Jjimjilbangs (찜질방), a Korean bathhouse, are a really big part of the country’s culture. It is a place where locals go to socialize, and friends and family members go to tighten their bonds. All the while having a nice time relaxing and taking care of their health.
I was having a 불금(Fire Friday) with my work friends and roommates. We drank, ate fried chicken, then drank some more – you know how it goes.
As soon as we arrived back home, my roommates started talking about how they wanted to go to a Korean bathhouse and have the crude experience. I started looking for places near my house and I could find a couple. Lucky us, it is not hard to find information with a quick Naver search. With reviews, photos, and websites to look at, it made it easier to build up the courage and finally go.
Despite it being a 24h establishment, which is very common for a Korean bathhouse, everyone had to process the idea. So, we decided to go home and sleep. Then, go there the next day. That way none of us would be stuck until the trains and buses started again, just in case it wasn’t a positive experience.
We woke up and got ready, but no one was one-hundred percent confident with the experience. Either way, we had made our decision and headed to the bathhouse anyway. It was only eight minutes away from our house. So, it didn’t take too long to arrive at the place. We paid to enter, got our clothes and our keys. Then, the three of us went together to the female changing room. However, my other roommate went in a different direction on his own, towards the male section.
Entering the female area was an instant shock. I knew there would be naked people, I just didn’t imagine they would be walking around so freely. Some were drying their hair, some were getting ready to leave, and nobody was wearing any clothes or trying to cover themselves at all. It was a mixture of feelings. Seeing those naked women made me more anxious, but the way they acted so naturally about it put me at ease.
Still, my friends and I had to have a little more time to process what was happening. We wanted to experience those things but the cultural difference was still too much. So we went downstairs to the common areas, where everyone has clothes on.
The common space is the best for foreigners to start getting into the jjimjilbang feeling. There are a lot of things to do there. In the bathhouse I was in, we had fish pedicures, a gym, a PC bang, sleeping rooms, TV rooms, a cafeteria, kids playgrounds, and the saunas, of course. The place was very spacious and clean. So, you could start relaxing just by the sweet silence of it.
I chose to go to the cold room first. The thermometer said it was around -1ºC there. I love the cold and feel comfortable with it so I was fine. I thought it wasn’t that cold, but when I looked at one of my roommates, she was visibly freezing. Either way, I believe it is a perfect room to go if you are melting from summer’s heat. And, most importantly, if you are having a lot of muscle pain. My feet didn’t like how cold the wooden floor was, but the room itself was great.
After resting a little bit outside so our bodies could get used to the normal temperature, we moved to the saunas.
To me, the best sauna was the hottest one, around 66º C. So relaxing and calming! People were just meditating or watching things on their phones. Everyone minded their own business and focused on their own relaxation. I didn’t want to leave. Unfortunately, I have very low blood pressure so, after a while, I had to get out of the place. Although the saunas here are not steamed, so you don’t get overwhelmed as you usually do in rooms filled with humidity.
However, when I left the hot rooms, I experienced a mixture of feeling relaxed and feeling sick. As my blood pressure returned to normal, I just grabbed a mattress and a pillow, then laid down. By far the best part for me. I think I stayed like that for almost two hours until my roommates and I decided to go to the infamous bathing area.
Stripping down and walking completely naked in front of so many people sounded very scary. However, as soon as we entered the place and nobody paid attention to us, it made me feel confident. It is so normal to everyone that it automatically becomes normal for you too. The stares we got were from people trying to help us do things the right way.
Other women who were also enjoying their time came to ask if there was anything we needed help with. They taught us the process before and after entering each of the pools. There was a grandma who even scrubbed one of my roommate’s backs and then told her to do the same with me.
We washed, went to the hottest pool, and then to a cold one, washed again, and then left to the changing room. By that time I was already completely fine with being naked in front of all the other women. I naturally began drying my hair with no clothes on, just as the women who had shocked me just a few hours before did.
It does creep a lot of people out when we first hear about how a Korean bathhouse works. Thinking it is too invasive, most people knock it before even trying it.
However, I loved the experience of both the sauna area and thermal pools. I started by being way too self-conscious about my body and ended up feeling relaxed and relieved. In the end, I think this experience actually boosted my self-esteem.
Despite everything, I believe seeing other people in their crude and natural states is a reminder of how diverse bodies are, and normalizes not being perfect. Especially being in Korea, you end up with a sense that everyone is super thin, has the perfect body, and that something is wrong with you. But, this experience really helped me to accept my body as it is.
I left there and decided I would treat myself a Korean bathhouse frequently from now on.