South Korea

The Sometimes-Zen Experience of a Korean Bath

Korean bathhouses: a national past time Korean bathhouses: a national past time Like anyone else who has lived or travelled in Korea, I spent much of my time there experiencing new and wonderful - and sometimes strange - things. I'll never forget the first time I went to a jjimjilbang, or a traditional, family-style bathhouse. In case you're wondering, that's exactly what it sounds like: a public facility for getting the gritty off, publicly. Yup. Naked. If you go to Korea, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit one. The experience alone will give you stories to last a life time, and the relaxation you get from the visit is worth almost as much as the inevitable shift in perception. You probably shouldn't attempt to go it alone, though, at least not for your first time; you'd have no idea what to do. Thankfully I had fellow expat Alex. She brought me along with two other girls, and showed us the ropes just as a Korean friend had shown them to her.

She took us to Water Valley Spa in Dongtan, a small suburb in the Gyeonggi-do Province. It is a very large, incredibly luxurious bathhouse, taking up three floors of the commercial tower that houses it. The lobby and separate men's and women's locker rooms and bathhouses were all on the first floor.

We met in the lobby, an open and modern space lined with vending machines and endless shelves of linens. At the front desk, I forked over a mere W6,000 [ed. a little more than US $5 at the time of posting] in exchange for a locker key, two tiny towels, one oversized T-shirt and a pair of cotton drawstring shorts. Like many things in South Korea, it was incredibly affordable: considering you can stay as long as you want and there's so much to do.

We wound our way through to the dressing rooms and past a curtained entryway. The expansive room was similar in size to locker rooms in the States, in that there were rows of lockers and stalls. It was different in that women were nonchalantly walking around naked or lounging around half-dressed, watching soap operas. It was also different in that it was decorated with ornate mirrors, rich wallpaper, cushioned benches and chandeliers. Vanity stations were set up with everything you could need: blow dryers, curling irons, fans, lotion, q-tips, combs and brushes. There was even a miniature shop to buy toiletries and various devices for sloughing off dead skin which, aside from the obvious goal of relaxation, is one of the other main purposes of the baths.

We entered the baths through a set of glass doors. The muffled sounds of splashing water echoed from the high ceilings and through the humid air. On the far wall were a regular sauna sitting at a temp of about 70°C and one tropical rainforest sauna, complete with a soft mist and balmy temp of 100 °C. Showers stalls lined another wall, a gilded-framed mirror at each. Behind those were sink stations where young women sat vigorously scrubbing and rinsing their naked bodies, while older women scrubbed their grandchildren.

And all around me were naked ladies: tan and muscular, old and flabby, young and healthy, sickly and pale. The initial shock of seeing massive-scale nudity wore off eventually, but never completely. It helped to look around and see all the babies and children there with their mothers and grandmothers. These women had been coming to bath houses their whole lives, week after week for years and years. The nudity was old hat; it meant nothing to them. I tried to get in their mindset.

Living in a foreign culture requires the ability to adapt very quickly. Americans were founded by Puritans, and for some strange reason we still tend to equate nudity with pornography. In order to survive being so far out of my comfort zone, I had to realize this and snap out of it. And that moment I truly and permanently flipped a switch in my brain. This is how travel changes a person.

So, no longer equating nudity with sexuality, I turned to Alex for instructions. She told me the proper order of things. First I was expected to completely clean off in a shower. Then I could relax in the baths. And there were so many different baths. Hot ones, cold ones, ones with Jacuzzi jets, ones with waterfalls, ones lined with tiles, one lined with wood. After soaking to my heart's content, my skin was soft enough for a scrub. Alex guided me to the scrub beds where I paid W15,000 to be scrubbed and massaged by an ajumeoni wearing lacy black underwear. What a work uniform!

There were three massage tables lined up. Though the woman scrubbing me was wearing underwear, they are known to be naked on occasion. I started out on my back, turned to either side, and ended up on my stomach. I don't know much Korean, so the masseuse was forced to just nudge me, pull me, move me and generally yank me around. I threw in the occasional nod or grunt. Each time I opened my eyes to turn my body, I saw my dead skin lying in little chunks on the massage table. Occasionally, the ajumeoni would throw a bucket of warm, soapy water to rinse everything off.

Initially the scrubbing hurt. It felt like someone was scraping me with sandpaper. She scrubbed so hard I thought I would start bleeding. After a while, I somehow got used to the pain and even found it relaxing. I closed my eyes and started to drift off into the watery echoes. Then, all of a sudden I heard a loud popping and felt myself being slapped. She massaged me all over in that manner, from the palms of my hands all the way down to the soles of my feet. I literally laughed out loud when she got to the bottom of my feet; there was no way I could hold it in. In the end, this complete stranger had removed every single square inch of dead skin on my body, with the exception of my face, which she gave a gentle cleansing.

Our final step in the process was a cool down on a large marble slab. We laid down next to one another with our heads propped up on wooden neck rests, but eventually we grew hungry and restless. We got up, showered, dried off and headed back to the lobby to meet up with Alex's boyfriend, who'd gone solo to the men's baths.

The five of us, all wearing our matching Water Valley uniforms, headed up to the second floor where everything was unisex. There was an exercise room and a PC bang, or computer room. There was also a cafeteria where families could sit at low tables on the floor and watch The Iron Empress, a popular historical drama. We snagged an empty soban and ordered tteokbokki, or spicy rice cake stew, and mandu ramyen, dumplings and noodles.

With our bellies full, we headed up to the third floor lounge, an open area with several massage chairs and a wide-screen TV that offered up quirky game show playing for our viewing entertainment. The lounge was surrounded by doors that led into heated rooms of various temperatures, an ice room, and themed sleeping nooks.

The floors inside the heated rooms were covered in smooth stones, which were then covered in linen cloths and pillows. We all lay down together and listened to the fire crackle in the furnace, while we sweat and sweat. I had sweat coming out of pores I don't think sweat has ever come out of before, pores I didn't know I had. We sat up to play a couple rounds of cards, but it soon became hard to concentrate with all the sweating.

The ice room - essentially a freezer with an igloo-like entrance - contained log seats arranged in a circle. Nearly-invisible graffiti had been carved into the ice walls. I decided to scratch in my name using the Korean alphabet. I wanted to write “Amanda was here” but the closest I could come with my limited Korean was “I am Amanda”.

When it was time to leave I didn't want to go. I have never been more relaxed in my life. Korean people may be known for working really hard, but what few people know is that they relax even harder.

About the Author
Amanda received a BA in English, then ran off to teach it in South Korea. She is currently residing in the United States as she earns a MA in TESOL. While stuck in the States, she likes to remind herself that there are thousands of other cultures out there that all work pretty well, and that there are lots of alternatives to our own society.

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 Full name: Republic of Korea

 Population: 48.86 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Seoul

 Largest city: Seoul

 Area: 99,720 sq.km. (38,502 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Korean, English widely  taught

 Major religions: Christian, Buddhist, Other

 Monetary unit: South Korean Won

 GDP per capita: US $31,700

 Internet domain: .kr

 International dialling code: +82

 Source: CIA World Factbook