Tales of the World: Get Naked

Awhile back, Maggie wrote a hilarious post about her experience at a Korean sauna in America. After I read her account, I realized that I’ve been holding out on y’all. I have defied one of the most basic principles of life for far too long: the law that says it’s virtually impossible to go to a 찜질방 (jimjilbang) and not share the experience with every living soul around.

The universal sign for the jimjilbang in Korea Source

But where should I start? Should I start with the gauntlet of lockers and keys? Should I start with the salt room? Should I start with how you can drink beer and get Dippin’ Dots there?

Should I start with the karaoke and computer rooms? Should I start with the pink and blue uniforms? Should I start with the tanks of little fish that nibble dead skin off your feet? Should I start with the unabashed nudity?

Yes, I will start with the nudity.

At the jimjilbang*, there are two sections: the co-ed saunas and lounging areas, and the communal bathing areas. When you use the communal baths, you are stark naked. Upon entrance, you are issued one towel (two if you’re lucky) the size of a beverage napkin, and those things can’t be expected to cover up a dinner plate, much less a regulation-sized human being. Bathing in a swimsuit is not permitted. I tend to believe that it was because the Koreans wanted to see us foreign fatties in all our glory. So you enter the bath and you see it all. There are girls and women ranging from ages two to 100 (not kidding). Once, my fellow foreign friend ran into one of her students there. Yeah, both were nakers. And there is no personal space. There is no personal space in all of Korea, but when you’re naked and everyone is looking at you because you’re foreign and fat different, you’re much more aware of it.

*I swear I’m not being pretentious by calling the bathhouse/saunas by their Korean word; it’s just that I lived in Korea and this is what we always called it. OK so I’m being pretentious.

At the jimjilbang we frequented, there were several bathing areas: the showers, the warm baths, the hot baths, the close to boiling baths, the tepid baths, and the ice baths. All are right in the open and non-chlorinated. People would submerge their heads in the water and it always left me a bit throw-uppy that they felt OK doing this in human stew. But whatever. Just eat some kimchi and that’ll knock any bugs out of you.

The nudity will lambaste you if you are not used to it. I didn’t really want to get used to it. I have body issues that will never go away, and the bathing sections only exacerbated them. For that reason, I only used the baths once, the first time I went. But what B and I DID go back for again and again were the coed saunas. These are not the  saunas that I was used to in the US and Europe. For one, you have to wear the uniforms that are issued to you upon entrance. The women’s were pink and the men’s were blue, and the kids’ uniforms were yellow. Everyone has their own place.

The big central room at a jimjilbang Source

You enter a huge open communal area where people of all ages are just lounging around. Families always spent the day there since there was a restaurant at the jimjilbang. There are TVs, bookcases, a snack bar, massage chairs, and even little hovels where you can curl up and take a nap or sleep off your hangover; people used the jimjilbang as a super cheap hotel all the time because they were open 24 hours and you were just charged one fee upon entrance. Off the big room are multiple little doors to the separate saunas, which are all different temperatures. My favorite was the salt room where you could pile salt stones and pebbles all over yourself. I tended to forget that thousands of sweaty people had done the very same thing with those very stones.

The salt room at a jimjilbang. Ours was better because there were tiny salt pebbles all over the floor too. Source

The saunas were all hot, but the mother of them all was the room that was literally shaped like a kiln:

Here’s where you bake yourself. Source

The door to the kiln was only about 3 1/2 feet tall, so you felt like a Hobbit when you go in, which is kind of fun. Baked Hobbits – doesn’t that sound like some kind of pastry? I digress.  B and I can’t remember exactly how hot it was in there, but we both guessed that it was about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It was sweltering and humid as all get out. The floor was made of dirt because I think anything else would have gotten way too hot. In the middle of the room was a 15 minute hour glass, and I don’t think we ever saw that thing to its completion.

There was an ice room too. The room was literally walled in ice coils. It was pretty cool (har har). You were supposed to alternate between the hot and cold rooms to get your circulation amped up. Kids were always playing in the ice room. Half the time there would be an impromptu Pokemon convention going on.

Then there were the random rooms. There was something called an Oxygen Room which always perplexed us because all the rooms had oxygen in them. But there was a TV in there that always had soap operas on, so I guess “oxygen room” sounds better than “soap opera room.” There was a PC room, which just had a bunch of computers where boys played Starcraft. There was a noraebang, which translates to “singing room”, where you could sing a song on stage with all your friends.

I don’t know if Miss C will ever live overseas. I hope she does at some point, just so she can experience a culture other than her own. I hope she goes to the equivalent of a jimjilbang, whatever that may be. I hope she dives into the hottest water she can reasonably handle and savors the experience. And I may come to regret saying this, but I hope she gets naked.

I mean, as long as the only other naked company she keeps are 95-year-old Korean women. If not that, I just don’t want to know.

Questions? I know you have questions. It took me forever to write this post because I had to edit so much out of it so it wouldn’t be 15,000 words long. And some of the best stuff got cut just because they need posts of their own. So ask away. Give me the opportunity to tell all the extra stories in the comments.

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77 comments

  1. Emily,
    Reading this almost made me feel foreign to the experience you were thrown in, in a cultural way. I have often wondered what it would be liked to be thrown in the middle of an everyday custom where I would feel uneasy with, not because of its singularity, but mostly because of IT being something not experienced daily. Great post.
    Le Clown

    1. This just scrapes the surface of experiences where we felt like outsiders in Korea. I loved the feeling of being vulnerable, though. As an adult, situations where you feel totally on the outside are rarer and rarer, so when you experience them, they teach you all the more about what it is to be a human. I am going to write about celebrating (American) Thanksgiving at a Canadian bar bar in Seoul for Canadica. I really can’t wait to get started.

  2. Oh the horrors! Oh the absolute naked horrors! hahahaha, thanks for sharing. did you get hosed down or anything? It was so hideous but man my skins was so soft! Thanks for the ping!

    1. I never noticed hoses, but there was a huge wall with about 20 shower heads where you had to shower off before and after you bathed. Since it was a family affair, women were usually scrubbing each other down at the showers. I really hated them because at least in the baths you were partially concealed by the water, but at the shower, you just had to stand there for all to see.

      1. Yes! That is when the little Korean woman flew at me and told me not to get my skin wet. Gahhhh!!!

  3. And you have the prettiest blog wallpaper I’ve ever seen.

    1. Thanks. It took me awhile to find it, but I love it too.

  4. Random rooms sound interesting…

    1. They were so strange. The singing room was directly next to the massage chairs, I guess because there’s nothing more relaxing than hearing teenage girls sing pop songs at full volume.

  5. Em, this was funny and I read Maggie’s as well. I would love to experience this once, just to experience it. I think they must be way more comfortable with their bodies than Americans are — there are way more nude beaches in other countries than in ours I think. I wouldn’t want to roll any rocks that thousands of others have rolled on themselves.

    Did you EVER become comfortable with all the nudity? Do you think you would have had you visited more?

    Maybe it’s like anything else, the more you do it, the more it becomes second nature or “eh.” :).

    GREAT POST. I always love reading about things I’ve not done and places I haven’t been.

    1. Y’know, I probably would have become more comfortable with the nudity had I gone back for more. I think repetition makes anything easier. Giving birth and nursing C has made me more comfortable with my body than I’ve ever been, mostly because my inhibitions would have gotten in the way towards giving her what she needs.

      I also think that many foreign cultures are more comfortable with public bathing because there is more homogeneity to their countries. B and I always said that if there were more jimjilbangs in America, non-Koreans would find out about them and abuse them. Koreans were raised with these spas, so there’s nothing strange about them. My friend praised the jimjilbangs because when parents take their children there, they are teaching them how to relax naturally. This may be a skill lost in the US.

  6. I think we should open one in NC! We can call it a Jimmy here, for a little southern translation. Instead of baked hobbits we can have baked honey boo boo’s…omg can you imagine?
    I kind of want to go to Korea now to experience this oddity. I have had a somewhat similar experience at Esalen in Big Sur but it was with hippies on a cliff side overlooking the beautiful ocean so the nakedness was barely noticeable.
    Most excellent post, can’t wait to hear more about it.

    1. There is one in Atlanta! We should take a road trip when C gets a little older! Holy crap, how fun would that be? You can bring baked Honey Boo Boos for the road. Pretty sure those are 90% sugar ;D

  7. I love saunas (steam not dry) – we had a sweat in Tucson that we went to – but it was always on same sex night and in the dark out side until you went into the sweat lodge – but it was so hot the only thing you concentrated on was breathing thru a wet towel. I can only get nekkid with my own gender and only in the dark. Sounds like a great experience!

    1. These are definitely dry saunas. In the cooler ones, you could bring a book in there and most people would dose off. I would always bring my phone in and one time my mom called from the US. She asked me what I was doing and I said I was in a hot room full of sweaty Koreans. I think she was a little worried at first.

  8. Oh, yeah, I can say with 100% certainty that I will never frequent a 찜질방.

    1. Never say never! You should at least check it out for the beer. Yep, you can drink in the saunas.

  9. I love this post so much. Probably one of our most favorite stories from our time living in Grmany was our experience at the naked spa. It was both totally horrifying and amazing. It sounds very similar to your experience minus the karaoke and tv but adding in a soap scrub down by a large German woman, a lotion station and a nap room where they do adult swaddling.

    1. Did you by any chance ever go to Baden Baden? It is one of my dreams to go there. It looks heavenly.

      1. bellissimom · · Reply

        Baden Baden is exactly where we went! It was such an unbelievable experience. I would love to go back someday.

  10. I’m sorry, I’m too grossed out by the communal bathing in non-chlorinated water bit…or was it the putting nasty salt stones all over your body bit…I can’t make up my mind…anyway, too grossed out to have any questions.

    1. There were definitely some nasty things there. You can’t wear shoes in the jimjilbang either, so when you have to use the toilet, you have to wear these communal slippers right by the door of the bathroom. So yeah, this place is not for anyone who is a germaphobe.

  11. Honestly, I think every woman has body issues. I just think each of us has a different way of dealing with them. Like you, I found I had less body issues after having children, kind of a shame because my body was actually a lot nicer BEFORE I had 3 children. Once upon a time, I didn’t have to suck it in and hold my breath to look skinny. Oh, well.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’m become more curious about things like nudist communities. Not for kicks, mind you, I actually find the psychology of it fascinating. However, I always imagine everyone frolicking outdoors, and that part scares me. I’m Irish, and I can only imagine the sunburn…

    I’ve never once been to a sauna, Americana, Korean, or otherwise. I’m assuming sweating it out in my own backyard doesn’t count…

    1. You are a wise lady. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is 100% truly comfortable, and if someone told me they were I would tend to disbelieve them. I have found that since having a baby, I’m much more comfortable with nudity. There’s something about natural births that make you hang up your modesty.

  12. I brought up the Turkish bath we went to a little over a year ago to my daughter. She claims that she’s still traumatized!

    1. Haha, one day she’ll look back and be grateful for the experiences you provided her with. OK, so maybe she won’t but you can tell yourself that ;D

  13. This actually sounds like fun to me. Alien, but fun. It’s always a shock to the system, being immersed in something so unlike what you’re culturally accustomed to, but it’s all good stuff!

    1. It IS fun! I’m sure there’s on in NYC; you should check it out if you’re ever lacking in something new and weird to do.

  14. hahah! I’m not sure I could do this unless I knew for certain that I would never see a single patron again or unless everyone had a major figure flaw or deformity — only in those scenarios could I feel at ease. LOL! Fat American coming through! Yes, I would scare the other customers, but mostly I would scare myself. Good stuff Emily!!

    1. Lisa, that is EXACTLY what got me through it, knowing that I probably would never see any of those people again. However, it was just something I told myself, as it likely wasn’t true. The jimjilbang was in the bottom floor of the building where we worked so in all likelihood I WOULD see them again. The best was when I ran into one of my favorite students in the sauna once. It made my week because he was so flabbergasted to see me. He was like, “TEACHER! What are YOU doing here!?”

  15. I can’t wait for the beer-flavored Dippin Dots! Or did I read that wrong….. ;)

    1. This needs to be invented right away.

  16. This was a very passionate narrative. I could actually imagine people dousing themselves in the disgusting human stew. I have never been to Korea, but have tasted Korean food. Kimchi is one of my favorites. BTW jimjilbang doesn’t sound pretentious at all; now, if it were in French, it would be a totally different proposition!

    1. I love kimchi! It was by far my favorite food in Korea. Now I want some!

  17. On occasion I go to a Koren Spa with a good friend of mine. It is a woman only spa where the bathing and sauna areas are bare all and the other rooms – smaller rooms, hot, hotter, and hottest with salts and rocks and various things on floors, you wear a small robe that is provided. There is a room to hang out and drink tea, another room that is a mini restaurant (such good food!), and an area where you can get scrubs and mud baths and other funky things. It is very relaxing although the nude part takes a bit of getting used to. I don’t think I would do such a thing if it was co-ed though.

    What a great experience and I love the way you tell it! I wish I would have done more travel before we had kids. Traveling with kids is a whole different kind of experience…

    1. Oh! I should clarify that the only nude part was NOT coed. Dear me, I couldn’t handle that at all, and neither could thew Koreans because they are extremely modest. I’m glad you have a little frame of reference about what I’m talking about. It is so relaxing! The spa you go to sounds like it is set up very authentically.

      1. Thank you for the clarification! I was wondering… :-)

        It is very relaxing, I should go back again soon.

  18. You can’t stop with just one post! I hope you saved the stuff you cut. More nekkid bathing! MORE!

    1. I posted a link to this article on my Facebook and a bunch of my friends from Korea commented with their best jimjilbang stories, so I’ll probably just post the conversation because it’s beyond hilarious.

  19. Any question I would ask would involve size or grooming technique. I’m still jealous you got to see naked people. I almost saw someone naked once.

    1. HA! It was mostly little kids and old people, so you weren’t missing much.

      1. Sounds like a Penn State locker room.

        1. Oh man, you are on!

  20. I think I would go for the beer and Dippin’ Dots.

    1. Those were indeed a major draw.

  21. I would probably get excited about the kids playing Pokemon and just stay with them the entire time. This is hilarious. I love weird experiences like this. When you have to look back and think, did that really happen?

    1. Yes! All the time! It is bewildering that such a place exists and that I was there. I’m glad I have my husband to assure me that our life there really existed. It seems so far away now.

  22. I would have loved the extended version – this was fascinating! Reminded me of my Eskimo mother-in-law cackling at my account of my first experience in a maqi (Eskimo version of a sauna) when we went up there to do the post-wedding meet & greet. This post deserves to be Freshly Pressed.

    1. Aww, thanks. It’s so funny to me that American culture is one of the only ones in the world that doesn’t include heavy usage of spas and communal bathing. I’d love to hear more about Eskimo saunas!

      1. Shack in the woods compared to the Asian versions! Of course, it’s too cold and sparse up there to get too elaborate. More function than style. Teeth chattering too hard for vision to be focused enough to notice the absence of parkas. :D

  23. Nude: a great place to start. Now…whaaat? Let me get this straight: it was a building where people either got naked or wore colored robes according to gender or puberty, could go into rooms of varying temperatures, or just lie around and nap? And in these rooms of varying temps, they could sing, play games, or watch TV?

    Were the common areas normal temp? So people would use these rooms to hang out instead of get a hotel room? I’m fascinated. AND perplexed.

    1. The rooms for other activities were normal temp, as was the big communal room (which also had TVs). But yes, you could totally just fall asleep in there. There was a big structure in the middle of the room with little human-sized slots where you could cozy up and fall asleep. A great idea, if you don’t struggle with claustrophobia. We once heard a story in the news about a person whose body was discovered at the jimjilbang after patrons started complaining about the smell. He had died 36 hours earlier, but since you can stay as long as you like and rest, no one noticed anything strange until then. Creepy.

      1. WHOA. That’s a good bonus story. Not “good” per say. But definitely riveting.

  24. I adore jimjilbang. One of my favorite things in Korea I go at least twice a month. Once a month I get the body scrub done by the ajumma in a very nice sheer bra and panties set. Its the most awkward invasive thing that I’ve ever willingly paid for, but I adore it haha. go figure. Wonder if it will catch on in NC?

    1. It is THE BEST, right?! I miss them so much. There is one in Atlanta and my husband and I almost went, but the price was about 4 times what you have to pay in Korea, so we decided to save it for a special occasion.

  25. Ok I want to go! At least tot he part where you wear the pink outfit. But I don’t like to be closed in so I’ll skip the room with the hobbit door. How can you trust that a door you have to crawl into won’t have disappeared by the time you are ready to leave? Are there any of these in the US? Fun fun post!!!!

    1. Yes there are! I think the closest one is in Atlanta because it has a huge Korean population. We can’t wait to take C some day! And to let her try kimchi. I don’t know how well she’ll like the latter, though.

      1. There is a new International Farmers Market on Gtown Pkway where the Schnucks used to be. They have a Korean department. Thought you would like to know this ahead of your next visit.

        1. Thanks! We will for sure check it out. There is a Korean restaurant kind of close to Hickory Hill and it is decidedly lackluster. I can make better stuff at home.

  26. unfetteredbs · · Reply

    Just why? why why why? (laughing..awesomeness)

    1. I often asked myself the same thing, Audra!

  27. You had me with the title and this subject did not bring on my A.D.D, but … I would have to get paid a significant sum and permission to wear a mask over my head to do this! I don’t know what terrifies me more, the idea of strangers looking at my pale slice of middle aged flab, or the idea of strangers looking away from my pale slice of middle aged flab. And yes, it appears that we do have one of these outfits in New York, specifically in College Point, Queens:

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/spa-castle-college-point#query:jimjilbang

    1. If you are ever in need for more fodder for your blog, you should really go. Although I’m not entirely sure it would qualify as a “lame” adventure, per se. More like terrifying. But it is something that everyone should try once.

      1. I have a tough enough time being naked alone with myself. I don’t need an audience.

  28. Oh wow, this is all fascinating to me, even as an asian. I can never quite understand saunas because just being out in the open in Singapore (or most parts of South East Asia) would be quite akin to being in a sauna – hot and humid. Cold rooms and hot baths, that I can completely appreciate.

    1. I bet it would! It must be really hot there!

  29. Love saunas of the Scandinavian variety. Korean style sounds even better with the many room temperatures, community, and relaxation. Americans are so bad at relaxing + anti-social (maybe I’m ascribing my own hangups on the entire country). If I ever get the chance, I am going for the jimjilbang.

    1. Has your husband ever tried it? It is pretty awesome! I have to admit that I am more of a fan of Scandinavian spas. We went to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and it was beyond amazing. Plus, no nudity, which I can get on board with.

  30. Can you believe I never went to one of these?!

    1. WHAT. Next you’re going to tell me you never went to the noraebang ;D

  31. I finally had a chance to sit down for a second and read the jimjilbang post – loved it! I, like the girl above me, have not been to one, despite spending a good deal of time in Korea. I just don’t want Korean dudes judging my size – I’d have to pop a Cialis or something before going to give myself an extra boost. Plus, I really don’t want to see naked Korean men. You are a girl, so it is different. (ok maybe not shut it!)

    On one last note – I have to mention the bit about sounding pretentious. It has never dawned on me that using the Korean phrases and such that are so commonplace might come off as pretentious to others. I mean, I use ‘jimjilbang’ like it’s an English word, which I’m sure you do too…that’s what everyone calls it. I guess it could come off as pretentious though – like I could just say ‘beef’ instead of ‘galbi’ or ‘pork’ instead of ‘samgypsol’…as you can see, I can’t spell any of these words.

    Ok ok ok – comment getting long. Peace out Waiting!

    1. Thanks for reading! When we returned to the US, one of the things we were struck by was how our language had changed. We refer to convenience stores as “marts”, computers as “PCs”, and air conditioners as “air con” (although with the last one, I’m pretty sure that’s what the entire world refers to it as except for America.) You just live in a place so long, and the language just creeps in. Also, it hurts my ears when people refer to Gangnam Style as “gang” like a group of hooligans.

      Thanks again for reading and hope you’re enjoying your trip!

  32. [...] seldom leave remarks, but i did some searching and woundup here Tales of the World: Get Naked | The Waiting.And I do have some questions for you if you tend not to mind.Is it just me or does it appear like [...]

  33. I know I’m comin’ super late to the party, but I just wanted to ask: is the single-sex everybody-sees-you-naked shower area totally mandatory in the beginning, or can you just like, skip that and go to the co-ed areas? I wanna go with my boyfriend, but he’ll be too spooked at the part where he has to get naked!

    1. No worries! It is indeed totally optional. In fact, I think I only went once or maybe twice in the countless times I went to the spa. Hope you guys have an awesome time ;D

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