Korean Oriental Medicine Experience

As my days left in Korea are dwindling down, people have been asking me if there are any “bucket list” items I want to check off before departing. Honestly, there aren’t many. I’ve traveled to every province, except Jeju-do (yeah yeah, I haven’t been. I’m not that convinced to go yet) and done everything I wanted to do in Korea with one exception – oriental medicine.
During my many visits to the jjimjilbang, I was shocked by the pepperoni-like bruises dotting women’s backs. I even saw the ladies performing the cupping on each other, sitting nonchalantly in the tub with cups sucking their back skin. I haven’t heard about this treatment prior to coming to Asia.


Acupuncture, on the other hand, is well-known in America. While I never did itacupuncture there, it had an exotic vibe, something that celebrities do. I didn’t see the appeal in sticking
needles around my body, but I was willing to try it for the experience. I am living in Asia, after all.

The day after eating beef with my aunt & uncle for the first time in a few months, I woke up with body aches and a headache the next day. It could be unrelated to the food, but it was the only thing differently I did recently.

That afternoon, I met with my coteacher, JH, for a farewell meal – delicious mushroom shabu shabu – and I mentioned my body aches and interest in oriental medicine. She did a Naver search for a 한의원 and located one within walking distance.

Completely full of vegetables, soup, noodles, and porridge, we walked over to the clinic. Upon entering, the fumes of Chinese herbs overwhelmed my senses, in a good way. JH explained my issue with the receptionist and that I was a foreigner who basically wanted to experience oriental medicine. She nervously giggled and went to consult the doctor. It is my guess that I’m the first foreigner to visit this traditional medical clinic.

In the waiting room, my coteacher helped me fill out a questionnare. She chuckled as she asked me questions such as “how do you feel after eating your favorite foods?”, “how frequent are your bowel movements?” and “what is the consistency of your bowel movements?”. The doctor interrupted us as we were halfway through and told us that we didn’t actually need to fill out the form. Saved me from more revealing questions.

I was brought back to a room where the doctor searched for the targeted areas of pain. He twisted my arms and neck in all sorts of ways, asking me which one hurt more. Without warning, he stuck an acupuncture needle in my left hand and twisted my neck to the right, which actually made that neck pain disappear! Wizardry.

Next, I was taken to the back where I changed into an apron. The lady instructed me to rest my head on a pile of towels to keep my face down without making out with the table. I prefer the hole in the table as you would use with a massage.

She suddenly lodged a few needles in my back and put some kind of heating lamp over it. It wasn’t painful, but I also didn’t notice any particular benefits. After a few minutes, she poked the needles out as you would candles from a birthday cake (sans licking the bottoms, of course).

Soon, four suction cups were on my upper back, attached to a machine producing all kinds of sporadic beeping noises. The suction cups tickled me as it vibrated with the accompanying sounds. This lasted for about ten minutes. I initially thought that these cups were the ones that produced the distinct pepperoni bruises, but I was wrong.

Source: Elementhealing.com

Source: Elementhealing.com

Those cups came next. I could not see what was happening since my head was still lodged in the itchy towels, but I heard what sounded like fire igniting before warm cups were placed all over my back. Upon research, I learned that this method removes oxygen from inside the cup so when it is placed on your back and it cools off, it sucks your skin. I felt my flesh become tight as it filled the cups. It wasn’t painful, but I wouldn’t say it was comfortable, either. I just closed my eyes and relaxed.

Ten minutes later, she released the cups and I was free to go. I was surprised to see my coteacher also in the back – she ended up getting cupping as well. Even as a Korean person, she never engaged in oriental medicine. “It’s for old people”, she would say. So it was a first time for both of us.

The bill came out to a hefty 9,500 won, or $8 USD. Yeah, eight bucks for an hour of treatment!

We stepped outside back into the heat and I felt a bit odd – in an alternate state of consciousness. Perhaps I felt so relaxed that it made me zone out a bit.

My back felt sore afterward and still does a day later. The red marks are hideous and I cringe when I see it. The reason for this is because the capillaries are ruptured under the skin. Supposedly, the more red you become, the more of a troubled and stressed area it was. So I suppose it didn’t hurt to have stimulated the blood flow in this part of my body. The marks will be gone in a week, I hope.

They recommended I come back two mores times if possible. I just might! My first experience with oriental medicine was memorable and I wish I tried it sooner.

My back after cupping

My back after cupping. I know, pretty hard to look at!

Did you ever try acupuncture or cupping? Was it effective? Please share your experiences!

The staff at this clinic did not speak any English, so I am grateful for my coteacher’s assistance. However, if you are interested in trying it out, the place is in the Chonnam University Backgate right near Cafe Droptop. It is called 바른몸한의원. Address: 광주광역시 북구 호동로 18, Phone: 062-261-1072. However, there are 한의원s all around the city and some have staff that speak English. 

2 thoughts on “Korean Oriental Medicine Experience

  1. Anna V says:

    The cupping marks make me shudder every time I see them! I had acupuncture one time here in Gwangju and was dismayed to discover that the needles actually hurt me, but I do have fairly sensitive skin. So I haven’t gone back. It was fun to read about your (more positive) experience! 😀

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