So I have to tell you all about something that occurred last Thursday the 25th. All that week, one of my peers who had previously lived in Korea for a year kept talking about this thing called “jjimjilbang” (찜질방 in Hangeul). “Oh, we had to do it!” she said. “It would be so much fun! It was like going to the spa!”
Well, why not? I told our roommate about what the group was thinking. As he grew up in Korea, he knew all about it. But one of the first things he said? Paraphrased: “You know you walk around naked at the jjimjilbang, right?” Ha! Well, now I do.
So what can you do at a jjimjilbang? Why should you go to one? How expensive is the jjimjilbang? And are you really naked the entire time you’re in one?
Let Me Tell You a Little About Jjimjilbang
A jjimjilbang is a Korean bath house and spa with gender-segregated and communal areas in which you wear particular clothes that have been given to you at check-in. It’s pretty cheap, usually around 14,000 won (or USD13), not including extras you can purchase within. Along with those clothes, a key is given to you for two lockers. Your first locker is for your shoes. Then you go into the second locker room. There, you can strip down to nothing, take a shower, put on those clothes given to you, and head to the communal area if you wish to partake in the kiln and ice rooms.
The rooms will make you feel like a new person. You go back and forth between the two kinds of rooms, some humid and some dry, and you can chat with your friends or otherwise rest quietly letting the cold or heat wrap itself around you. Many people hang out in the common areas and play cards or use the massage chairs. However, it’s the sauna part that freaks the most people out!
What’s Up with American Taboos?
Now, I’m not too modest of a person — we all have body parts, they’re nothing to be surprised about. Being afraid to be naked in front of others just smacks of the taboo culture that America has concerning sexuality and the naked form. This is one of the reasons why I think America has a long-standing problem with sex education and talking about similar issues, generally. We feel uncomfortable! It’s too much! How dare someone say “penis” or “vagina” in polite company! How lewd and lurid! We should all be ashamed.
Gag. If we could just realize that we all have insecurities and fears about how we look and get over it, talk frankly about those issues, and move on, we’d all be healthier and happier. All that being said, I’ve never been in a situation where I was in less than boxers in front of strangers. I never had to take showers in P.E., I was never in sports, and if anything like that had ever happened in the programs I WAS in, there would have been some serious questions being asked. Either way, the jjimjilbang can be a freeing experience for you if you want to indulge in it. Just don’t look directly at the wrinkly old men. 🙂
My Experience at the Jjimjilbang
So there I am in my boxers. “Well, guess this is happening.” And then I was naked. To my right was a man getting a haircut in a barber’s chair, to my front was a guy sitting bored at a desk selling drinks and other goods, and to my left was a guy blow drying his hair. I felt like I was naked in a convenience store. The man at the desk even told our friend to keep an eye on us Americans, whatever that means!
Fast forward to us having clothes on again, we met up with our other friends in the communal area. We entered the ice room, which was probably about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, we switched to the kiln room which was 172 degrees Fahrenheit and ate some snacks. Later, we had dinner. Some of us were curious about the massage chairs, so we paid 1000 won to sit in them. They were fantastic! Afterwards, it was back to the ice room, into another kiln room that was even hotter, and after having sweat through all our clothing, we parted ways to go back into our gendered areas.
How Was the the Sauna at the Jjimjilbang?
Now you might think showering with a bunch of other guys and hanging out in saunas with them naked might be weird. (And if you’re American, maybe it is.) Even so, it’s only because you don’t realize how relaxing and stigma-free it is. After the shorts are off, you just forget that you’re even naked. You alternate between hot tubs, cold tubs, steam saunas, and dry saunas. Moreover, if you want the full experience, you can get an intense body scrub that completely exfoliates you (떼밀이 in Hangeul: “ddemili“), making you as pink as a baby (you might imagine that it’s painful. It probably is).
If the idea of a stranger scrubbing you raw doesn’t sound too great, just think of it as a rough massage. We almost had it done, but the line in front of us would have taken 50 minutes to finish before it was our turn. Let that sink in for a moment.
In the end, you take a shower, scrubbing down with an exfoliation towel, and you feel clean as a whistle and euphoric as hell. We walked out of that place slack-jawed and ready for a great night’s rest. (There’s plenty of science that suggests that cold/hot water immersion is good for your body, by the way; and actually, there is a jjimjilbang near you if you live around a major city! Ya’ll should try this sometime if you live near Chicago.)
Did I mention these are EVERYWHERE in Korea? I’ll probably write a future post about which ones are better than others. I definitely plan on going back at some point. You have to take advantage of it as long as you’re in Seoul and it’s cheap! Dragon Hill Spa near Itaewon is one I definitely want to go to. Maybe someday!
Our Orientation’s End: Last Details for Life in Korea
This was all after a pretty intense day where we set up our bank accounts, had our group’s photo shoot, went and got physical exams done, and then went to Immigration to submit forms for our Alien Registry Cards (ARC for short) which will allow us to actually stay in the country longer than 90 days. All in all, the day was great. I’ll be sad to see us all go our separate ways.
If you are nervous about working abroad, especially with a hagwon, know that they typically take care of you in these circumstances. I had to cover the costs of a few of these items, but I will always be grateful for how they helped set all these details up. If I had had to do it alone, I would have likely messed it up. Some hagwons can be a royal pain, but in my case at least, it has been a pleasure working with them thus far. Here’s hoping the work itself is just as good!
What About You?
Have you ever been to a bath house in Korea or elsewhere? What was normal for that location? Additionally, did you ever feel strange? If you haven’t gone, why not? Please let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear what you thought about my experience.