For most of us from the western world, getting naked with others is not a common occurrence. Bathing is done in the privacy of our homes, and prancing around nude in public just doesn’t happen.
Before moving to Korea, I was the person who would wait until the gym locker room cleared out before changing. Living in Korea has changed that.
Jumping into the Korean bathing ritual is an experience unlike any other. The jimjilbang is a traditional Korean bathhouse where families and friends gather (in gender segregated rooms) to bathe, relax and cleanse themselves. They are cheap, very common, and (most) are open 24 hours a day.
Being naked around others terrifies me. It took seven months of living nextdoor to a jimjilbang to get the courage to go (read all about my first time at the jimjilbang). I have since gotten over the nerves, and thankfully, all of my visits to the jimjilbang have been event-less.
Others, however, have not been so lucky. More than a few people have found themselves in strange situations at the jimjilbang. One blogger friend, Danielle from the Lifestyle Project, had to decline a trip to the bathhouse with all the teachers from her school. Another friend was enjoying herself at the neighborhood jimilbang when the principal of her school walked in! Yikes!
I asked some bloggers who have lived in Korea to share their best jimjilbang stories. Some of them are funny, others creepy, and one downright rude.
Nathan Alan Anderson of The Open Road Before Me
We sat on a bench as we breathed in air thick with steam, keeping our eyes from straying too low lest the Guy Code be violated. Other men milled about the room or slouched against the walls, and all of us were stark naked.
For many of us, myself included, it was our first time experiencing a Korean jjimjilbang. We’d scrubbed ourselves in the showers, soaked in hot tubs, dunked in cool pools, and were now enjoying one of several steam rooms before heading to the sauna itself. Caught up in the process of relaxing, conversation drifted lazily from topic to topic.
As we were talking, an old Korean man sauntered up, brazenly introducing himself and prompting us to do the same. He regarded each of our group intently, then pointed his finger at my friend Mike.
“You have the best face,” he declared.
Eyebrows shot up all around the circle, but he wasn’t finished.
His finger swung towards Rick, our American friend of Latino descent. “You,” he said confidently, “have a Mexican face.”
Rick — bless his heart — took that ridiculous comment in stride as the man launched into his next conversation topic: classic American oldies.
He made sure to mention Elvis, and Sinatra, and a few other legends, then asked us if we knew a particular tune. After receiving a chorus of blank stares, he decided more information was called for. The man lifted one leg and rested his foot on the bench, then leaned forward with his forearms on his knee.
As all of us tried not to notice the ancient balls swinging in our peripheral vision, he proceeded to croon.
He was disappointed when we didn’t recognize the tune, but not enough to stop talking. The conversation carried on a few more painfully awkward minutes, after which our new friend finally excused himself and left the room. We looked at each other, eyes wide.
“What the heck just happened?”
Nathan has been living a life on the road since 2011, and has no plans of slowing down! Follow his journey on his blog, The Open Road Before Me. You can also connect with him on Facebook and on Instagram.
Carl Hedinger of Duke Stewart Writes
I love Korean saunas but have come to realize that their greatness comes with a hidden cost. Aside from the small stuff like dudes grabbing thighs or holding my hands like Korean men are known to do, one specific time comes to mind.
I’m sitting with a friend and trying to enjoy some hot water in Yeosu when an obviously drunk older gentleman walks up and starts pointing and shouting in a language that would qualify as mumblish. After a few minutes yelling at us about something while fondling his nether regions, the man has a nap on the base of one of the tubs.
As we stare at each other and that the worst has passed, he quickly returns and begins masturbating right in front of us. I try to shout for help but none of the others in the room will do anything. Screaming “112” (Police) in English and Korean at the guy doesn’t change things until I run outside and ask the attendant for help. Still nothing. Luckily, the old man loses patience with me and walks away to go bother someone else.
Carl, aka Duke Stewart, writes about life through travel on his blog Duke Stewart Writes. He takes his readers on a ride through captivating stories and guides on following in his footsteps. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Megan Indoe of Bobo and Chichi
Just as I was starting to get comfortable with jimjilbangs and accepting the fact that I was going to be gawked at every time I went to enjoy a day at the spa, I was introduced to a whole new feeling of awkward.
I was sitting by myself in one of the saunas sweating up a storm. A woman in her 30s decided to join the room and kept staring at me like I was an alien. I am used to this feeling and have become quite comfortable ignoring the stares and relaxing. My body looks different from theirs and they want to see. (or at least that’s what I tell myself to feel better)
After a few minutes the woman leaves and comes back with her 7 year old daughter pushing her to practice her English with me. I was in no shape, way, or form feeling like having an impromptu English class naked in a sauna with a 7 year old girl, let alone anyone! Luckily, this child was too shy to talk to me and I left that jimjilbang for the day preventing anymore encounters with this eager mother. Imagine seeing a stranger and asking them to teach your child, NAKED! Weird, awkward, and a sure fire way to really make someone feel completely uncomfortable.
Megan, along with her partner Scott, blog and vlog over at Bobo and ChiChi. Megan entertains and educates her readers on how to see the world, save money, and become a digital nomad. Keep up to date with all things Bobo and ChiChi on Facebook and Instagram.
Rafiqua Israel of Rafiqua Israel Express
It was the middle of my first year in Korea, but only the second time I had ever visited a jimjilbang. On this particular day I visited one out of necessity — we were camping at a three day music festival with no showering facilities, and needed to clean up. My friend and I went to a very small jimjilbang in the countryside of Seoul.
As I had been once before, I was semi familiar with the “how to do’s” of jimjilbangs. I gathered my shower things and headed for a place at a seated shower. Low and behold just as I am ready to wash the shampoo out of my hair, a very large and friendly ajjuma sits down beside me and hands me an exfoliating cloth. I start to scrub down my left arm. The ajjuma quickly started waving her hand in my face, while pointing to her back with her index finger. She then demonstrated circular motions indicating that I was supposed to scrub her back!
I found it hilarious that this ajjuma wanted me to scrub her back when there were over a dozen other Koreans in the shower area right next to her! Being the friendly foreigner, I decided to roll with it and help her out. Once her back was done she promptly left my friend and I, who couldn’t help but crack up by the sheer awkwardness of the few minutes I had to endure.
Rafiqua is a South African blogger currently based in South Korea. She spends her time photographing amazing places, indulging in mouth watering food, and finding adventure wherever she goes. Check out her exciting travel posts on all things Asia over at Rafiqua Israel Express. You should also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
Nico Vermeulen of Experience It
Whenever I went to a jimjilbang, I found it funny how the other men would stare at me. It wasn’t a gay thing. Maybe more of a comparison, to see if we were alike. Or if the rumors were true about western guys.
I never found these places to be quite relaxing. Especially not the beds. I went for an overnight stay on my way to the airport once, since I had an early flight. After the long baths and showers I thought I would get some sleep and was completely surprised to find these mats to sleep on and a leather block (literal block) for a pillow.
It would have been okay had it not been for the guard who thought that it would be nice to shine a light in your eyes every time he did his rounds. So needless to say I got up early to leave for the airport.
Nico is a photographer and blogger currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa, but he previously lived in South Korea for two years. He blogs about all things travel over at Experience It, and takes amazing pictures which you can check out on Instagram.
There you have it! Five bloggers share their most story-worthy tales from the jimjilbang. Have you ever been to a Korean spa (or something similar)? Share your stories!