I was fully naked, totally uncomfortable, and a naked Korean woman was holding my hand guiding me across the room.
“Well, crap!” I thought.
She handed me a tiny towel (so tiny it would be impossible to cover anything), and through the doors we went. Like two old pals who happened to love hanging out together naked, we entered a massive room filled with 50 or so other (nude) women.
What had I gotten myself into?
No, I did not find myself on the set of an Asian porno, nor was I getting involved in some sort of taboo group sex event. I was at a jimjilbang.
What is a Jimjilbang?
A jimjilbang (짐질방) is a traditional Korean Bath House.
So it directly translates to heated bath room.
The jimjilbang is a huge part of the Korean culture; the first record of a modern day jimjilbang dates back to the 15th century! Generations of women and men gather on their segregated sides and bathe each other. Girlfriends gossip, men chill, co workers de-stress, and kids play…all totally nude.
Facing My Fears
For someone, like myself, coming from the Western world, where being naked in public is far from the norm, breaking into the jimjilbang scene was terrifying.
So terrifying in fact, that It took me six months of living in Korea to build up the courage to do it. It took an entire day of planning how it would go down. It took three beers at dinner to loosen me up. And it took a literal push through the door from Chris, but I finally did it.
Turns out, it wasn’t so bad!
Once I got over the fact that I was hanging out naked with a whole bunch of other people, I was able to loosen up and enjoy myself, I even had a few mini conversations with some other nude ladies.
The whole experience was much different than I thought it would be.
I originally thought the Jimjilbang to be kind of like a YMCA locker room. I pictured women showering, doing their hair in bathroom mirrors, sitting in steam rooms and swimming in a small pool. I figured gritty tile floors, clumps of hair in shower stalls, and an overall atmosphere of drabness. In a way, it was kind of like that locker room I pictured, but much, much, much more luxurious.
Think: Locker Room Meets Luxury Day Spa.
The Inner Workings of the Bathhouse
The hub of the action was the large hot tub (more like pool) in the center of the room. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes filled the pool; chatting, sipping drinks in plastic containers, and relaxing. Though I felt more and more comfortable as time passed, I didn’t venture into this large communal pool. It was too crowded, and I was not yet ready to sit shoulder to shoulder with naked strangers.
Before stepping foot into any of the pools, saunas or steam rooms, a shower is in order. Lining the perimeter of the room are 50 or so showers and vanities. My new ajumma friend led me to one of the free showers and proceeded to turn on the water, soap up the rough wash cloth, and motion what I should do (wash myself-duh). She was a mere moment away from doing the washing for me, something my virgin jimjilbang self could probably not handle at that moment.
Though if she did, it wouldn’t be strange at all. At the vanities all around me women were scrubbing each other with a rough gentleness; mother’s washed daughters, and daughters washed mothers.
Surrounding the main pool were smaller tubs of varying temperatures; from super hot to ice cold. In between these tubs were multiple saunas each one a little hotter than the next.
In one corner of the room two ajummas ferociously scrubbed down women lying on massage tables. This is a major part of the jimjilbang experience, if you have the guts to get your skin rubbed raw. I have yet to participate, but know I will do it soon.
Fully Embracing the Korean Culture
It was inside a sauna, where I fully accepted this new cultural experience. I lay across the wood slatted floor, my head resting on a small wooden support. I had just completed a few rounds of sweating in the sauna and dunking in a cold pool, when it dawned on me that I was comfortable. I watched the soundless Korean TV, three women chatted just a few paces away from me, and it was like another regular day. I couldn’t believe something I avoided for so long turned out to be something so harmless and relaxing. It became another facet of the Korean Culture I have come to be so fond of.
My first time at the jimjilbang was a cleansing experience both physically and mentally. I left lighter that night, knowing it would not be another six months before my next visit.
Have you visited a Korean Jimjilbang (or any naked bathhouse)? What was your experience like?