Yesterday after work I thought I’d finally take the plunge and venture into a jimjilbang, which is this cool thing they have in Korea that’s a combination of a public bathhouse, spa, sauna, snack bar, lounge area, and other amenities depending on where you go.  I’m always hesitant to try new things alone here just because of the language barrier, but this adventure had the added scary element of being completely naked with strange women.

I’d heard good things about these places from my male coworkers. Still, my trepidation was totally justified. I mean, the last time I’d been exposed to that much nakedness was a good 6 years ago when I was at Camp Sweeney (diabetics say yeaaaahhh). And I at least sort of knew all those girls. That makes it better, right? Right??

I told my Korean coworker April that I was going to the jimjilbang after work, and she said, “Alone??”

“Yeah, why, who do you go with?”

“I usually go with my mommy, or friends, or my family.”

“Oh, well, I’m going by myself.”

“Oh! [hides her mouth in her hands while laughing in that cute Korean way] You are very brave.”

This fueled my anxiety. A duhh.

Anyway, for only 7000 won (Google tells me it’s about $6.25 USD) the lady at the front desk gave me two small orange towels, a pair of pink shorts and a big pink baggy shirt. I then proceeded to the women’s side of the bathhouse. There was this anteroom full of small lockers with keys attached. Surely, this couldn’t be where I store all my stuff?

The woman manning the convenience counter beyond this room saw my distress and told me “Shoes there.” Ah. I put my shoes in one of the box lockers, got the key out, then the same woman took that key and gave me another key attached to a plastic bracelet. There were bigger lockers, and here’s where the nakedness started.

I tried to be discreet as I watched other people. What were they doing? What should I do? How should I handle myself? I nervously stripped down and carried my towel into the main spa room. There were lots of interesting sit-down showers with little stools. Women young and old, but mostly old, were sitting and washing, and scrubbing their bodies raw with these little shower mitts. I took my pre-hot tub and sauna shower, then sort of wandered around everywhere.

There were several options. Some hot tubs with a running faucet and some very still and calm. Some cool, one really freakin’ cold, and one nearly scalding. There were 3 sauna rooms. All these rooms had their temperature readings on the outside. I am still not used to Celsius.

I saw one woman there with two of her daughters, about ages 6-9 I’d say. She was scrubbing and scrubbing them with one of those bath mitts all over, for like 20 minutes. My uptight American eyes were amazed. I’ve never seen a mother and daughter in that context. I could never imagine my mom taking me to a sauna, getting naked, and rubbing my dead skin cells off while strange naked grandmothers are mere feet away. But hey, that’s Korea!

I basically just wandered around until I’d had enough/started to feel pruney. Then I went back to the locker area, and put on my shorts. The woman who originally guided me before saw how they fit, and said, “Change, I get you new ones.”  I stood there naked for a bit. SO awkward. She came back with new shorts and said “3X.” Yeesh. Thanks for reminding me how fat I am compared to everyone in this country. My favorite part was when she looked at the fit disapprovingly like they were still too tight.

Once fully attired in baggy pink hotness I headed down to the co-ed lounge area. There was a pc bang down there, as well as a gym, a noraebang (karaoke stage), and snack bar. The way it works is if you buy something you can scan your little plastic bracelet, then pay for any charges you racked up before you leave. Pretty sweet. I didn’t know that at the time so I avoided anything that looked expensive.

I made my way from room to room, getting a good sweat in the 71 degree Celsius room full of little hot white rocks, and shaking a bit in the 0 degree Celsius room with ice on the walls. These rooms have different minerals and things because they’re supposed to be good for you. I had no idea which rooms were which because it was all in Korean, but I felt rejuvenated all the same.

The walk home after my jimjilbang experience was quite peaceful. I didn’t feel cold, even though it was probably around my usual shiver-inducing 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

I think I owe it to myself to try all the jimjilbangs in the area to find the best one. After a day at work trying to impart wisdom and keep from screaming at kids, it’s nice to just sit in a hot bath. As you can see by this lovely picture of my bathroom, the only way to do that is in the company of strangers.

A bathtub would be highly inefficient