What I love most about travel is the ability to learn about different cultures by getting fully immersed in a new destination; stepping away from the tourist hubs, eating where the locals eat, and participating in the everyday activities. When I lived in Korea, I made a point to get as fully into Korean culture as possible. I picked up the language, learned how to cook Korean dishes, and attended countless festivals around the country. But there was one cultural experience that had me stepping WAY out of my comfort zone – getting naked in Korea.
It was the first weekend in December, 3-months after moving to Korea. I had settled into the routine of teaching English and I was about to learn how long and cold winters could feel in the country. Toronto be damned, winters in Korea are brutal! Tristan was away at a co-worker’s wedding so I thought I’d check out one part of our small town that up until this point I didn’t have the courage to visit yet, a Korean bathhouse.
Jimjilbangs (as they’re called in Korean) are a big part of Korean culture. They range in size and amenities offered. Basic ones have showers, hot tubs, saunas, and nap rooms while more extravagant ones have various styles of tubs to soak in, gyms, restaurants, and rooms to watch DVD’s or sing karaoke if the mood hits. People can spend an entire day at a jimjilbang. If you’re too relaxed to drive home you can even spend the night for no additional cost. Needless to say, many people use jimjilbangs as a cheap alternative to a hotel or hostel.
Sounds awesome right? I thought so too until I was informed that you’re naked in a jimjilbang. Like butt naked, naked. There are separate areas for the men and women but the thought of being completely naked in front of a bunch of strangers was not exactly appealing to me, a result of my North American upbringing no-doubt. As much as I wanted to bring someone with me, I figured I’d feel more comfortable if I didn’t know anyone. I was also worried I would run into one of my student’s mothers. That would have been a great conversation on Monday. “Hey teacher, my mom saw you naked at the jimjilbang on Sunday!” Ah…no thanks.
But stepping outside of your comfort zone is all part of the fun of traveling, right?
I decided to head to the ‘big’ jimjilbang in town as recommended by a couple of my female co-teachers. When I got there, I realized I had NO idea how anything worked. I went up to the receptionist but she didn’t speak a lick of English, and so the only word in Korean that came to mind was “omaeyo?” (how much?). She said it was 5,000 won ($5), handed me a towel and a locker key, and pointed me to the stairs. I almost did a 180 and hightailed it out of there on the spot.
I headed upstairs towards the women’s change room. The minute I opened the door all I saw were throngs of women walking around naked. Yup, I’m about to get naked in Korea.
As I walked in and headed to my locker, the heads started turning. I should point out that the small town (population 120,000) that I lived in had, at most, maybe 50 foreigners living there at the time. We were an uncommon sight in town and I quickly got used to being stared at on the street, being asked to take photos with me, and even getting requests to touch my blonde hair. But this experience was going to be a whole new ball game.
Like ripping off a band-aid, I stripped down quickly just to get it over with. I stared at my dishcloth-sized towel and realized at most it could cover one boob. Great, I couldn’t even cover up with the towel! I took a deep breath and told myself that I just had to get over it. I saw a door with something written in Korean and thought that was the way to the hot tubs and saunas.
When I walked into the room, I saw 2 women sleeping on the floor and a man sitting off to the side just staring at me. My eyes flashed wide like a deer caught in the headlights as I realized instantly that this was the coed nap room. All I could think was ‘crap, I’ve screwed up already!’, and dashed back into the change room. I think he only got a look at my naked backside. If anything, I gave him a good story to tell his friends later.
Thankfully, I found the hot tubs and saunas and headed in. The space was big and airy with showers over to the left, about 4 hot tubs in the middle, and scrubbing stations and saunas to the right. I had no idea what the ‘routine’ was and even if there was one, so before anyone could notice the lone female waegookin (foreigner) standing bewildered at the door, I headed to the row of open-air showers and faced the wall. The women around me all had these plastic baskets filled with shower supplies (soap, shampoo, scrub brush, etc). Since I didn’t think to bring anything I just stood there with my back to the action and let the warm water run over me.
My desire to go unnoticed didn’t last long and soon I noticed many of the women staring at me. I decided then to hop into a hot tub and hide in the depths of the water. It was nice and warm and relaxing but I couldn’t help but notice that only little girls were playing in this hot tub. Did I just jump into the kid’s hot tub? Well, I wasn’t about to switch if I was.
It was great to sit and relax, but I gotta say, it was rather boring. There was no one to talk to and nothing to do except sit and try not to look like I was staring. Off to the side, a little boy was getting scrubbed down by his mom and he was not happy about it. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself at the scene. She had him bent over one arm while scrubbing his butt quite vigorously. While he was crying his mom kept laughing.
After what seemed like a long time (but in actual fact only about 10 minutes) I mustered up the courage to brave yet another butt-naked walk and headed to the saunas.
(Check out Conan O’Brien’s visit to a Korean jimjilbang!)
As I walked into the sauna it felt like I was walking into a kiln…a human kiln ready to cook the nasty toxins out of us. It was hot, almost scorching! There were heaters positioned at each end of the 20-foot long sauna so I situated myself in the middle thinking it would be the coolest part of the sauna. After maybe only 5 minutes I had to get out. It was so hot I was having difficulties breathing and I was feeling a little dizzy. I hopped in the shower again to cool myself down and then decided that it was time to wrap up this cultural experience.
I only ended up staying about 30 minutes but it was relaxing. Almost too relaxing. I didn’t want to do anything else that day. Although getting naked in Korea wasn’t at the top of my list of things to experience in the country, I was proud of myself for at least getting out and seeing what it was all about.
I lived in Korea for another 21 months after that and did I visit a jimilbang again? Nope. That visit was good enough for me 🙂