KOREAN TEACHERS unfortunately have to work on Saturdays, but if you're a foreign English teacher, you most likely get weekends off! There are probably a number of places you’d like to visit for a quick weekend getaway, but hotel costs have you worried. Or maybe you find yourself out in Seoul for the night, and you don’t really feel like taking an hour-long subway ride home. Jjimjilbangs are the famous Korean bathhouses that offer hot spas, saunas, massages—and even a little mat on which to spend the night.
Image courtesy of koreagetaround.wordpress.com.
This is your poolside alternative to motels and hostels. Visits can cost as little as 8,000 to 14,0000 won per night ($8-14), depending on the bathhouse. Inner city jjimjilbang stays may cost more.
I’ve stayed at a number of different jjimjilbangs in Seoul, North Chungcheong, and Jeju Island (which featured one built over natural hot springs). The main routine is basically the same: at the counter, you will be given your jjimjilbang clothes—usually pink or orange shorts and an overlarge T-shirt—and two locker keys on a bracelet for your shoes and clothes. The first room is where you will deposit your shoes for the duration of your stay. Next you’ll arrive at a main co-ed room, set up with a snack counter, TV, and mats & pillows for sleeping. One of my favorite Seoul jjimjilbangs was built like a multi-level hive with massage chairs, quiet/loud rooms, and sand rooms for stripping the dead skin from your feet.
Image courtesy of http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/.
We arrived in the dead of night, so there was a lot of competition for sleeping space. At the very top floor, we managed to find a cluster of little “dens” built out of wooden blocks that you could climb up ladders to nest in. Surrounded by strangers and suffering from an incredible paranoia of getting my phone jacked (ever since I nearly got pick-pocketed in England many years back), I think it’s safe to say I didn’t sleep well. It was incredibly warm, though.
At other jjimjilbangs, I’ve fallen asleep on massage chairs or mats. It’s generally a pleasant free-for-all with families, couples, or working people spending the night there, and you get to enjoy delicious snacks like sikhye (rice juice) and most awesome of all, patbingsu (shaved ice topped with sweet red beans, kiwi, strawberries, and whip cream).
An amazing patbingsu. Image courtesy of www.thewalrus.com/blogs.
The next day, we got to explore a bit before checking out. The baths are segregated, so men and women go to their separate locker rooms, strip down, and enter a steamy room filled with hot and cold baths, dry heat saunas, and depending how creative your jjimjilbang is—ice, crystal, sand, or wood rooms. Regular showers are available to use before entering the spa, and most include some combination of mirrors, sinks, blow dryers, soaps, and sometimes even shampoo—but don’t count on it.
My hat is off to foreigners who go by themselves. Korea is a pretty homogenous place, so your birthday suit will often earn gawks and gossip from the older crowd. However, if you go with a group of friends, it isn’t so bad. Tuck up your hair in Sheep Head, or the “Princess Leia” look (luckily I had a friend along who could show us how to fold the towel!) and relax.
“Itaewonland” in Itaewon (이태원) is a jjimjilbang famous for where famous actor Hyun Bin (My Name is Kim Sam Soon, The Snow Queen) filmed scenes for the successful K-Drama Secret Garden. You get to take a picture with the cut-out!)
Image courtesy of http://www.lostintherok.com/.
To find a jjimjilbang, look for the Hangeul characters, 찜질방, or find the sauna symbol of three heat waves, pictured below:
Above, you might recognize "사우나": Sa-oo-na, or Sauna. Image courtesy of www.hobotraveler.com.
Some may be several floors up or down in a building, so look carefully for floor numbers (L1 = Level 1, ect). It’s recommended to travel with someone up to speed on their Korean, as there may be no English speaking services available, and it's also the best way to take full advantage of massage/bathing routines available (like the "thread face shave"! :D). And perhaps don’t go to a jjimjilbang too close to where you live—you never know if you might run into one of your students out with their family for a spa night.
If you’ve read Year of the Wolf, you’ll remember that some foreigners are still working through their bathhouse culture shock. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between Citlalli and Rafael on an important initiation night:
Twilight carpeted the land. Overhanging oak branches blocked what little light was left, so all I could see was the glint of Rafael’s white T-shirt ahead of me and a flash of raggedy jeans. He caught me looking at him and grinned, falling back into step beside me.
“Is that really what you’re going to wear?” he asked, raising an eyebrow as he looked up and down my leather jacket, shimmering silver V-neck, and skinny jeans.
“Well, yeah. I didn’t expect it to be such a hike to get there,” I huffed, dragging my tote bag along. He didn’t make any effort to help me carry it.
“I’m just saying,” he gestured to that white T-shirt hugging his lean, defined muscles. “We wolves go through clothes pretty quickly. It’s not like clothes can change with us. We’ve all seen enough of each other at one point or another—or too much, in Jaehoon’s case.”
I must have looked mortified, because he grinned evilly. “Come on, Citlalli. You’ve lived here for four years? You must have braved the jjimjilbangs at one point or another.”
The jjimjilbangs were Korean public bathhouses, notorious for scrubbing off all that dead, nasty skin until you were left raw and clean and fearful of any ajumma wielding an abrasive sponge. However, there was a strict no bathing suit rule. Mami had made me go once. I’d had to break into the liquor cabinet to summon up the nerve. Everyone was naturally curious about foreigners, and had no qualms, none at all, about staring. I was terrified, absolutely terrified, of public nudity.
I tossed my hair and glanced back at Rafael. “Sure. I have no problem with it.”
—© 2012 Year of the Wolf
Disclaimer: The above is depicted as fiction, not fact.