The Crazy in April: Korean Jjimjilbang Experience

One of the things on my “do one crazy thing a month” list was to go to a jjimjilbang. Basically, it’s a public bathhouse and sauna. While it’s separated by sex, there’s a still a lot of naked people. As I have stated before, hanging out in the buff with others isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Or so I thought.

Before I made my way there, I had a rather uncomfortable bus ride to Seoul with people sandwiched so tight the side of my head was constantly brushing some Korean man’s jacket hem. Trotting off at Myeongdong, I picked up a 3,000 Won sausage on a stick wrapped in spiraled potatoes. New favorite street food. Eating, walking, and weaving through the crowds, I found a subway stop I hadn’t known existed until that morning and headed for Itaewon to meet Ines and Lydia.

Lunch and margaritas were next, what some might call liquid courage. Catching up with the girls, we cleaned off chips and salsa, kimchi nacho fries, six tiny delicious tacos, and five margaritas. I didn’t realize how much I had been missing authentic Mexican food. A trip to Gecko’s was in order, after talking belligerently loudly while traipsing about some streets. Another margarita, cheese sticks, and a couple games of darts later, we were ready to set off. Of course by then, I was duly relaxed and ready for anything.

Ines delightfully holding the delicious Vatos menu.

Carne Asada deliciousness.

Ines was happy to go on this new Korean adventure with me. We picked Dragon Hill Spa and Resort in Seoul, which apparently has a world reputation and is a big tourist spot. (Thankfully, we didn’t catch many foreigners there.) Just type it in the Google search box and you’re sure to find everything you need, except for maybe their actual website.

The main entrance to Dragon Hill.

Now, I will say that the actual entrance off the street was not what I was expecting, but the outer portion does not do the place justice by any means. Once we’d walked the bamboo pathway and the saw the sign, everything was as it appeared to be, according to the plethora of internet photos I had seen before my initial departure. Something that’s nice about having Ines with me is that she speaks Korean, so at least I didn’t have to feel like a complete tourist wandering around the premises. She’s in the cultural know-how, so that let’s me relax whenever we hang out. Once we were given a brochure and a super speedy run down of what to do and where to go, we paid our entrance fee of 12,000 Won (on weekdays it’s 10,000) and received our lock bracelet. This handy thing opens two lockers, one for your shoes and the other in the segregated section for your clothes. I’ll also add that you can “purchase” anything with this, though you pay for it when you leave. Want a massage then and there? Hand over your bracelet. Want a snack? Bracelet. Want a facial? Bracelet.

The shoe room. Left (blue) is for men, right (red) is for women.

Women head up to the third floor to dress down to their bare necessities. Right away I was met with the female body in a variety of forms, shapes, and sizes. Okay, no problem, this isn’t as awkward as I thought. We find our lockers and here comes the moment of truth. Now, I find it rather amusing that I come from a heritage where public bathing in the buff is no big deal. It’s not as big as it is in Asia, but it’s still something I remember from when I was a kid. Then for some reason, the US is all about covering yourself up, or at least, not showing your “naughty bits”, even if that means showing everything else. (That line of thought has never made sense to me.) The point is, I feel that American society has developed this mindset that we should be ashamed of our bodies, and the bodies of others. For some reason, we’re conditioned to be ashamed or fearful of our natural state. I find that ridiculous, even if I have had a great deal of trepidation concerning being naked in front of other people.

We undressed, and while I pulled the awkward foreigner move of holding my hand towel to try and cover myself, I quickly realized that wasn’t going to cut it here. When you have finished undressing, women head down to the second floor with their toiletries. While you can buy packets of shampoo, conditioner, body soap, and lotion at a counter, you can bring your own. Before you can enter any of the pools, you need to shower. And I mean full on shower next to a number of naked Korean women. Here we go.

Really, the best thing to do is just go with it. The more awkward you make yourself feel, the more awkward you’ll probably come off to other people. (Though the Koreans don’t really care anyway. I think I get more stares when I’m fully clothed than when I was naked.) So my initial embarrassment pretty much ended after that shower and I was ready to hop into any of the number of pools. There were a number of pools with different temperatures posted against the wall, and there was a set of outdoor pools too. It’s considered good for your circulation to go from a hot tub to a wicked cold one at 18C. Mostly, I just preferred to splash that cold water on my face. The outdoor pools were amazing, and apparently you don’t really get those in the other jjimjilbangs. We spent some time in a ginseng bath that was meant to improve memory before heading to the massage side of the floor.

Now, I have been aching, quite literally, to have a massage for the last couple of months. I knew I wanted to try the traditional ajumma body scrub that is said to enhance metabolism and leave your skin baby soft. On top of that, an aroma massage was going to happen too. One of the women working there gave us a discount for a set of the body scrub, oil rub, and aroma massage. Before they have us lay down on the massage tables, they kindly put on their knickers and bras, then they get to work with mits that could skin you alive. Okay, it’s actually not that bad, but it definitely doesn’t feel super comfortable. They scrub every inch of you, and when I say every inch, I mean it! I was greatly amused by the grey strings of dead skin that came rolling off my body. They drench you with some warm water, ask you to shower, and then come back for the rest of the massage. It was fantastic, if a bit oily for my liking. I felt revived and rejuvenated. We had a dip in the natural sea water pool before going back upstairs to change into our Dragon Hill gear.

The common room.

Ines and I hadn’t realized we’d spent so much time languishing in the sauna until we connected with a clock. I’m pretty sure we were in there for something like 2.5 hours or more, though it definitely didn’t feel like it. We explored the co-ed “healing zone” and checked out the various sauna rooms. I wasn’t a fan of any of the heat options, so my favorite would have to be the ice room.

My little snowman pal.

We were quite entranced by this room.

All in all, I am so entirely glad I followed through with this experience. I had a great time with great company. I have a good story to tell without any overly embarrassing bits. I still have the softest skin imaginable a week later. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I think the most important thing I’ve taken away from this first “crazy thing” is that I’m ten times more comfortable in my own skin, and I’m proud of myself for taking the leap.