Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jjimjilbang

I now hold the privilege of saying that I’ve bathed with old Korean women. May not sound exciting to you. But let me tell you – Korean jjimjilbangs are where it’s at.

A couple of my friends wanted to go a few days ago, so Alex and I joined them. Jjimjilbangs are basically large, gender-segregated public bathhouses with different hot tubs, showers, and sauna rooms. You can also get salt scrubs and massages. We just wanted a relaxing night, so the five of us – Anna, Von, Alex, my roommate Janet, and I – trekked on up to the 24-hour bathhouse of Jochiwon. It was about a 10-minute walk from where we were staying. We paid $6 each to use everything –yet another steal in Korea. I was thankful to have Janet with us girls, because she is Korean-American and speaks the language, so it really helped having her along for the ride. The boys, however, were on their own. But, eh, they managed.

The guys were to go to the third floor; the girls were on the first. We each went to our designated locker rooms to put on our scrub-like attire for the sauna rooms. Now, in the bath house area, you obviously have to get naked with everyone else to use them, and though awkward, I figured it wouldn’t be too bad, since it was already around 8pm; that we would probably be the only ones there. Wrong. When I turned the corner, I was stunned to find the locker room bustling with dozens upon dozens of butt-naked Korean ladies of all sizes. They were just shamelessly walking around bare. There were even a handful of ladies just lounging out in front of a T.V. We quickly threw on the clothes that they gave us and went up to the second floor, where both men and women could use the saunas.

Alex and Von met us up there, and together we tried out the different sauna rooms. There were about four or five rooms of varying temperatures. They each had a tiny little wooden door that you entered in through. One room’s walls and ceiling were covered in amethyst. Another room was a lot cooler and covered in jade. There was also an extremely-hot charcoal room that smelled amazing…I think it might’ve been because of the grass rugs on the floor. But we just sort of sprawled out for a little while in each of them. It was awesome. Afterward, we went back to our locker rooms to strip down for our baths. I’m not gonna lie—I’ve done community baths in Japan before, but I was still pretty nervous to get naked in front of all these ladies. And it didn’t help that there was a little Korean girl wrapped in a pink towel next to me just staring away…

We all just went for it and stripped down as quickly as we could. I attempted to cover myself with my itty bitty hand towel, but that proved useless. I finally said screw the towel and just tried to ignore the stares coming from all directions. That happens a lot in Korea. Stares. It’s because, well mainly in the rural areas, Koreans aren’t always used to foreigners. I’ve also been told that they’re a very curious culture anyway. I’m getting used to it now. I always just give a bow and an “annyeong-haseyo!” and that seems to make everyone pretty happy.

So we had to shower off first to be clean for the tubs. A teen-aged girl sat next to me on our little stools in front of our mirrors and showerheads. Several ladies were scrubbing away on the backs of their friends. Once clean, we tried out each of the tubs. There were about seven or eight of them. You start in the warm bath and slowly progress to the hottest one. I accidentally crawled into one of the hotter baths first and scorched myself a little. Oops. But once I got used to the temperatures, the baths were amaaazing. Just what I needed. After bath time was through, we checked out the Salt Room. Four Korean ladies were sitting in there, rubbing themselves with salt from white bowls. They started talking to us in Korean and Janet translated:

“You girls are very beautiful. Where are you from?” they said.
“Umm… Texas. It’s in America. And Anna’s from Oklahoma. Also in America,” I told them.
“How long have you been in Korea?"
“A week and a half….”
“Korean women rub their larger areas with bowls to get rid of the fat,” one woman abruptly said without pause, as she pointed to my stomach and gestured with a bowl, requesting my permission for her to rub my belly.

Thanks I thought, as I reluctantly gave my consent. I was pondering the oddness of how she has just gone there. But then I thought to myself, hey—I’m in Korea! Why not let a slightly hefty, superstitious Korean woman rub my belly with a bowl?

I don’t think it worked. But it was worth a shot, I suppose. The ladies then asked us to make a train with them and rub each others’ backs with salt, so we complied. And finally, they declared us “friends.” With a giggle, they told us that Koreans like to touch each other. It’s a bonding thing, I guess?

So that was our conversation in the Salt Room.

After that, we rinsed off. There was a (freezing) cold bath that you could get into, which closes up your pores, but I passed. I figured I had had enough excitement for one evening. We threw on our clothes and it was then that I realized how incredible I actually felt. Maybe I can just get past the awkwardness. This might just be my new favorite place…

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