Getin’ Neked

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.

  • The Nomad

    Haha!! I felt the same way until I bit the bullet and went. I loved going to the jimjilbang! When my friend and I went for the first time we saw all the baskets filled with bath stuff. We thought they were communal, grabbed one and started until the contents. Suddenly, an (very naked) ajumma came over and smacked (a very naked) me for stealing her stuff! It was so embarrassing. It’s funny that you said it’s a winter activity because I always going in the summer to cool off. Getting dressed up to go to the bathhouse always felt like to much effort when I could just stay in my toasty house. Have you tried acupuncture yet? I highly recommend going. It’s so cheap too!

  • gladley

    Hey! I’m just catching up on all the expat diaries links – this was really hilarious. I’ve been all over Europe where they’re a little more unabashed about bathing and sunbathing in their birthday suits, but as a born and bred Brit, I’m a little hesitant about such public displays…

  • Robyn

    Yes,would def try it! So glad I’ve found your lovely blog!

  • Sam M

    You are brave for going. I don’t know if I’d be brave enough to go.

  • ifs ands Butts

    Ah so brave — I have not been able to make myself do it yet in Germany! Someday…

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  • M and L

    yes!!! so glad you did this. this is on my list when i visit you. we’ll get to know each other REAL quick lol. one question — did you show your girl part? i mean, were you wearing undies or anything? i don’t think i’d have a problem showing off what little rack i have, but my girly area… i don’t know about that. i wish you could have taken pictures lol. not of the woman but of what the place looked like inside. i’m doing a very poor job of creating an image. i’m currently picturing a locker room with hot tubs lol.

    thanks for sharing this!!!

  • Kim

    Oh my goodness, I did this in Morocco! I can TOTALLY relate to your trepidation… I didn’t really know what to expect which is probably the only reason I agreed! I went with a friend and a young woman working at our hostel. At first I tried to keep on my swimsuit top, but it ended up feeling odd with all the local women stark naked. I did NOT know there would be scrubbing; our hostel lady scrubbed us down, and I still chuckle when I recall her massaging my boobs, hahaha, IN FRONT OF MY FRIEND! I’m normally quite shy/prude, so I can only laugh looking back on it. But in all honesty, you get used to it when everyone else is doing the same thing and it was totally enjoyable. The scrub down was amazing and I’d do it again!

  • Kenzie @ Chasing Happy

    You are a brave, brave soul! I don’t think I could ever do this… but at the same time it sounds like such a cool experience. Lucky duck, you! 😉

    Would you ever spend the night? Is the concept their something similar to a spa retreat?

  • Rachel

    I don’t think I could ever do this. Hahaha. Getting butt naked is awkward but I could probably tolerate it (while giggling hysterically), but having someone scrub a layer of my skin off? No, thanks. I can’t deal with any type of pain whatsoever. Even my hairdresser hurts my scalp somehow. :)

    I love that your student responded with: she had HUGE boobs!

    Will you ever venture back?

  • Rachel

    Oh man–to me that sounds terrifying. Not quite as scary as the situation I was recently hearing about…a Japanese friend of mine married an American girl, before they got engaged he took her to Japan to experience the culture and meet his family, and she had to go to one of the hot springs/bathhouses with her future in-laws….her story made me realize how easy I got off with marrying into a Mexican family, their culture isn’t that much of a challenge to participate in!

  • tracey

    This absolutely something I would be so nervous about, and would probably end up just having to kind of squeeze my eyes shut and be brave to get myself there. I’ve found that pushing myself outside my normal boundaries like that usually ends up being really rewarding in the end. I always learn a lot about myself.

    Great post!

  • Lauren Roerick Miller

    That’s awesome! Good for for just going and doing it. Especially with friends haha, it sounds like a hilarious experience.

  • Bonnie Rose

    I have been looking forward to this post! I didnt realize that having people to ‘scrub you’ would be an option too. Thats really interesting. Especially when you come from the American spas where you can get a full body scrub, but you are still somewhat covered through out the process. My husband go to go to bath houses in Japan while he was there in 2011. He was saying how in Japan they dont really let people in with tattoos because of the Yakuza. However since he is a tall white guy they make exceptions and I think maybe tattoos are slowly getting more acceptable (do not quote me on that) Anyways he was saying it was interesting being there and with everyone naked and how he would get comments from other people there who really liked his arm tattoo (its the The Old Guitarist painting by Pablo Picasso). I dont really have a problem being naked around other people, minus maybe if someone came up to talk to me like with what happened to Ryan. Did anyone talk to you guys while you were there or was it more ‘keep to yourself’ type atmosphere?

    Bonnie Rose | a Compass Rose

  • Little Spoon

    Also, I’ve just added my link but I’m not sure if I’ve done it right so please do let me know if I’ve done it wrong. Thanks :)

  • Little Spoon

    I failed to go to the Russian Banya when I lived in Moscow for the same reasons you were unsure and I think I’ll forever regret. One day, when we visit, I’ll make sure I find the courage to go.

  • erica @ to the sea

    I think that’s something that would take bit of courage for me as well. It’s crazy how much more nudity is like nothing in other countries. In rural Tanzania I saw groups of people, men and women, adults and children, bathing in streams like no big deal whatsoever.

  • Jay

    Good for you for gathering the courage to do it! Will you go back?

  • Megan

    I actually went to a Korean Bath House like this in Seattle once with a couple girlfriends of mine. I felt almost exactly the same as you did about it – so strange at first, but also liberating (and totally relaxing)! We did the “scrub down” option and it was AMAZING! They poured honey and all other kinds of things all over us. My skin has never felt that smooth. You should go for it next time you go!

  • Lindsey Marie

    Loved this post! I toured around Bath House Row in Hot Springs, Arkansas and refused to try it out. I too, thought being scrubbed to death by some random person was way too bizarre. Of course I regretted not giving it a go right after. Glad your experience was fun, I may have to try it out now.