There is a vital aspect of Korean culture that no true cultural ambassador would miss out on. That experience is…
Probably romanized: Jjimjilbang [pronounced: Jim – Jill – bong]
What is a jjimjilbang?
Essentially, a public bathhouse. Which involves, a.) getting naked in front of everyone and b.) seeing everyone around you naked.
A lot of people have written on jjimjilbangs – I know because I read them to prepare myself – so I wasn’t going to spend much time on it in my blog. But another ETA (a fellow blogger) convinced me otherwise.
While a fellow ETA and I went to a jjimjilbang during what I am dubbing “Fireworks weekend,” my first time was a couple weeks earlier, with my host family. Fortunately, I had already decided I wanted to give it a try when my host mom asked if I wanted to go that night.
Oh, today? Ok, sure. Tonight tonight? Okay.
This is my semi-informational, semi-personal account. Maybe someday other Type A foreigners in Korea will gain some benefit from this.
I should first note that technically I didn’t go to a jjimjilbang. My host family and I went to a mogyoktang (목욕탕), which is simply a bathhouse. A jjimjilbang is fancier, with sauna rooms, spa features and the option to stay the night. However, either one is, as one blog puts it, a sort of “rite of initiation” for foreigners. This blog describes it well, and has lots of pictures and Korean words that I wish I’d known before. So I’ll just put it here: http://blog.korea.net/?p=20198
On a Thursday night, my host mom, two host sisters and I headed out to a mogyoktang. We went for a fancier one their usual, since this was my first time.
We pulled into a narrow parking garage, where the front desk was also located. After paying – you could choose either mogyoktang or jjimjilbang – we received our tickets and headed upstairs.
The first thing you’ll encounter are shoe lockers. Like many businesses in Korea, you’ll need to remove your shoes before fully entering the building. You find the locker with your ticket number, which will have a key attached to a plastic coil bracelet. Then leave your shoes and take the key with you, which you’ll need for another locker. The next part of the mogyoktang will be a larger locker room for clothing and personal belongings. At this point it might be good to know exactly what you need to bring.
What to bring
When going to a mogyoktang, think of the experience simply in terms of taking a bath, albeit a fancy one with many strangers in the vicinity. In addition to a change of clothes, my host family and I pooled our resources and brought shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, washcloths, and more intense bath scrub cloth…things. You might call it an exfoliating cloth, scrubbing mitt, Korean scrub towel, or some other combination of words. They also seem to be referred to as Korean Italy towels, but in Korean, it’s 때수건/ ddaesoongun (the accurately romanized spelling) or daesungun (the nicer looking spelling). Ddae means dead skin, so as you might infer, a ddaesoongun is a small, very coarse piece of cloth used to scrub yourself down, with the intent of visibly removing dead skin. While it’s certainly painful the first time, there were always ddaesoongun in my home growing up, and so I ended up preferring bath towels that are rougher than average anyway.
Things unique to a Korean bath: the ddaesoongun and face wash. In the States I would just use soap, but in Korea skin care is HUGE (and quite advanced too). My host family brought separate face and body washes.
What you’re provided
No need to worry about towels. This place also provided soap, brushes, combs, ear swabs and hair dryers (free of charge), but this could vary. Jjimjilbangs will provide a change of clothes for relaxing in the common area.
Back to the bath
After stripping down in the locker room, my host family and I headed out to the main event. My host mom stripped in about two seconds flat and my host sisters followed soon after, not giving me much time to think, much less feel embarrassed. Just strip and get out there. At this point I relinquished my glasses, and everything is less embarrassing when viewed through the haze of bad vision.
At the bath we each sat at individual stations, which included a shower head and faucet (with a plastic basin underneath), a mirror, and plastic stool to sit on. Here we all took short showers before moving to the baths. There were three baths in this mogyoktang, a main bath, which was like a pool, and two smaller baths, each slightly hotter than the other. Both had temperature labels hanging above. I eased my way into the second hottest pool for a short amount of time, but couldn’t handle the last one. My host family stayed in the main bath. To the side, there was also a long narrow pool with cold water (your typical swimming pool temperature). People there were splashing around, and some looked like they were swimming laps.
We stayed in the pool for a long while, the purpose being to soften your dead skin so it comes off more easily when you scrub. Any awkwardness I felt was far outweighed by how comfortable I was. No one around me was the slightest bit embarrassed and so with a typical fake-it-till-you make-it approach, I was soon unfazed. While going with a fellow ETA later on was stranger…again, fake it until you make it. And as Ms. Shim would say, don’t compare.
Finally my host family and I went back to our stations and scrubbed. And scrubbed. And scrubbed. Almost as long as we were in the bath. My host mom told me to take it easy on my previously unscrubbed, foreigner skin, but I was able to ease my way up to producing a decent amount of dead skin. It’s both strangely satisfying and gross to feel the little rolls of dirty greyish skin multiplying as you scrub. And yes, my host mom did scrub my back. It felt marvelous.
The final step was a second, slower shower, with a repeat of the shampoo, conditioner, face wash and body wash. I headed back to the locker rooms, towel around my head, rite of passage complete.