Saturday, July 24, 2010

Conquering the 찜질방!

As some of you may recall, I recently talked about noraebangs (karaoke rooms), and my recent trip to a Wiibang (Wii game room). Today, I conquered a new bang and an eleven month fear by experiencing the jimjilbang (public bath house). My friends go to jimjilbangs frequently. Not only can you bathe, sit in a sauna, get body scrubs, and relax, you can also sleep in them (which makes them popular places to "stay" for cheap travels). Jimjilbangs are everywhere, and they are a significant presence in Korean culture.

I have avoided the jimjilbang for eleven months. There is something about public nakedness that really weirds me out, and I somehow managed to evade trips with my friends the entire time I've been in Seoul. I have considered going, but then I can never decide if I want to go alone or with a friend. Is it weird to ask someone to go sit naked in the bath with you? Or is it worse to awkwardly try to navigate the system of attending the jimjilbang alone? The first time you do anything in a foreign country (grocery shop, set up bills, go to the bank, etc), it is always slightly uncomfortable. It takes a lot of observing to figure out the system, and I like to watch what everyone else is doing to make sure I'm doing everything correctly. Is it okay to observe naked people? If I'm already awkwardly unsure of the process, how much worse will it be if I have no clothes on? Yesterday, however, I made a to-do list of things I want to do my last month in Korea. I decided to add jimjilbang to the list -- for the experience, of course. I've done a lot of worse things (eating live octopus, attending horrifically boring cultural events, etc.) "for the experience," so going to a sauna should be easy I thought.

The symbol for Jimjilbang

Today, we had plans to go to a park by the river, but because of inclement weather (aka the weather every day/the rainy season is a dumb weather pattern) our plans fell through. I looked at my to-do list, and decided it was now or never. My friend Arianna agreed to accomany me to a jimjilbang in our neighborhood (like all the other 'bangs,' there are jimjilbangs everywhere). After putting our shoes in a locker, we moved into a main room where we were given a big locker key and two small towels. In a corner of the main room are lockers, and it is here you strip down to your birthday suit. From here on out, it is only as awkward as you make it. None of the Korean women seem remotely concerned about walking around stark naked so I tried to be nonchalant about it too (even if I did try to angle my handtowel to appropriately cover me as I walked into the bath room). Just like the locker room at the gym, the only person uncomfortable with the situation is me, so I had to remind myself that it was no big deal.

Once in the bath room, there are 5 large pools of different colors and varying temperatures. First, you take a shower from a shower head on the wall to make sure you are all clean. Following my shower, Arianna and I headed for the pools. After soaking in each tub (3 hot, one freezing, and one peppermint), surrounded by lots of naked old women who I felt like judged me every move I made, I decided to get a body scrub. Most women sit on little stools all around the room in front of little faucets, buckets of water, mirrors, and scrubbers. After you are finished soaking, sauna sitting, and relaxing, you scrub your body clean. A friend of mine has been raving about the body scrubs though, and I decided to try one. I, what I can only imagine looked like a scurry, up to the ajummas (old women) in the corner who are clad in black lacy bras and underwear standing by three long flat tables. I indicated I wanted a body scrub, and then one sat me down on the table and instructed me to lay down.

The body scrub begins by the ajumma dumping a bucket of water over you. Following this, the woman puts on mits that are really coarse. For about thirty minutes, this lady rolled me, scrubbed me, and rubbed my skin raw. Although it kind of hurt, it was also really refreshing. I could actually see skin coming off my body. Part of me wanted to giggle the entire time since I was naked, she was in her underwear, and I was literally sliding all over this funny little table in a public bathhouse, but I was trying so hard not to stand out that I luckily didn't let a single giggle escape. Following the mits, she then rubbed me down with a carton of milk, a tub of yogurt, and about half a bottle of baby oil. Needless to say, my skin is softer than it has ever been. It was definitely a good use of twelve dollars.

After my scrub, I showered again by the wall then dried off then went back out to the main room (this time not so shyly), got dressed, and headed back home. They have places in the main room to dry your hair, do your makeup, or even do your nails. I'm not sure why I waited so long to go to a bathhouse. It was really relaxing, and after a few minutes, being naked isn't really that weird. I'm going to definitely go again before I leave Seoul.

Have a great weekend everyone, and go to a public bathhouse if you get the chance!

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