One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Courage to Get Naked

I wish I could adequately describe a jimjilbang. To simply say it’s a hybrid between a sauna and a public bath house would fall short. In a lot of ways it's a Korean community center. It has everything!! ... TVs, Arcade games, massage parlors, sleeping "cubies", movies, computers, yoga lessons, books, a gym, a restaurant, a snack bar, Dr. Fish... *inhale* And Koreans truly use them like community centers. Families camp out at the jimjilbang for hours in the day. Mothers and fathers sleep and sweat it out in the saunas while their children are playing with one another. It's a perfect system. Enclosed. Relaxed. Safe.

It was a slow start, but I am now a believer and a lover of the jimjilbang experience. So what's the catch, you ask? Where could your reservations lie when your words are nothing short of flattery? One word. Nakedness.

Let me explain. You are not naked the entire time nor is there co-ed naked frolicking. (However much of a disappointment or a relief that may come to you)

So here's how it works. You pay about 7,000 won (6USD) and are given a lovely jimjil outfit. Women get a fashionable faded pink suit and men, blue. Like the way you would go to the public pool or local YMCA, the men enter through the men's locker room/bathhouse to one side and the women through the other.

There should be a sign at the door: "Check Modesty Here ->" because once you walk through those doors be prepared to see *everything*. I've been 3 times and I still brace myself for the initial shock of seeing a proud ajuma strolling by in her birthday suit. (If you remember what I told you about ajumas then you remember that they are old Korean mothers with Att-i-tudes. Surprisingly, they are not less scary in, what would appear, a more vulnerable situation...a testament, I think, to the nature of adjumas)

Once you’ve changed into your comfy .. well.. sweat suit, then you’re ready for the main floor. The main floor is where everything but the bathhouse is located and is where families spend the majority of their time.

Last Sunday I revisited the jimjilbang. It was an overcast day, perfect for the jimjil. Though I had been twice before, once with my co-teacher and once with some foreigner friends, Sunday was the first time alone.

I was sitting in one of the massage chairs reading, when Du Ri and her friend sat next to me, giggling.

Du Ri finally worked up the courage, "What's your name?"

We talked intermittently as I was reading, thus allowing the girls to confer on the following question's structure and grammatics.

"Aren't you bow red?," Du Ri asked.

I looked at her confused, "Am I what?"

"Bow red!"

She showed me her phone's screen, which read, "Bored."

"Ahhhh! Bored. Nooo, this is relaxing. Fun!"

I think my being alone struck these two middle school girls as very odd. After all, this was their community center, a place to socialize, what was I thinking going there alone?? I thought to read and relax. Oops. (Foreigner mistake number 379)

I moved from one sauna room to the next: reading, "resting my eyes," and snacking on hard boiled eggs and peach tea (popular jimjil snacks). The saunas are more like huts than "rooms" and one Jimjilbang might be equipped with around 10 that vary in temperature and material, like wood, salt, brick, or stone. My favorite is the “natural medicine room" that smells of curry.

The hottest room is right around 300 degrees Fahrenheit. As a friend put it, that's low bake in the oven. And man!. Did I ever feel like a spit pig! At most, I can cook for 15 minutes. By then the sweat beads and rolls down every part of my body. It's stifling and hard to breathe. In this particular sauna I wrap my towel around my head like an Islamic Burka in a half-hearted attempt to spare my face from the inferno. It’s worth the short discomfort for the light, cleansing feeling I get after stepping out.

After 2 hours in and out of the saunas, I went back to where I started- the women’s bath house. It was go time (time to get naked). I had done this part once before with a co-teacher so I felt familiar enough to give it a whirl on my own. I'm not sure that this part will ever become easy with practice. Both times I've had to give myself a mental pep talk to strip down in a room full of people (Even if they were as naked as I). I have to note that foreigners are stared at just walking down the street. So now I’m a naked foreigner.

I can't say if I did, in fact, receive a lot of looks or if it was mere paranoia taken hold of me, but I remember walking through the bath house doors and thinking that all eyes were on me. I froze for a few seconds that felt more like hours. It occurred to me, naked, still standing in front of the door, that the last time I had done this my co-teacher had navigated this part for me-- scooting me from the showers to the pools, handing me the bucket to place my soaps and towels. I saw the shower heads, but how was I to get a spot?? I saw women with buckets, but how was I to get one of my own??

Thus began my wandering (still naked, folks!). After a few painfully awkward seconds, I decided that this naked wandering would just not do. I’d have to watch how the Koreans did it. I sat on the edge of a pool for a few seconds and waited for a spot to open. It wasn't long before I was situated at a shower head of my own. What a relief that was! And like magic, the more I relaxed, the less people stared! (okay, okay! So it was paranoia...)

I have to say, it was really enjoyable. I spent an hour pampering myself, sitting in different pools of water, exfoliating my skin, and painting my toes nails. I walked out of the jimjilbang feeling more clean, refreshed, and healthy than I had in a long time. It's really not that bad if you can muster the courage to get naked!


  1. See? I told you you were the bravest girl I knew ;)

  2. Haha, I'm not at all surprised that those little girls had cellphones in hand, even in the jimjiban. They never let go, do they?

    I liked reading this a lot - definitely relatable!

  3. So...did you take those pictures yourself Jessie?