It’s the beginning of a new year, a fresh start, a promise of old ways being reformed and the health and fitness industries welcome in the hogmanay, rubbing their hands with glee. As we blunder, dazed and unsure of the day of the week into 2017, they are ready to affirm our suspicions: yes, you are bloated and broken, and here is how you can spend money to fix yourself.
At the root of the many modern cures for indulgence is a kind of ancient puritanical sense of self-flagellation; purging and purifying should have some element of pain and regret in order to be truly effective. And sure enough, there are all manner of products and treatments to appeal to our sense of plummeting self-esteem. Deep down, we’re all hoping that the New Year could be some kind of rebirth, a snake skin-shedding or other epiphany, but in reality we are just too frazzled or sozzled to achieve it.
You may sense a hint of cynicism in my tone here, and, agreed, I am past the point in life of caring what advertisers think I should want to buy or do in my free time. It’s important to remember that what’s ‘trending’ is indeed a trend. Fashions and fads come and go, and historically society has not been entirely wise about the use of innovative tonics and beauty tips, from applying arsenic as face whitener, irradiating and electrocuting ourselves as a recreational pursuit, purportedly adding cocaine to coca-cola (ref. 1), to the still pervasive idiotic pastime that is smoking nicotine (now re-branded, equally vacuously, as ‘vaping’). The UK government’s health professionals took the bold step this year to inform us that there is no such thing as a ‘healthy’ volume of alcohol (ref. 2).
Throughout my life, I have not been a stranger to all manner of cosmetics and goo. I have spent time researching goos, effort applying them, and an unjustifiable amount of money supporting an industry that is in essence based on the theory of ‘negging’, i.e. drawing attention to and exaggerating real or imaginary flaws in order to undermine self esteem, induce paranoia, and manipulate behaviour (ref.3). However, no amount or brand of goo will fix you; you will need to apply some internal adhesive to address any broken bits on the inside.
Despite all this, I’m not immune to trying something new if everyone’s doing it and especially if I can’t see any obvious harm in it. I was previously an avid practitioner of hot yoga, borderline addict, until my Korean yoga instructor simply stated to me one day “To practice hot yoga, wait until Summer and practice yoga with the window open”.
Here is my Korean guru-ji Ananda 서관협 in his natural habitat at the side room of his yoga studio in Shin Jeju, surrounded by tea and wisdom (ref.4).
I recently read about the upsurge of Japanese wrapping themselves in cloth for reported therapeutic purposes (ref. 5). The news story reminded me of my experiences in Korea of seeing people burying themselves in sand at the beach so that minerals could allegedly seep through their skin into their systems, and other odd practices such as being scrubbed down with soap to within an inch of your life at the sauna, covered in suction cups to relieve muscle pains, having fish nibbling at the skin on your feet, and some very brutal deep tissue massages.
So here is a photo story about the time I had myself buried in compost for fun a few years ago, and paid for the privilege. I went with friends and would recommend for what it is, a very enjoyable low-risk gimmick, similar to adding products to a hot bath or going to the sauna. This is a place in Jeju City, Jeju Island, South Korea, where you can still arrange to have a treatment for a reasonable price of 30,000 won (around 35 USD), or so (ref.6).
It is no secret that Koreans are proud proponents of their fermented products. Kimchi is the one edible global export that almost everyone can name, and dwenjang, fermented soy bean paste, is the dish most frequently smuggled across borders to Korean expats by their friends and families.
Pictured here are kimchi jars in the snow on a neighbour’s rooftop.
After the annual Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival 추석 in September or October, all types of root vegetables are traditionally spiced and prepared, and then kept fresh outdoors over Winter. Many kimchi jars seen today are more decorative than active, but they are still a typical sight on rooftops and in gardens.
Spicy red peppers are one of the key ingredients of kimchi, giving it it’s hot character and all-important vitamin C content. They are picked and laid out to dry during the hot Summer months in preparation for the annual kimchi-making.
If fermented foods do you good on the inside, why not take things a step further, and become fermented on the outside? Get past the initial smell, and surely an external application will enhance the benefits.
The human compost burial, or, using the more official translation, ‘enzyme bath’ itself only takes 15-20 minutes and is sandwiched by a whole ceremony of showering, putting on cotton pyjamas, being shown the different natural fermenting products in the side room, and lastly lying in a cooling steam room whilst drinking a special enzyme drink.
If you can overcome any phobias of being buried alive, it’s a bizarre and oddly cathartic sensation.
Similar to the way the Japanese cloth-wrapping experience has been described, the ‘enzyme bath’ might have the comforting effect of tightly enclosing a fretful child in a warming, constraining embrace. ‘Swaddling’ is a practice still used on babies for this effect, although I am told that I wasn’t a fan and took great pains to let everyone know that I was displeased with being bound up and imprisoned in fabric. Here, the compost burial was brief and novel enough for me to be continually distracted by new sensations to pass the time, and although I didn’t actually feel comfortable at any point (the internal temperature of the soil bed is up to 40 degrees C), my continual amusement at the bizarre drama of it all meant that the entertainment factor more than compensated for any physical discomfort.
Harmless fun: good for laughs, improved circulation to the skin, and photo ops. Nice for a warming and sociable experience, any weight loss would be water lost through sweat. Drink water beforehand and don’t forget to take a camera.
6. 제주도 제주시 삼도2동 1241-14(동인스파월드 건물 내 5층)