All expats in Korea soon learn about the nation’s vast network of family bath houses. But not everyone is comfortable hanging out nude with a bunch of strangers. Here’s a naked look at jimjilbang culture.
Almost a year ago I stood in front of a door and paused. It was later in the evening, long after the traffic had calmed in Seochogu, and I was alone. Inside, the giggles and screams of children, a few loud conversations and strongly emphasized syllables–the usual soundtrack of Korean socializations. I paused because I knew that if I opened that door I would be committing myself to intruding into one of Korea’s ancient traditions…and doing so naked.
I had been told by some of my coworkers that a visit to the jimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse, is a necessary part of getting a full cultural experience of the country. Like many foreigners, I paused at the thought of getting naked with strangers and hanging out in a hot tub. In my teenage years I had my share of skinny dipping and one unintentional incident of streaking, but this seemed different somehow. This wasn’t a crazy stunt for an adrenaline rush, this was hanging out with a bunch of naked guys. To the average westerner, this just isn’t on the dayplanner.
Finally, as I stood at the doors of the Palace Precious Stones Family Sauna I sucked up a lung full of air and pushed through the doors. The process is remarkably simple, even for those who speak little or no Korean: pay a few dollars at the counter, and you’ll be handed towels, a t-shirt and shorts. If you are going to wear anything at all, you are required to wear their standard issued gender neutral clothing for the common areas. This is where males and females are separated. To my surprise, nobody seemed shocked that a foreigner had come in, and I was shown in by a friendly clerk at the counter. He pointed to a place to put my shoes and ushered me into a room full of naked people.
It’s a bit bizarre to see fathers and sons hanging out in the buff. Although in the west we might strip down naked at the gym for a few brief moments, the thought of hanging out with my father while he struts around in his birthday suit horrifies my Canadian mind. But of course this is an entirely subjective phobia. As I clutched my orange and brown t-shirt and shorts and headed over to the lockers, a few heads turned, but nothing more. As a small group of boys ran past, towel-slapping each other on their bare backsides, the thought occurred to me: OH GOD WHAT IF ONE OF MY STUDENTS ARE HERE?
I quickly pushed the thought to the back of my head.
I stood at the lockers and took another long, deep breath. Here goes.
Ten minutes later and I’m sitting in a damn-near-boiling pool of purple water. In an upscale jimjilbang, various baths contain minerals which give the water a natural shade of purple, pink or green. There are hot pools, cold pools, sauna rooms, hotter sauna rooms, and sauna rooms which make your eyes burn with scorching air. Spices hang over heated rocks. A hot room full of salt which a few men are slathering over their bodies before standing under an icy pull-the-cord-and-feel-your-heart-stop shower. In the corner, a few men lay on the tables while they are scrubbed pink by attendants with exfoliating gloves.
After an hour of stewing in various coloured soups, I made my way to the showers and hosed myself off (note: do this beforehand too, if you are going into the pools). As I explored the facility even further, I found a surprising, self-contained universe existed in the mixed gender areas. A barbershop. Sleeping rooms. Computers with free internet. A TV lounge. More saunas (though not the naked type, if you’re wondering). A room full of ice to cool off in. More sleeping areas with heated floors to lay down on. A restaurant. For merely a few dollars, you can literally spend 24 hours relaxing, away from the stresses and pressures of city life. Deep underground, among amethyst mosaic walls, was a refuge from the neon chaos of Seoul.
Here’s the naked truth about jimjilbangs: the hardest part is pushing through that first door. And once you adjust to a few curious eyes who may have never seen a naked foreigner in their life, it’s not that strange at all.