old Seo Seok-gu in an interview with The Times. Seo is the head of Gangwon Oak Charcoal, South Korea's largest complex of charcoal kilns. Seo says the bathers started coming to his kilns a decade ago and their numbers are slowly rising. At some points, his business made more money on the $7 he charged people to sit in the kilns than they made on charcoal. Before other businesses caught on to the craze and competition increased, Seo accepted as many as 450 people daily to sit in his kilns. 

The craze might be fairly new, but the practice stems from an old tradition. In Korea, the heat of the kiln is thought to have great health benefits and there is a long-held belief in the therapeutic properties of charcoal and clay. In the past, when women gave birth, Koreans would hang lumps of charcoal to ward off evil spirits. It was also common for Koreans to sleep on heated clay floors. A man named Lim Hyun-o believes that sitting in Seo's kilns cured his chronic skin disease--an ailment that doctors had given up on.

"We believe that the heat in the kilns sweats the toxins out of our bodies," Lim said. Other customers come for less dire reasons. Yang Eun-ja, 53, comes to the kilns to relax.

"I come here twice a month whenever I feel tired, have a cold or just need to relax," she said. "You sweat through every pore of your body. It clears up your throat. Your eyes brighten. It keeps your skin fresh. Don't I look younger than my age?"