This morning I introduced my Canadian co-worker to the joys of the Korean public bathhouse, or the Jjimjilbang (jimjil= heated bath bang= room). We were supposed to go with one of our Korean co-workers and her friend but we accidentally went to the wrong bathhouse, and by the time we figured that out, we had already paid and were naked; so we just stayed and had a good time by ourselves. We’ll catch up with our Korean co-worker next weekend or something.
So, what’s the deal with Korean bathhouses? Well, most Korean apartments don’t have bathtubs, at least not any of the apartments that I’ve been in. And the people in Korea are really into the whole work hard, play hard thing, so there’s very little relaxing going on. Enter the jimjilbang. Generally, at the jimjilbang, you get naked, scrub yourself really well, and then you get to choose from a variety of hot tubs and saunas. The rooms are generally dimly lit, and the bathing areas are gender segregated.
After bathing, you put on the standard shorts and t-shirt that they give you and you go to a common area where there are heated floors, sleeping mats, a cafe area, massage chairs, and traditional kiln saunas that include rooms that are warm, very hot and also cold. People stay here FOR HOURS. For like, the entire day, just laying around and napping, watching TV, cuddling and talking to each other, reading, and bathing and getting massages. You can also stay the night in the jimjilbang, there are lots of little sleeping caves built into the walls that you just… crawl into and take a rest.
Personally, I love the jimjilbang. It’s relaxing and rejuvenating and it’s perfect for the freezing Korean winters. I think there’s this atmosphere in a jimjilbang that you don’t get anywhere else in Korea. We’re all so trendy here. You never see a Korean woman in public without make-up on, and she’s usually dressed really well or really crazy, and sometimes both. And usually, as a foreigner, you can sometimes feel pretty alienated in Korea. People stare at you, and don’t talk to you that much. But at the jimjilbang, everyone is either naked or in the same t-shirt and shorts. There’s this really, I don’t know, I guess I would call it a human atmosphere, but that doesn’t make sense now, does it? Some old ladies chatted with us a bit today in one of the tubs, some kids sat near us and played with a balloon while we shared a cold bath with them, some other old ladies chuckled at me when I accidentally wore the bathroom slippers out of the bathroom and then went running back to return them. I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I’m at the jimjilbang, I don’t feel as foreign or as alienated from the rest of Korea as I do when I’m just walking down the street. There are some Westerners that have problems with the whole being naked aspect of the jimjilbang; but I was fat in middle school and I still had to get naked for gym class so being naked at a public bathhouse really doesn’t bother me.
P.S. I ordered food and read the menu at the jimjilbang! Not the first time I’ve ordered in Korean, but the first time I’ve done it so fluidly, without even thinking too much about it. Ah, so great!