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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Bums, Bosoms, and Bellies: Korean Bathhouse

Dedication: To Sonia, who quite nakedly shook me awake for our first day of college orientation and introduced me to the idea of, well, nudity.

In December, an expat friend finally convinced me to get naked at a Korean bathhouse and stroll casually around like, “hey, this is cool. Wanna scrub my back?”

A jjimjilbang (찜 질 방; literally "heated room) Korean bathhouse, which includes a gender-segregated naked section (showers, hot tubs, saunas, snacks) and non-segregated clothed-in-provided-pajamas section (sleeping areas, more saunas, and a restaurant).  These are very popular in Korea; most are open 24/7.

Short version for readers who really don't want details:  Judy and I were the largest and whitest naked women among 80+ naked Korean women in a public bathhouse.  After a near-debilitating attack of the panics, I shocked myself by loving the experience. 

Here is the much longer version (rated PG-13 for the stock photos showing ladies' bums).

Photo from
Backstory: I was raised as a conservative, mid-western Caucasian-American to believe that body privacy was probably more important than life itself.  Proper women, I learned well, do not sweat, burp, poop, fart, spit, or have any other revolting bodily functions.  Proper women are very modest when changing clothes, using the toilet (any potential smelly business should be done in the furthest bathroom), and bathing; no one should see your bits unless they have a validated marriage license.
Finally: If a proper woman DID accidentally reveal revolting behavior or other private bodily business, it would be better to die than admit to it. 

Culture shock.  Koreans (as a generalization) place a high value on bathing (and scrubbing the top layers of skin off their bodies) for hours with lots of equally naked friends, family, and strangers.  So there’s a little source of tension for me.  Add to that the fact that I’m living among people built like chopsticks, people who believe “round” (like, for example, my traditionally-built, German-English-American, sedentary middle-aged self) is at least a serious moral flaw if not quite a deadly sin.  Thus, the likelihood of me EVER visiting a Korean bathhouse has hovered at or below -40%. 

But…  I made a new expat friend this year (also a middle-aged Caucasian but Canadian) who loves the Korean bath experience despite her own traditionally-built self.  And she’s very, very persuasive. 
On the plus side, this is one of the only Korean activities that requires no equipment beyond one’s birthday suit and some cash.  On the down side, this activity is extremely risky for one’s social-emotional health.  It did not help matters that the Saturday morning parking lot was overflowing.  In the bustling lobby, similar to a nice hotel, I paid 16,000 won (about $15) for BOTH of us. Judy pointed to the stacked rolls of clothing and said “Big!”; the desk woman (she had all her clothes on) laughed kindly, having already perceived our non-Korean builds. She handed us our numbered receipts, cotton sauna shirts and shorts, and two hand towels each.

Deep breath.  We removed our shoes at the edge of the lobby and stored them in the nearby section adorably labeled “Rocker Room.”  We then went up to the women’s bathhouse on the 2nd floor (the men’s area was on the 3rd floor).  Judy chatted about the décor while I faked being calm as we turned the corner and HOLY COW THERE ARE TOTALLY NAKED LADIES EVERYWHERE.  We, of course, were still wearing our winter coats and sock-feet, so WE looked like the weirdos in this context.  Back to the women.  They were sitting on wooden platforms, walking around buying drinks or little packets of shampoo at the front counter, chatting with each other, putting on make-up in front of giant mirrors….  Like you do, apparently, when you’re in a room of naked people.

Ok.  I had to take more deep breaths that were tinged with shades of panic.  Judy, meanwhile, pointed out the various single-use packets of soaps and other shower/bath supplies for sale at the counter, where a friendly woman WHO WAS THE ONLY ONE BESIDES US WITH CLOTHES ON IN THE ROOM answered Judy’s questions. I did not CARE about particular scents or flavors or costs or whatever so I just handed over some money, nearly dropping my change into the fuzzy slipper display.

We went to find our assigned lockers, which by a miracle were in different rows, so a tiny shred of privacy remained before our friendship faced, well, you know. Lots of new information about each other.

I found my locker and stripped.  Taking the tiny towels (Korean bath towels are about the size of a business card) and new-bought packets of shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, I met Judy back in the main area.  I wore only my ponytail elastic; she wore only her eyeglasses.   Well then.  Our friendship had reached a new level. 

As expected, we were the only white people and were certainly the largest.  But no one seemed to care.  Only the American (that would be me) even seemed to NOTICE all the different body bits walking about.  Bigger and smaller; flatter and rounder; firmer and saggier; darker and lighter; older and younger; scarred and smooth.  The oldest among us was perhaps 70 years old; the youngest was around two.  And did I mention this already?  No. One. Cared That I Have a Misfit Body.  Suddenly, my heart was calm.  I could do this. 

Renewed in spirit, I strode through the glass doors into the bathing area.  Dozens more naked women were showering in mirrored rows; Judy and I washed our hair and rinsed off our bodies in preparation for the next step.  We then walked down the long aisle, every bit of us open to potential scrutiny, to find adjacent scrubbing areas.  We sat on low, plastic stools by a flexible nozzle where one commences to scrubbing oneself from this near-squatting position.  This is not a rushed, whap-some-soap-around-and-dash-to-work kind of bathing.  Nope.  This is a luxuriously long self-scrub (with a cloth comparable to those green kitchen scrubbies), taking all day if one so wanted to use various emollients.  Judy offered to scrub my back, but I drew a firm line right there. Back-scrubbing is a sign of closeness in Korea, and we saw it happening among friends or mothers and daughters of all ages, but shaving one’s pits and legs while chatting with one’s naked friend just inches away in an echoing, steamy room of naked ladies is quite far enough for one day, thank you.)

Scrubbing done, we rinsed off and went into the hot baths (which here means “shockingly hot 3’ deep cement pools into which one gingerly lowers one’s naked private regions to set by steaming strangers”).  I adjusted quickly to the 40 degree Celsius water (104 F) and sat on the bottom, my head just above the surface.  From there I was a crocodile, peering around the central concrete sculpture (baby Buddha riding a concrete fish-- why??) to covertly observe ladies sharing gossip and scrubs, their thin gold chains or earrings catching the light.  I enjoyed watching a little girl of about 3 years; her mom set out a small blue plastic tub, filled it with water, and tossed in Barbie, her incongruous blond hair floating in a wide circle. I skipped the various milk and tea and “event” (?) baths and next opted for the enclosed “open air” with steamy windows open to the pine hillsides.  Some women quietly chatted while perched on the side, with just their feet in the water; another woman helped her elderly mother (mother-in-law?) out of the steep bath.  (Wow.  I cannot imagine doing a naked mother-daughter outing.)

Imagine 5-10 naked people in each tub.  And another dozen wandering around, towel-less. Yup.
Photo from

At this point, I was a tiny bit drowsy.  The cold bath woke me right up though; the sign above it said “No mask or flippers/fins” (as if one carries those in one's birthday suit pocket.)  From there we observed several women, laying fully uncovered on tables, getting vigorous full-body scrubs (some call it massage and some call it exfoliation) and periodic hosing from ajummas wearing uniforms.  If you want to call black panties and bralets a uniform.  Our next stop was a steamy sauna, where my very eyeballs seemed to fog; on the plus side, I couldn't even see the woman sitting next to me.

After a final rinsing shower, we returned to the locker room to blot our hair and faces with the tiny towels then stand in front of fans to dry the rest of our selves.  As we walked past a weight scale, Judy firmly exclaimed “HA! No!”  as though she was training a bad dog.

So that was the bathing part of the bathhouse (often called the "mogyoktang").  Next we prepared for the dry sauna/sleeping/eating area by donning underpants and the provided short/shirts. We descended to the basement, which is not gender-segregated.  Thin vinyl sleeping pads were dotted about the floor with men, women, children, and couples snacking, snoozing, watching the big-screen TV, or playing on their phones (people can stay here overnight – that $15 goes a long, long ways).  A quick tour of the shellacked-crystal hallways led us past dark sleeping rooms; a salt-block sauna (a woman checked her phone while her husband dozed next to her, his head support by a brick-sized cushion); and a red clay sauna.  We visited the 85C sauna (185F), entering a tiny hobbit-door into a small clay hut that's basically a pizza oven.  Several sweaty, giggling women with giant jugs of iced coffee welcomed us in and gestured for us to sit with them on the bamboo mat.  We could barely communicate, but our shared sweat and giggles (and interacting while semi-dressed) was delightful.  After just a few moments, we escaped back through the hobbit hole to find some food.

At the little restaurant, we ordered sweet and sour pork, seating ourselves on the floor in traditional style while wearing the pajamas.  After eating our fill (and more), we returned to the bath area to get dressed, toss our towels and cotton clothes in the laundry bin, and return to the cold winter air.

I felt completely clean and relaxed by this strange (to me) experience.  The entire place was meticulously clean – not a speck of dust or dirt anywhere – and I felt very safe despite the utter lack of privacy.  I will long remember the sounds of water splashing, people talking, the hollow clank of plastic stools and bowls being moved; the smell of something rich and old underneath the shampoos and body/facial scrubs.  I was excited enough to convince Elisabeth to go with me again in January; perhaps a mother-daughter ajumma scrub is next, or even spending the night soaking up the healing powers of salt and clay.  

Sweating with Elisabeth in the clay sauna pizza oven (85C).

Elisabeth and I sweating (and snoozing) in the salt sauna room.

Waiting for lunch in the traditional Korean restaurant.  Do you love our matching cotton sauna outfits?  :)