Through a quick search on the internet I discovered that pretty much everyone whose ever visited South Korea and been to a Jimjilbbang, that is, a Korean "spa", has an “oh-em-gee! I went to the spa and everyone was naked!” blog post, but in the interest of giving a more thorough, and hopefully more culturally insightful description of this traditional gathering place, I’m going to recount my own experience.
I apologize. Let me back track. Korean “spas” are not what you picture when you think of spas in the United States. Spas in the States are temporary escapes where you slip on a robe, lie down on a table for about an hour, and awkwardly squirm when you turn over so the masseuse doesn’t see your butt. Afterward you might get a nice facial or your nails done, but nothing crazy. It’s a few hours of restful bliss before you leave and return to the less glamorous outside world. For most, it’s something you’ll do once a year if you’re lucky, if you ever even go at all. For Koreans though, the spa isn’t so much a brief escape from life as it is an essential part of it.
You can still use Jacuzzis and get massages, facials, etc, at Korean spas, but you can also eat, play, nap, or even spend the night there, as they are open 24/7. They are huge facilities with many rooms and gathering halls in addition to the “spa” itself. Last weekend I went to my first Jimjilbbang, called Garden 5, because my friends and I wanted to spend the night in Seoul. It was located inside an absolutely enormous building complex that also housed a wedding hall (for Koreans there is no such thing as a “destination wedding”, only wedding halls). We arrived around 11 pm. Once inside I handed the receptionist 8,000 won (less than $8), took off my shoes, and headed upstairs.
I admit that at first I was a little shocked by the completely unabashed crowd of naked women and children brushing their teeth, taking showers, sitting in saunas, and lounging in Jacuzzis (I should probably note here that although the facilities are family friendly and for both genders, the actual “spa” portions are separate for men and women). I tried not to giggle as I peeled off my clothes and stuck them into my locker. After about ten minutes though I got used to it, in fact, I quite liked getting to spend a few hours hanging out in my birthday suit. It reminded me that at least among friends (and strangers who you will never see again) nudity isn’t the all-embarrassing, terrible thing many Americans make it out to be.
Koreans come to spas with their friends and their families. It’s common for people to work and study late, so even children can be found hanging out late into the night with their parents. Lots of men who work late will just spend the night at jimjilbbang instead of going home. I find it hard to imagine hanging out naked in the spa area with any members of my family, but for Koreans it’s beside the point. In a culture that values cleanliness, it’s a great way to relax, bond, and distress. Community is also high valued. People tend to go out in groups; in fact, it's difficult to find restaurants where you can order a dish that doesn't call for multiple diners. I'll do a post on Korean eating later, but I will say that if you're a big germ-a-phobe, or don't like to share, Korea might not be the place for you.
Anyway, back to the spa. It’s not weird, and at least in my case I didn’t feel like people were staring (though I’ve heard sometimes they do, might be worse when you’re a foreigner; in general appearance is very important in Korea), Personally I think it’s much better than any alternative I ever had for hanging out with my friends in high school! There were four enormous, almost pool sized Jacuzzis, each with a slightly varied temperature (which was displayed on a digital screen), so if one was too hot and the other was too cold, the next would be just right!
What actually blew my mind more than anything was the 97 degrees Celsius sauna! That was not a typo: 97 degrees CELSIUS. That is 206 degrees Fahrenheit! I actually saw a woman sitting in there for about a minute. I have no idea how you can do that without protective clothing. I stuck my hand through the door out of curiosity, and yes, it was exactly like sticking my hand in an oven. There were lots of warning signs on the front of it, but they were all in Korean…and I’m still not sure what to make of it. Definitely fits the old, “beauty is pain” moniker.
While I was not adventurous enough for the oven sauna I did opt for a body scrub. I’m not sure how to put it delicately so I’ll just paint a picture for you. The last time I got a body scrub I was on a cruise in Europe. The woman was wearing a crisp white uniform and I was lying down on a nice plushy massage table, covered by a towel. The scrub was a part of relatively gentle, full body massage. Sounds nice right? Well in Korea, they really don’t like dead skin. This time I was splayed out naked on a slippery pink table being man handled by a half-naked Korean masseuse wearing scratchy wet glove. It’s okay if you’re laughing right now cause I am too.
Instead of rinsing off in the shower afterward the masseuse just dumped buckets of water on me like I was a wet dog. It was kind of gross watching brown clumps of my own dead skin running off the table. This scrub was definitely more for beauty than for pleasure. For the first five minutes or so I was desperately trying to suppress my laughter. I guess it’s true what they say about humans being incredibly adaptable, because after all was said and done, I have to say, I don’t think my skin ever felt better!
But the experience didn’t end there. Once we were ready to go to bed we put on what looked like military issue pajamas. I’m not sure if you absolutely have to wear them, but everyone does, and it makes it so you don’t have to bring your own. In most jimjilbbangs people sleep on thin mattress pads on the floor in a big common area. It’s usually pretty loud and noisy, and the lights are almost always on…if you come here you’ll quickly learn that Koreans don’t value their sleep as much as most people.
However this particular spa had a “movie” room, that is, a giant room that had a large screen and was filled with lazy boy chairs! It was the only room with the lights off where virtually everyone was sleeping. So I separated from my friends and plopped down a chair between two snoring Korean men. Not the best sleep I ever had, but better than staying up all night wandering the streets of Seoul (the last bus to Yeoju is around 10pm I think). It was extremely difficult not to laugh when I first entered...seriously, imagine walking into a huge dark room filled with nothing by stretched out lazy boys and listening to a harmony of softly snoring Korean men (there were probably women too but it was hard to see).
Another thing to note here is that not all jimjilbbangs are as nice as the one I went to; as with anywhere you go, if you decide to ever try out a Korean spa you should look into its reputation first. I was lucky to be guided by two friends who have been living here for a while already. Though for some people the experience is too much, too fast, too soon, I found it to be a great introduction to Korean life…now I feel like I could pretty much do anything and not feel uncomfortable…at least 50 people in Seoul have seen me naked now anyway right? Might as well bring on the rest of the adventures. I’m sure some of you reading this right now think I’m totally nuts, but I didn’t travel over 6,000 miles sit squarely in my comfort zone! When life hands you dinner party material, get to it! So that begs the question, if you came to visit, would you join me at the jimjilbbang? I’d love to know what you think.
On another note, I should probably start a list of restaurants in Seoul/ Gyeonggido (the surrounding province) that you should go to if you visit! First on the list is Mies Container in Seoul. I think CNN or something did an article on it, saying it was like “Hooters for women” because they like to hire “masculine men” but it is way classier and has way better food than Hooters ever would. There’s always a line out the door (of men and women!) but it moved quickly. In the interest of not wasting any time however, we drank a small bottle of raspberry flavored wine with ice while waiting. I don’t know the Korean name for it, but it’s great! I wouldn’t drink it by itself, but with some crushed ice it tastes like an alcoholic raspberry slushy.
Once inside, the place had a great atmosphere and I guess what you’d call an “industrial chic” design. In most Korean restaurants you sit on the floor or they have an “eat and go” kind of vibe, but this one was more western in its “sit on a chair-relax and sip your wine-and hang for a while” vibe. Truth be told I didn’t think the guys were particularly manly, but we ordered the Salad Pasta (a salad with pasta in it) and their Garlic and Bacon cheese pan which was to die for! Seriously, it was a large pan of delicious cheese smothered in garlic and bacon, which you ate by dipping it into maple syrup; that’s right, no bread, no crackers, all cheese. Yum. It’s also quite an odd dish to see in Seoul since most Koreans don’t like or eat cheese.
We did have a funny interaction with the guy who was taking our order. He was wearing a head, sweat band thing with a Republican elephant button attached to it. We asked if he knew what that symbol meant and he said no (he didn’t really speak any English), so my friend finally managed to explain what it was through hand gestures and yelling “George Bush! not Obama!”, so he promptly took it off and thanked us.
Stayed tune for my next post: Big Girl Things Part Deuce: Amanda Buys a Motor Bike. That’s right folks, I’m gonna have 50cc's of pure street cred.