Travelogue: The charcoal kiln saunas of Gangwondo

In one small part of Hoengseong, a county in Gangwondo normally famous for Korean beef, is a coal-burning neighborhood gaining a following of locals and tourists alike for its charcoal kiln “saunas.” This town, called Podong-ri, does not have much besides mountains, and its residents seem to depend mostly on cham soot (참숯, natural charcoal) sales for revenue.

On our way to beef town, my family and I got lost and ended up on a road with two charcoal burning sites, one on each side of the road. The one on the left had a sign reading, “오늘 찜질 하는 곳” (“Sauna open today”) with an arrow pointing downhill, where the kilns were busy burning, puffing dense, grey smoke into the air.

It was almost dinner time when we arrived, so we booked one of the rooms nearby to stay the night and check out these saunas in the morning. The lady who gave us our keys explained that the kilns will be burning all night at anywhere from 1300 to 1700 degrees Celsius and that a few of them will be cleared out by morning for people to go inside and jjimjil (찜질, or sweat in a sauna) in the residual heat. The next morning, 강원참숯 (Gangwon Cham Soot) was to open its soot gama (숯가마, charcoal kilns) for sauna use.

 

kilns

kilns supplies

kilns people

The sauna opened at 9 in the morning with the kilns cooled to 270 degrees. Throughout the day, they would cool to between 100 to 150 degrees. A typical bulgama (불가마, Korean hot sauna) operates at 90 to 95 degrees.

When we got there at 9:30, several groups were already camped out in front of the kilns with food and supplies. Three of the kilns had been opened, the one on the far right being hottest, having been emptied last.

Each visitor was given pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a floor mat, and towels. We were to cover up as much as possible before going inside a kiln, because any exposed skin could burn from the heat. Makeup, perfume, febrezed clothing, glasses/contacts, hair ties, plastic/vinyl, and metal were strictly prohibited.

The regulars claimed that otherwise “untreatable” muscle pain was cured from their visits here. Some would come weekly from Seoul to refresh their energy.

We watched these pros hop out from the kilns, faces red and shirts soaked through with sweat. I put on socks, covered my head and shoulders with towels, and went inside one of the kilns with floor mat in hand. The floor of the kiln was lined with wooden panels, which burned so hot, I wish I’d worn two pairs of socks. Once I sat down on my mat, the hot wood was bearable and the air didn’t burn quite as hot as I’d expected. The key was to stay completely still and give your knees and elbows extra coverage with the towels. As soon as you budged, these were the areas that would burn most.

kiln with person

kiln people camp

kiln sealed

One kiln was sealed off, still burning wood inside.

Soot and other debris from the charring were collected in bins, and visitors were allowed to cook with this heat. Most people brought sweet potatoes and garae ddeok (가래떡, a long, tube-shaped plain white rice cake) wrapped in tin foil. Up the hill was a barbecue site where visitors could buy burning coal and rent grills to cook the local Hoengseong beef with.

debris bins

kiln sweet potato

The nice ajumma (아줌마, Korean middle-aged lady) sitting by us gave us one of her charcoal-baked sweet potatoes.

I don’t know about these kilns being a cure-all for pain, but the heat wasn’t the overwhelming, stuffy kind that you find inside bulgama. It was a warm, comforting heat that almost lulled me to sleep. And although I did sweat, I didn’t feel sticky afterwards even though I didn’t shower immediately. (The kiln/sauna operators recommend waiting 3 to 4 hours before showering, which could lower the effects of healthy blood circulation promoted by the sauna heat.)

Below are some more photos from my weekend family trip. Our other Gangwondo destinations were Gangneung (강릉), Yangyang (양양), and Sokcho (속초).

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