Saturday, June 22, 2013

Jjimjilbang It! 찜질방에 가자!

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

 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.

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

 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.

 Image courtesy of Link to English translation

“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

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

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:

WARNING! Spoilers!

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.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

YEAR OF THE TIGER *free* for Father's Day Weekend

YEAR OF THE TIGER, the second book in the urban fantasy Changeling Sisters Series, will be free June 15-16th on

"Citlalli Alvarez checks her pride in order to convince the Seoul werewolves to launch a dangerous scheme, while her half-sister Raina plays a risky game of seduction in order to steal the soul of a gorgeous 16th-century vampyre. One thing's for certain: no one is waiting on rescue."

Free Copy can be downloaded onto Kindle, Kindle App (Smartphone/Tablet/iPad), and Kindle Cloud Reader (PC).

Monday, June 3, 2013

June 2013 Book Review of the Month: Eon


By Alison Goodman
~Book Review~

*Minor Spoilers Alert* 

YOU KNOW that online mythology quiz, the one where they ask you: "If you could be any mythological creature, which one would you be?"?

Dragon. Hands down. Every time. Not original? I don’t care. One time I might have said “unicorn,” just to be different…and I felt guilt well up every time I looked at the dragon icon’s face.

Just kidding.

Anyways, Chinese dragons have to be some of the coolest depictions of dragons around. Mainstream culture usually depicts them as wise, benevolent creatures with long flowing beards, not your gold-hoarding Smaug type. So I was very excited to read about Alison Goodman’s take on the celestial zodiac as “spirit” dragons who renew the earth by choosing a new apprentice every rotating cycle. These twelve dragons then form the Dragoneye Council, who have power on par with the Emperor himself. However, the greed of one man will endanger the Rat Dragon’s choice, and thus the future of the empire itself.

After reading that these dragons are named after the twelve Chinese zodiac, you may ask: Wait. So if there’s a Tiger Dragon and a Horse Dragon, then does that mean there’s a…Dragon Dragon? Goodman avoids this redundancy trap by referring to this particularly elusive one as the “Mirror Dragon,” who has not been seen for some time. And that’s where our heroine comes in.

Goodman is a master at strong characterization. I immediately felt sympathetic for “Eon,” also known as “Eona,” a sixteen-year-old girl disguised as a boy, who fights for the chance to become a Dragoneye apprentice. She is an interesting mix. Although innocent enough to be blindsided by the political life’s darker intentions, she also carries a hunger for power, something the greedy Rat Dragoneye is quick to manipulate. She comes off as endearing despite her flaws; you know she’s making the wrong choices, yet at the same time, you understand why she’s making them. Also memorable is Lady Dela, the first Two Spirited character I’ve ever come across in YA fantasy, and Ryko, one of the “Moon Shadow” warriors, who are castrated to ensure they will not have children. Now that’s one of the most star-crossed romances I’ve ever encountered. Goodman breathes such vivid life into this supporting couple that some readers will find them more appealing than Eona. The villainous Lord Ido is another scene-stealer, and I’m hoping for more motivation behind his quest for power.

While the world and characters are easy to lose oneself in, the plot and pacing lag farther behind. The story’s build-up is slow, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it seems like more action was needed to keep the momentum surging forward. Action doesn’t have to be a fight, but it seemed like there was a lot of info-dumping that could have been conveyed in more plot-advancing ways. There is one critical problem between Eona and her dragon that the reader will know how to fix a mile away, but it takes Eona a bit longer to connect the dots.

Despite the shuffling pace, the end is well worth the wait. I found the interwoven Eastern philosophies to be refreshing, the world-building complex and thoughtful, and the supporting characters incredibly well-realized. I particularly liked how Goodman used the different stances of fighting. Highly recommended to have Book II: Eona on hand. You'll just have to find out what happens next! 

Recommended for fans of Julie Kagawa and Kristin Cashore.
July Book Review: Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning.