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