Last week I may have just had the most unAmerican experience possible. I stripped down to my birthday suit in front of a bunch of Korean women. Jjimjilbangs (찜질방), or Korean style bathhouses are extremely popular where I live. You can see them on just about every block and are a very common Korean past time, especially during the cooler months. These spas are gender segregated and include several different pools of varying temperatures, showers and also separate sit down showers with mirrors where women sit and scrub off a layer of their skin. And all for the price of $6.00!
So this all sounds fantastic right? You’re probably wondering why it took me two whole years to go. Because, my friends, all of this is done while being completely butt neked. And while I’m not exactly the most timid one out there, something about being completely naked and the only foreigner, kind of got to me.
I once asked a student of mine about the spa and she mentioned that she had seen some foreigners there. I said great, what did she look like (we live in a small town, chances are, I knew her). My student went on to say that she had short brown hair, tall, and oh teacher, she had huge boobs! As tempting as it was to try out the spa, I did not want to take the chance of not only seeing one of my students…both of us in the nude…but I definitely didn’t want to be the foreigner that she’s describing in detail to anyone that would listen.
|My partners in crime, Jen & Amber. The red sign above is the symbol indicating a bath house|
Recently, however, I caved into finally experiencing the glory of the bathhouse and I could not be more thrilled! A friend of mine arranged this little get together and we all braved the awkwardness of showing our goods together. So here’s the drill to going to a Korean bathhouse:
When you walk in, you will choose which option you want. You can either just use the spa, or you can pay extra to spend the night. Clothes are provided for this option and both men and women sleep in the common area which has TV’s, couches, food and a unisex sauna. This is a great option for a cheap nights stay if all the hotels are booked.
When you pay, you receive a ticket with a number on it. You go into the women’s locker room and find the correlating locker number and put your shoes in. Then, you go into the next locker room and again, find the matching number and that locker is for your clothes. We were wondering if this was where we should strip down, and just as we were asking each other, three unabashedly unclothed women walked by. Yup, we were in the right spot.
We all stood looking at our empty lockers in front of us, not being able to contain our awkward laughter as we undressed. I have gone topless at beaches (until the one American showed up and started staring down all the women. Advice to guys; if you want to go to a topless beach, wear sunglasses), I’ve stripped down to my undies in front of strangers backstage when I used to do runway shows, but walking around in absolutely nothing like it ain’t no thing? That was new for me.
|The last picture we could take|
Each pool had a thermometer above it showing the temperature while others had jets or added minerals to them. Then there was also the option for a whole body scrub. Now, most Koreans simply buy a scrub cloth (resembling a Brillo pad) from a fully stocked beauty vending machine in the locker room and get to work in front of the seated showers. How some of them weren’t bleeding by the end of it is beyond me. But there is also an option to pay an extra $20 and have someone do it for you.
I have had friends tell me in the past that women scrub you down in these places but the way that they described it, I just thought there were some older Korean women that hung around the spa and liked to scrub people’s backs while they relaxed. I thought it was a little weird but hey, it’s Korea. Anything can happen. I quickly realized that I had been wrong and these people scrubbing women down were in fact employees and it was in no way as weird as I thought (or at least as un-weird as a women scrubbing another completely naked woman can be). One of the friends that I went with went for this option and while it took over an hour, she said that her skin had never felt so amazing.
So what did I think? I realize that so many countries around the world practice nude bath houses, but coming from America, this was one of the most foreign experiences I’ve had yet. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to take pictures inside the bathhouse, because it all looked so bizarre, but I don’t think that would have made the most family friendly post. To be perfectly honest though, I found this experience somewhat liberating. At first, yes, it’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable but by the end of it I felt perfectly comfortable walking around and hardly noticed that there were no bathing suits, not to mention it was one of the most relaxing experiences. So would I go again? In a heartbeat.