My visit to a traditional Korean medicine clinic

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

My husband Chad and I on our recent trip to Seoul, Korea in traditional dress. Our Korean photographer said it wasn’t cultural appropriation.

I first got to know Korea as a Mormon missionary some ten years ago. Though the country became more and more comfortable over the fifteen months I lived there (after a three-month crash-course in Korean), there are a lot of differences between South Korea and the United States—from uniforms for public-school students, to required military service, to no serving utensils and eating straight out of serving dishes with your metal chopsticks, to removing your shoes when entering a home.

Me as a missionary in 2009

I got to spend lots of time in people's homes while in Korea, which was an amazing way to experience another country and learn about another culture

Visiting a living history museum during one of the weekly half-days off we were allowed

There are also, I discovered, differences in medical practices. At one during my time there as a missionary, I was assigned to work with a Korean counterpart named Sister Lee as “companions” (Mormon missionaries come two-by-two, and companionships live together, work together, and are instructed to never leave one another’s sight).

Sister Lee had some kind of ailment. I don’t remember now what it was, but she found out that a church member in our area knew how to do ear acupressure, and she sought her out for some medical help. I remember this woman taping what looked like little copper beads to various points on Sister Lee’s ears with light tan medical tape. When she was done, she turned to me and asked me if there was anything she could help me with.

Sister Lee remembered that I had twisted my ankle while stepping off a bus not too long before that, and the woman said she could help with the pain I had been experiencing. She put the little beads on my ear with tape, too, and instructed me to squeeze them as often as I could remember.

I tried to refrain from rolling my eyes as she did her work. I thought it all seemed like some kind of hoaky sham treatment that maybe had a placebo effect. If it did, though, I was definitely not buying in. I did squeeze the beads per instruction over the next few days, though—they were there, after all.

And? I was completely surprised when the pain from my twisted ankle went away.

That single experience opened me to the possibility that alternative and complementary treatments can work. When I got back to the US, I started visiting a community acupuncture clinic (where treatments are very affordable) to help with some gut issues that didn’t seem to respond to medication and, more recently, to help manage chronic headaches. I’ve also spent a bit of time looking at research on acupuncture, which does support it for pain management (like this meta-analysis on lower back pain, and this one on fibromyalgia). As time goes on, I find myself more amenable to these kinds of treatment—like how, more recently, I started learning about psychedelics as mental health treatment.

I just recently got back from returning to Korea with my husband—he was going for work, and I didn’t want him to experience the country for the first time without me. While I was preparing for this trip, I found something called the Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum. With my previous experience, I thought it might be interesting. I put it down on our list. We ended up visiting on our last full day in the country.

It took us a while to find the area—it wasn’t exactly in a touristy spot. Once we got off the subway, though, we could definitely tell we were in an area that had to do with traditional Korean herbal medicine: We could smell it. I also recognized that a lot of the store-fronts were herbal medicine pharmacies. I don’t think I ever took a picture of one, but you can tell what they are because they all have a wall covered with little wooden drawers (kind of like the old card catalog cabinets), each drawer labeled with Chinese characters. The whole area was herbal medicine. The street vendors, all the shops, everything. We actually gave up looking for a place to eat lunch because we couldn’t find a restaurant.

Yangnyeongsi Market

It turns out we were in, like, the main area in Korea for herbal medicine. One source I found said about 70% of all the herbal medicine in the country comes from that very market. Another said it was “the largest herbal medicine market in Korea with over 1,000 traditional medicine-related businesses in the area.

Though it took some time, we did find the museum. It turned out to be in a big new building labeled in Korean and, in English, “Seoul K-Medi Center.”

The Seoul K-Medi Center, home of the Yangnyeongsi Herb Medicine Museum

We wandered in. My husband Chad wasn’t too excited about Korean herbal medicine, but was happy to hang out while I looked around. I found a section on the ground floor of the medical center that looked museum-y. There was a ton of information, but everything was in Korean (my Korean is okay, but definitely not good enough for complex language explaining a topic I know almost nothing about). I at least found dioramas that looked like they were about Korean medicine in the olden days. (Koreans seem to like dioramas. We saw dioramas in lots of places.)

I thought that was all there was to the museum, and felt a little disappointed. I'm starting physician assistant school soon, I had come genuinely wanting to learn more. So it was a good thing I found the second floor.

After finding and wandering up a staircase, I found out there was a lot more to do at the Seoul K-Medi Center. I found someone at a desk with a sign in English about services for foreigners. I paid 5,000 won for a ticket (a bit less than $5), and was told I’d be able to do two different treatments and then do a medical consult. What, exactly, the treatments were was not totally clear, but feet and tea would be involved. I was then directed upstairs. I wandered up another staircase and down a hall…there was nobody anywhere, but I saw another sign in English outside a traditional-looking door (the kind that slide and seem to have paper instead of glass). I opened it and peeked in, not sure what exactly would happen.

There turned out to be a woman inside, and she told to take my shoes off and store them in a cubby, and supplied me with slippers to wear instead. I went into the room. It was big, and obviously designed for a lot more than one visitor. I was shown a cupboard for the rest of my things. Then, I was directed to lie down on one of a bunch of mats on the floor.

She handed me something to put over my eyes, which I did; it seemed to have been full of herbs, though for what purpose, I’m not sure. The woman turned on my mat after that: It was warm and cozy, and had an automatic massage feature that would pound at my neck and shoulders and down the rest of my body.

This was pleasant enough, but I started to wonder how long I would be receiving this mysterious Korean treatment. I peeked a couple of times; no sign of the woman. I peeked at my watch. Maybe after another five minutes she would come get me?

After some internal debating, and motivated by the thought of Chad starting to wonder about me, I just got up. It seemed like this was acceptable. After that, the same woman set me up for my second treatment. For this one, she said I could choose either a face mask or a hand mask (I chose hands), then she gave me covers for my socked feet and seated me at a counter.

I thought this was the foot bath part. It turns out, my feet were supposed to go into a box filled with red light and heat (maybe infrared light?). She helped me get my hands strapped into the hand masks (a side note, based on store fronts we walked past, it looks like when you’re in Korea, you can buy masks for all sorts of places on you, like your chin, neck, stomach, thighs…).

She then gave me a cup of tea. There was also a wooden massager with what looked like a tiny baseball bat on top. I wasn’t sure what to do with this. I used it on my hands and hoped that was appropriate…but did nothing with the tiny bat.

With my feet in the box and my hands covered, I sat for a while before I started wondering (again) how long the experience was supposed to last. When my feet started getting uncomfortably hot, though, I figured they were done.

For my last activity in the room, the woman offered to give me a stress test. Because it was free, I said yes. She put what I assume was a pulse oximeter on my finger and ran a giant, computer-y machine for about thirty seconds, which then printed out my results. She spent some time explaining them to me in Korean, but I really don’t know what they mean.

After that, I gathered my things and wandered back downstairs. I was excited for my K-medicine consult. It turns out, there was one more activity first. A very enthusiastic woman told me about a few different herbs (Solomon’s seal, platycodon, licorice, some part of a dandelion…) and their health properties. She also made me a cup of tea, then helped me mix some herbs in a sachet for a foot soak. She answered some of my questions, and gave me a pamphlet on how Korean herbal medical doctors are trained and certified. She had me fill out a form, and asked to take a picture of me. I think this was for promotional purposes. She then also asked for my phone to take a picture of me “enjoying my experience.”

I found out at some point of my experience that the center was run by the Korean government, and saw different signs advertising these activities and services as specifically for “foreigners.” From this most recent stay in Korea, I get the impression that the Korean government works hard to promote the country for tourism and business. I also see a lot of pride in Korea and Korean culture—from these official promotional efforts, but also just from normal Koreans. It made sense to me that the government would take pride in this aspect of their culture (traditional Korean medicine), and that they would want to disseminate information and services to foreigners. Like I mentioned, I’ve benefited from this brand of medicine, and it seems like something that would be worthwhile to promote. The Seoul K-Medi Center was bright and modern and inviting and had some really awesome stuff to share. I thought it was too bad that I was the only one there taking advantage of it! I hope it more foreigners start finding it and enjoying its services.

After my educational herbal session, it was finally time for what I had been waiting for: The medical consult with a real-live Korean herbal medicine doctor. I was shown to another floor again, and asked to fill out some more forms. I was also asked for my passport number, which I did not have. When it became clear that the consult would not happen without it, I said I’d text my husband and see if he could send it to me. What I actually did was google the format of US passport numbers, and make one up. Don’t tell.

The doctor came out and sat down at a table with me. I wanted to ask about two things: First, chronic headaches. I got terrible migraines when I was a kid along with almost daily headaches. These faded over the years to almost nothing, but, in the last few months, I’ve started to get frequent headaches again. My second thing? Depression.

The consult turned out to be kind of disappointing. The doctor asked me where my headaches where located. My answer: my forehead. The doctor told me that unilateral headaches and headaches located in places other than the forehead are often skeletomuscular, and can usually be treated with things like more focus on relaxation and massage. But my kind of headache—along with depression—was the result of a more systemic problem: Low energy. He said ginseng was a very common way to help with this, but that I’d have to talk to a traditional doctor specializing in herbs to get a more specific treatment plan. I was surprised when I heard this—I didn’t realize that would be something different from whatever this doctor’s specialty was. He did offer me an acupuncture treatment, but again I was kind of concerned with how long Chad had been waiting, and I knew I could do acupuncture at home. So I declined.

I found Chad. He had ended up in the tea house with some very pungent tea. We headed out, and continued down the street lined with herbal medicine pharmacies and suppliers. I kind of wanted to talk to one of them—I wondered if one might be able to tell me more about fixing “low energy” than the doctor had been able to. Chad pointed out that actually buying any herbs would probably mean I’d have to declare them at customs when we headed home the next day, and I finally just decided against it.

Tea from the teahouse

Overall, it was a really interesting experience, but it left me with more questions than I had started with. Does traditional Korean medicine acknowledge depression and other mental health issues? If so, how does it treat them? How do these treatments hold up when examined scientifically? How does Korean culture overall view mental health and mental illness, and has it changed/is it changing? These are things I’d definitely like to learn more about. I think I also might try to find someone who practices Korean (or, maybe more likely, Chinese) herbal medicine near me. I’m interested in learning what they’d have to say.