According to my Lonely Planet, "You haven't experienced Korea until you've visited a bath house."
Bath houses, or jjimjilbangs, combine hot tubs, steam rooms, saunas and massage tables. However don't mistake it for an American style spa. There are no comfy robes or mandolin music. And modesty is not part of this vocabulary.
As a westerner, in order to visit a jjimjilbang, you must be comfortable getting naked in public as well as making a fool of yourself in public - naked.
Nothing terrifying about that.
With Mr. Happy stuck in meetings all day, I was on my own. And if the Lonely Planet said I needed to try this, clearly there was no backing down.
I took the train to Itaewon where I'd read there was a bath house that was welcoming to foreigners. Unfortunately, this foreigner couldn't figure out where the heck it was located. However, there was no missing a long staircase that advertised another 24 Hour Health Spa.
I was torn.
I really didn't want to do this.
I really did want to do this.
I'd come this far, I mustered up my courage and I climbed. Only to find this.
The 24 Hour Health Spa was closed.
Why would a 24 Hour Health Spa even need a closed sign?
Luckily, I've lived in Asia long enough to know I can't believe everything I read. I figured the least I could do was try the door before I gave up. And...it was open!
I puzzled out that I was supposed to give the woman at the front dest 6000 won. In exchange, she gave me a locker key, a hand towel, a t-shirt and shorts.
First stop - the shoe room.
This is where you leave your shoes. The rest of the day will be spent barefoot. After this the men and women separate and head to their own locker rooms.
I headed to the ladies' changing area.
I'd read that from here on out everyone would be naked. N-A-K-E-D!! However all the people I saw were wearing clothes and watching tv.
Time to panic.
This was a Monday and weekdays are much slower in a bathhouse than the weekend. Naturally.
Since I wasn't going to lie back and watch a Korean soap opera, I figured I better take off my clothes. Gasp.
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Anyway, I stripped down, stuck my locker key around my wrist and walked into the main area wearing the oversized washcloth which I put this to work modestly covering the back of my neck.
As I was about to step into the wet room I was stopped by a Korean woman wearing lacy pink underwear and a bra. She started talking to me in quick fire Korean.
Oh. My. Lord.
What was she saying??
Was I not supposed to be naked? Was I supposed to keep my underwear on? Did she want money?
I clutched the washcloth, "Ummm..."
Just then another - fully clothed - woman approached. In halting English she explained that Lace Undies worked there and was wondering if I was interested in any add ons.
Ok. The work uniform is lace underwear. Why don't they just wear a bathing suit?
I breathed a sigh of relief. "Yes!" I answered with a grateful smile, trying to seem both confident and casual while standing naked in a foreign country negotiating through sign language.
I did want an add on. I wanted a professional scrub down. But I wasn't carrying any money on me. Obviously. Back to the locker for my wallet.
Eventually, I handed over 20,000 won and was told she'd be with me in an hour.
I finally walked into the wet room. This is where all the other naked people were! Finally, I could relax...sort of.
The large room had five hot tops filled with mineral water from an underground spring. Each tub was a different temperature ranging from holy hell hot to Eskimo icy cold. The walls were lined with wash stations and Korean women were filling up buckets and scrubbing down. Most of them were paired off and they scrubbed each other as the chatted and laughed.
Fountains pumped water into the hot tubs.
Penis shaped fountains.
Once again I wondered if I was in the right place.
This area also had a plunge pool, a steam room and a dry sauna.
After skipping around the different temperature tubs, Lacy Panties summoned me to the massage area.
I climbed up on the rubber covered massage table and laid on my back. She pulled on a set of exfoliating gloves, grabbed some soap and water and started scrubbing me.
This lady didn't miss a trick. My skin started coming off in sheets.
Frankly, I don't know what I've been doing in the shower the past 30 years. Wasting time, I guess.
She lifted my arms, bent my legs, rolled me on my side, my stomach. She scrubbed my feet, my head. At one point she accidentally stuck her finger in my mouth.
SHE SCRUBBED MY NAIL POLISH OFF.
She scoured me like the inside of a pot.
Did it hurt?
What do you think?
I got up from that table and I was three pounds lighter. And pinker.
I thanked her and went back to the tubs to catch my breath.
I then washed off and went back to the locker room where I changed into the shorts and tshirt. At this point I was pretty dehydrated and had no desire to pass out in this place. I bought a drink and gulped it down in front of the Korean soap. That's when I noticed a few women going upstairs.
I finished my drink and climbed the steps.
There was a lot more.
The next floor was co-ed. Everyone wore the shorts and t-shirts. Not wanting to look like a tourist, I casually followed someone through a three foot door which led to a small tunnel and came out -
- in a lava cave.
Ok, there was no lava, but this is the hottest room I've ever been inside of in my life. This is what the inside of an oven feels like. I call this room the Incinerator.
People sat in a circle, broiling themselves atop scraps of carpet.
Some people were lying flat down and had covered their bodies with thick, rug-like blankets. They had towels over their faces. I couldn't imagine they were still alive.
But, like I said, I didn't want to seem like a tourist. So I sat down. Started sweating. And waited to die.
I positioned myself near the doorway to the tunnel. I thought I might catch a breeze when people came in and out.
Finally, the woman in the lotus position next to me unfolded herself and got up to leave. I took this as permission that I could escape without losing face.
Outside the sauna was a common area with mats on the floor. People here rested while watching tv, listening to music, eating snacks and chatting.
I threw myself down on a mat and waited for my body temperature to drop from a boil to a simmer.
When I could finally sit up again I noticed there were a number of additional saunas in this room. A glutton for punishment, I went exploring.
First I tried out the granite room where you walk around on hot stones.
Then there was the ice room shaped like an igloo.
There was an herbal heat room.
And a couple of other saunas that were not nearly as hot as the Incinerator.
Up another floor were even more saunas, a game room, a comic room, a computer room and a restaurant.
You definitely need a few hours to properly experience the bath house. You can even spend the night.
When I finally stepped out on the street I congratulated myself for facing my fears. The jjimjilbangs was a
And the Lonely Planet is never wrong.