Standing stark naked in a room filled with strangers, and trying to act natural about it, is just not a normal experience for anyone – is it? That’s what Abigail Mattingly thought, until she was invited to experience a ‘Jjimjilbang’, the Korean spa.
It had been a while since I’d seen a couple of my girlfriends. Life got in the way, and we were all wrapped up in new jobs and our own busyness. It was in the middle of a regular working week when it was suggested to catch up at a ‘jjimjilbang’, the Korean spa, one night after work. Korea was in the midst of another cold winter where days averaged -16°C (3°F), and the numbing wind felt like it was stinging your skin during daily commuting hours. Not much sounded better than having my freezing bones warmed up again by the steam of a cosy sauna.
Once your school days are over, it is rare to be in a social situation that would compel you to wear a uniform, whilst being barefoot and, to be frank about it, practically commando. Upon entering the jjimjilbang, we were given a loose, cotton t-shirt a dull shade of sage with over-sized khaki pants, which is not exactly the most flattering uniform in the world. Designer clothes don’t matter and any hair style you might have attempted will be ruined by the indoor humidity, regardless. All ego is, literally, stripped bare.
The jjimjilbang was a maze of marble walls and elevators. Once we’d donned our uninspired uniforms amongst the rows of lockers and other naked women, we went to explore the four floors of saunas, salt rooms and baths. There was even a communal games room located on the ground floor, with dated arcade games and air hockey. In the middle of the main hall sat a large Buddhist monument plated in gold.
Not all jjimjilbangs are so extravagant. We’d met at the best-known one in Seoul, Dragon Hill, located near the American army base in Yongsan. The average jjimjilbang takes up a few floors of a random walk-up building on a street people wouldn’t walk down unless they lived there, and can be pretty lacklustre.
An Unexpected English Lesson
The hot baths in the jjimjilbang are like a little taste of heaven during a Korean winter. They are filled with water averaging temperatures of around 38 degrees Celsius, and loaded with varying health herbs and petals. It’s bathing, goddess style. Popular ingredients added to the baths include rose petal, jasmine and ginger, the effects of which are said to provide significant health benefits, like reducing blood pressure.
I was sitting alone in one of the hotter baths with rose petals infused in the water, and feeling pretty opulent. I closed my eyes and exhaled deeply, letting go of the week’s misgivings. When I opened my eyes again, there was a woman, sat no more than a metre away from me, smiling. I splashed a little as I went to rebound, whilst also attempting to retain some level of normality to avoid unnecessary awkwardness.
“Hello,” she said, still smiling at me a little eerily. I greeted her in return, and she continued to tell me about how she was an exchange student from Taiwan, studying Korean and English at a local university.
Her intentions very quickly materialised when she began asking me how certain English words should be correctly pronounced and used in context. Despite her demeanour being pleasant enough, I was a teacher off-duty and, well, naked. I considered walking away, but the thought of standing up and putting my personal pieces on clear display in front of her face was far less appealing than keeping them somewhat covered up beneath the bubbling water.
Upon relaying this scenario to others, it seems that it’s actually not a rare occurrence for this to happen, particularly between foreigners. It seems when placed in such an intimate environment, cultural barriers are somewhat dissolved, and it becomes to some, an apt time to let curiosity get the better of you.
Boiled Eggs, Slushies and Fried Chicken?
There is far more than simply hot baths at the jjimjilbang. There’s the steam and ice rooms, the arcade room, the one-on-one body scrubs, usually performed on naked customers by quite elderly staff, and the vast Korean facial beauty rituals. One quite intriguing practice performed at the jjimjilbang, now emerging as quite the new global trend, is the steaming of the, ahem, personal parts. Still a little controversial and widely debated between academics, the process of absorbing heat and herbs through the downstairs passages is said to improve genital health, reduce stress and fatigue, and relieve female menstrual cramping.
The evening grew late and once the personal pampering was complete, skin flushed and eyes wide, it was almost like being returned to a natural state of simply existing. The grime of the daily grind had been washed away. The timing of the spa session meant dinner had been skipped, and we headed over to the food counter in the main hall to consume a strange combination of tea stained eggs, fried chicken and flavoured ice slushes – a meal truly unique to the jjimjilbang. People were beginning to fall asleep on the floor. The three of us took some pillows and set them down together on the heated wooden boarding whilst eating our snacks, taking the opportunity to have a long catch-up, and do nothing more than enjoy each other’s company.
Despite all the getting up close and personal with both strangers and friends, the jjimjilbang was, overall, extremely relaxing, and quite a culturally insightful experience into the importance of personal care in Korea. Physical and mental health benefits aside, the time spent at the jjimjilbang with friends, with no outside world distractions, clothes or phones, is a very pure, innate interaction; rare in a modern world where designer clothes and iPhones create status, and vanity and bravado too often take over.