Author’s note: I was not fully sure if I wanted to post about my jimjalbang experience. I can hear someone back home reading this and saying “I can’t believe she wrote about publicly-approved, single-gender, enclosed, bathhouse nudity!” But then I realized you’re only in Korea on the government’s dime once (like YOLO, but better), so what the heck. Here’s the story of how I went to the jimjalbang, wore minimal amounts of clothes, and lived to tell about it.
About 10 days ago, my host sister asked if I knew what a jimjalbang (sauna, JJBs from now on) was. I had done a bit of research on the topic and I knew that a type of bath house very popular in Korea and other parts of Asia. Being an American, where JJBs are non-existent, I was really excited to dig into this part of Korean culture. However, I was not without a healthy dose of reservation.
One, when I hear the word “bathhouse,” I am instantly transported back to my days at Bible came (not like the Jesus Camp variety), where bath houses were concrete stalls in a concrete building with a flimsy plastic curtain. One year I caught athlete’s foot while wearing flip flops. So, the images of a bathhouse for me are not wholly positive. Honestly, when I heard we were going, I was a little wary of the bathing conditions. Second, JJBs are notorious for one thing: public showering. You read it right: public showering. More on that later.
Finally, last night at 8pm, it was JJB time. I found it a bit odd that we’d go to a bathhouse so late at night, but I found it even more odd that we wouldn’t be returning until around midnight. I thought, “How long can it take to go into a sauna, sweat it out, and then shower?” Let it be known that a trip to the JJB is an adventure in its own.
Upon arrival, my host mom, host sister, and I were greeted in a very nice lobby where we were given JJB clothes (pink for women, blue for men, and yellow for children) to wear in the sauna. Even though my size was XXL, in Korea, that still translates into “about a 0.5 sizes to small for Sarah.” My host mom and sister were a little worried about my elastic shorts, but I assured them that everything was perfectly fine. After storing our shoes in a locker, we headed back to the gender-segregated showering rooms where there were more lockers for our street clothes, a store for snacks and shampoo, and of course, the doors to the shower room.
Before bathing, it is custom that you go to the “Fomentation Room,” which is a series of heated rooms and two large foyers for resting. I was amazed at how classy the foyers were, as sleeping mats and pillows were provided. Also, if you’re hungry or thirsty after getting hot, there’s a snack stand, too. However, I was a bit worried about the sauna aspect of the experience. I have a pacemaker, and when I am in a hot locale for more than a few minutes, my heart starts racing and I get lightheaded. However, these saunas were unlike those in the States. Rather than a humid-hot, these saunas were a dry, hot 136 degrees Fahrenheit.
My host mom and I split off from my host sister and her Japanese guest who is visiting this weekend and went into the first sauna. Inside was a floor full of smooth rocks where visitors can lie down and rest. The rocks were heated along with the room and it provided for a great experience. I even closed my eyes for a few minutes just to rest, and despite the high temperatures, it was very comfortable and I hardly broke a sweat. After the rock sauna, my host mom and I went back to the large foyer and rested on mats while we watched a Korean drama. Others did the same around us and a few children in yellow outfits ran around us. When we had completed the “resting phase” of the JJB experience, we headed back to a slightly less hot sauna, which was a series of wooden bars fitted to make a resting platform. For another 10 minutes, we relaxed in the dry heat. After another round of relaxing on the foyer mats and eating cookies and Pepero: it was shower time.
Let me reiterate about the shower aspect: It’s public and segregated by gender. There are about 40 mirrors and shower heads with five small pools for swimming, exercise, and relaxing in the middle of the shower room. Was I bit nervous at first? Yes. Did it bother me once I started showering? No. Everybody else was as if this was perfectly natural (and it is if you’re from a country that has JJBs), so it wasn’t awkward at all.
And did my JJB experience last four full hours until midnight? You bet. It’s a lot of work to get relaxed and clean at a JJB. And will I visit a JJB again? Yes, because you only get to live across the pond for a few brief moments in life.