anatomy 100: a Korean bathhouse

Last weekend I made a special outing to the local jimjilbang. For all my friends who haven’t lived in Korea, a jimjilbang is a magical place where you can toss all your cares aside and relax. Quite simply, it is a large expanse of hot tubs and heated rooms laid out over several floors of a building. One floor is for men, another for women. There’s also a third floor, which can be used by both genders.

If you personally know me, you know that I love being in the water. I don’t really care much for swimming per se, but just loitering in the shallows of a pool on a hot summer day or body surfing on waves near the shore are definitely on my bliss list. So it should come as no surprise that a jimjilbang is, for me, pretty much like Chuck E. Cheese’s is for 7 year olds. At least, it should be that exciting. Except there’s one small problem: everyone inside is undeniably, unavoidably, undesirably, 100% buck naked.

Yes, naked.

Now I’m not extremely self-conscious about my body. I know that I’m a skinny, lanky white boy. (Someone even described me as gaunt once….yikes!) But the men I know usually don’t relish the necessity of locker room nudity, so a sausage party at a giant public hot tub seems like a VERY understandable place to draw the line. However, since everyone lives in apartments in Seoul, this is the only place to find the comforting warm waters of a tub, so I’ve learned to live with the collateral damage.

Let me describe the atmosphere. After taking off my shoes and locking them in a miniature hole in the wall, I am assigned a random locker located on the perimeter of a lounge room. As I walk barefoot to my locker I can’t help but notice the old guy who’s reading the paper and sitting Indian-style on the edge of his chair, proudly displaying his bait and tackle for all new comers. I peel off my clothes, store them away, and walk toward the sauna room. In case I was trying to forget that I am in my birthday suit, wall mirrors capture front and side views of my every movement as I weave my way through the blockade of naked Korean men who are drinking beer and huddled around the one small tv in the corner. I make it to the foggy glass door and open it.

Two tiled hot tubs greet me with bubbling gurgles in the center of the floor. Each one could easily accomodate 15 people. Along the front wall men are rinsing off at showers separated by useless glass dividers. On the back wall there’s a “swimming pool” wide enough for precisely 1½ people to swim 5 meter laps. From the “pool” there is access to two grottos with arched entrances, where you can explore dark areas roughly the size of an elevator. Naturally, I stay well away from them.

Three doors are nestled in the corner containing a steam room, a dry sauna and a poorly lit area with no discernible function. Behind the hot tubs there’s a small raised platform where men lie dangerously close to one another taking their nude naps. There are also two massage tables, just in case you want to get vigorously exfoliated by a man who is also rocking the au naturale look. Recessed in the back are a tranquil ice-cold tub and a small cubicle where water is blasting out of the ceiling from 10 small jets with firehose-like propulsion. Nearby, endless faucets and mirrors are situated about knee height in three enclaves, populated by men squatting spread-eagle with knees up to their ears. They fumble around with flimsy scratchy towels filled with fistfuls of course salt, feverishly grating their skin until it turns bright pink.

I go to my routine, which consists of apportioning time between hot and cold tubs, using the Finnish method I learned on cross-country skiing trips to Ontario with the Lillvis family. They taught me to stay in the heated sauna room until I’d almost perspired to the point of splitting, then tear down the hall and fling open the door to the wintery outdoors, launching myself headlong into a snow bank and rolling around until my skin tingled. Then we’d do it all over again.

I leave the 50°C bath and sit up to my neck in the ice water. I feel the blood rushing to my head as the water begins to settle. In the placid water, my body appears strangely impersonal. My legs, unmoving, seem to be in a different realm, broadcast on the giant aquatic screen before me. I move them to make sure they’re still mine. When my lungs become so cold that I start to exhale blasts of cool mist, I know its time to switch back to heat.

My body is beginning to feel like putty, so I dry off and don the XL baby blue pajama shirt and shorts I was issued upon payment and make my way upstairs. The icing on the jimjilbang experience comes at the top floor, which contains a restaurant, a massage and nail parlor, a workout room and coin-operated vibrating chairs. More importantly, there are five massive walk-in ovens where you can bake yourself to warm perfection. One even has salt rocks for seasoning! These all surround a large sitting area where old men and women doze noisily on mats and stiff hardwood pillows while catching up on the latest Korean dramas. After the invigoration of hot and cold soaks, this big hall is the perfect way to check out for a few hours.

The jimjilbang is an important life experience. I could try to make a metaphor about how we need to be emotionally naked in order to achieve inner peace. Or I could tell you that it’s important to try new things, no matter how crazy they sound. But realistically, when you’re standing in a huge room wearing only your smile, little unclad boys running and playing all around you, and their fathers and grandfathers staring at the whitest brightest object (inevitably this is you), the only thing you really need to remember is this: never look a naked man in the eyes (or below).

Suyu jimjilbang