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Eating in the bath

Andrew Madigan Welcome to the Korean 'jjimjilbang', part bathhouse, part massage escape, part entertainment parlour - all with no clothes on. For safety reasons!

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by Andrew Madigan


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Dragon Hill Spa, Seoul - massage service at a Korean JJimjilbang

A gentler version of the beating and skin-scraping elsewhere - Dragon Hill Spa massage.

A JJIMJILBANG is a sprawling Korean bathhouse. Hot tubs, saunas, massage, food, entertainment—it’s a long, complex, multifaceted experience. Clothing is prohibited in the bathing areas for safety reasons. At least that’s what they say. Jjimjil comes from the Korean word for heating and bang, I assume, means “forcing customers to walk around naked.”

Everyone goes to the bathhouse. Couples, coworkers, friend groups, families, individuals looking for peace and quiet. You can even spend the night. The average cost is W9,000-W12,000 (US$8-10), more if you go upscale, sleep over, or choose add-ons.

I’d been living in Korea for almost a year before I worked up the courage to visit a bathhouse. My friend Ken told me it would be simple. But of course, Ken’s a liar.

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The first obstacle was identifying the correct door in the crowded streets of Myeongdong where the buildings huddle together like straphangers in a crowded subway car. There was a Hangul placard that I couldn’t read, but a red neon sign—three flames inside a circle—told me this was a jjimjilbang.

{They attacked their flesh with sandpaper-like loofahs and industrial-strength scrubbing gloves, biceps popping and forehead veins glowing...

Inside, there was a bank of wooden lockers in a dark hallway. I put my shoes inside, locked the cabinet, and gave the key to a young man behind a counter. I paid -W8,000 for admission and was handed a key for the changing room.

In the changing room, I disrobed and locked up my clothes. The worst breach of etiquette here, aside from splash-diving into the hot tub, is to soak without washing first. I knew this, but couldn’t find the showers. I looked around. Okay, there they are. In the corner. A stack of plastic stools and a row of spigots jutting from the wall, with hoses attached. It looked like a dog-grooming station.

I grabbed a stool, sat down, soaped up, hosed myself off, and other prepositional phrases. If you need shampoo or other toiletries, they can be purchased at the front desk. From what Ken told me later that day (he’s not a timing guy), you need to wash your hair or, if it’s long, tie it up.

Now that I was perfectly clean, I could take a bath. Makes sense.

I walked into the bathing area, using the little towel provided as a discrete but largely ineffective genital burqa. Expert tip 1: only the bathing areas are gender-segregated; don’t show up naked in the common spaces. 

There were approximately eight tubs, ranging from warm to scalding. I chose the hottest, which was 43°C and could fit three to four people comfortably. As far as I’m concerned, no bath is successful if you don’t emerge from the water looking like a sun-burned lobster.

It’s important to soak for at least 30 minutes until your skin is nice and wrinkled. This makes exfoliation more effective. For many Koreans, this is a vital part of the experience. And I’m not talking about a gentle little body-polishing. They attacked their flesh with sandpaper-like loofahs and industrial-strength scrubbing gloves, biceps popping and forehead veins glowing. It was like scraping ice off a car windshield. If you want a trained professional to scour your skin, be prepared for a same-sex underwear-clad Korean who’ll abrade you without mercy. The add-on fee for this 'seshin' will typically double the cost of the bath itself.

Expert tip 2: watch out for the piles of gray eraser rubbings—that’s actually dead skin.

I skipped the seshin. I’d had an emotional beating earlier that day so I didn’t need a physical one. Plus, I’d seen assaulted by so many gruff old Koreans in underwear that it wasn’t a novelty anymore. Instead, I gave myself a quick scrub with a cheese grater loofah.

Walking toward the sauna, a few people quickly glanced at me as if I were a man-sized lobster. Perhaps they’d never seen a bright pink human before. Was I wearing flip-flops? No, nobody was. But don’t worry. Jjimjilbangs are quite sanitary. In fact, you’ll see staff members obsessively cleaning as you go about your business. If you find yourself in a mouldy, smelly, scuzzy bathhouse, then you made a bad choice and almost certainly have athlete’s foot and/or some other dermatological malady. Have fun with that.

The kiln saunas were next to the soaking area. Temperatures ranged from 50°-90°C. I chose 80°, squatted on a hemp mat, and put the towel over my face to keep the flesh from melting off. Almost everyone was quite still and quiet. In fact, a few of the older people were so relaxed I questioned whether they were still breathing.

The walls were glazed with minerals, metallic objects and other organic materials. The intention is to evoke the atmosphere of a forest or natural spring. According to an older gentleman who saw me staring at the walls, this is rooted in traditional Korean medicine. The minerals are supposed to have healing qualities. My steam-mate was a friendly, garrulous man who also asked for my blood type. I pretended not to understand because I don’t tell anyone my blood type. It’s a very strange question. Also, I keep forgetting what my blood type is.  

For many squeamish westerners, the biggest challenge in a jjimjilbang (or high school locker room) is walking around naked in front of strangers. But don’t sweat it—no one’s looking. You’ll only draw more attention to yourself if you use both hands to cover up, or commando-crawl across the floor to avoid prying eyes.

Finished with the bathing portion of the day, almost, I re-showered and put on the light pajamas they’d provided. Dressed, I could now enter the common areas. I had no intention of spending the night, but I did need a drink and a short rest before returning home.

I took a seat at the snack bar. A waitress walked by, or maybe she was just a customer like me. Not speaking the language tends to keep you in a perpetual state of unknowing. Either way, I pointed to what my colleagues were drinking, a brothy tea with rice floating on top. Made from water, malted barley flour, sugar and cooked rice, 'shikhye' is delicious and faintly sweet. It’s a fermented drink traditionally served on New Year’s Day, Harvest Festival, and at jjimjilbangs. A few people were eating 'maekbanseokgyeran', eggs steamed in the sauna, but I try to maintain a strict boundary between food and bathing, so I decided against it.

It was time to leave, but I took a quick tour of the facilities. I was shocked by how much space was lurking behind the innocuous doors of the spa, a city within a city. There were chill-out zones, an exercise room, massage chairs, a TV lounge, ice rooms, a small restaurant, video games and ping-pong. There were also coed sleeping rooms with bunk beds and floor mats. In a separate wing there was a capsule hotel for overnight guests. Some of the more upscale jjimjilbangs have outdoor pools, beauty salons, karaoke bars, and full restaurants.

Expert tip 3: Don’t bring food or drinks into the bathing area. You’ll be marked as a disrespectful rube, and an old lady will chase you with a broom.

I returned to the locker room, changed back into my street clothes, and handed my key to the man at the front desk. My bath was over, after a brisk 75 minutes. I paid for my incidentals and left.

On the walk home I thought about the experience. It had been long, hot, grueling, frightening, exhilarating and strange. It felt like I’d endured a long military campaign. Sebastopol, Bataan, watching someone’s wedding video. But I also felt calm, relaxed, peaceful. The chronic pain in my back and knees had taken the afternoon off. I felt carefree, light and giddy. I also had the strangest feeling of all. I was…happy.

I decided to return in a few days. This time I’d eat those sauna eggs.



Dragon Hill Spa. Tel: [82-2] 792-000140-712 (www.dragonhillspa.com), Hangangno 3-ga Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Admission:  W7,000-W16,000 (US$6-$14)
Riverside Spa Land . Tel: [82-2] 455-3737 (ispaland.co.kr), 45 Guuigangbyeon-ro, Guui-dong Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, Admission:  W6,000-W11,000 (US$5-$9)
Silloam Bulgama Spa & Resort . Tel: [82-2] 364-3944 (www.silloamsauna.com), 49 Jungnim-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul. Admission:  W7,000-W17,000 (US$6-$15)

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