Bathhouse Basics (17) – the Hwang-to Bang
My first experience of a hwangto-bang was in 2000 when I visited a traditional Korean makgeolli house, in mid-winter, which had an adjoining sauna. Hwangto-bang can be quite crude constructions consisting simply a small shell of dry loess clay (yellow mud) which has floor heating and in which you lounge, sometimes, fully clothed – as I did in this one. The saunas are dry as opposed humid or steamy, however, they can also be very elaborate: Wonderful Spaland, in Wolbae, Daegu, one of my favourite bathhouses, has a two tier hwangto-bang the upper part of which can accommodate about 10 people sleeping while underneath are a number of individual ‘cells.’
The western name for the clay, loess, derives from the German for ‘loose.’ Its specific and most prized characteristic is that when warm, loess emits infra-red rays and a sauna constructed of loess warms the body from inside, unlike other saunas which heat from outside. The loess sauna is believed to be beneficial detoxifying the body and balancing blood pressure and weight.
Sometimes the walls of hwangto-bang are simply clay plaster which is highly porous while at other times more resilient glazed tiles form the floor and walls (황석방). Hwangto-bang appear, not just alongside the occasional traditional Korean bar or restaurant, but in both bathhouses (목욕탕) and jjimjilbang (쨤질방).
Apart from its use in soap, face packs, pillows, loess is also used to make a dye which is often used in traditional, causal clothes which have a distinct, yellow colour.