Fireworks Weekend – Part 3: Making Friends

No, this post isn’t over yet. Sometimes I feel like I’m setting myself up for guilt and a sense of failure when I write multi-part posts. But I couldn’t skip over the last part of this weekend. So exactly one month after the event, here is the conclusion of Fireworks Weekend.

I didn’t end up saying much about the actual jjimjilbang (remember, that time with my host family was just a mogyoktang), but my friend Nadia and I ended up getting to the jjimjilbang right after they’d closed down the showers. So we changed into our jjimjilbang attire, scoped out the area and went straight to bed.


Before hitting the jjimjilbang, we ate at this fantastic place. The first time I’ve had a real burrito since coming here…


The next day, after what was for me an uncomfortable night (with thin blankets and a steady amount of light and noise from other people), we actually jjimjilbang-ed. This involved having delicious orange juice (made with a whole orange right before our eyes) and misutgaru/미숫가루 (a drink made from a multigrain powder), showering, soaking, and briefly trying some of the saunas. We came to the conclusion that Korean ajummas have skin of steel after trying to stand under a vicious downpour of water that was intended to massage your back. I couldn’t take more than a few seconds at a time.

We left the jjimjilbang refreshed and walked to the Jaigalchi Fish Market, a famous site in Busan, stopped by the petting zoo on the top of a Lotte Department Store, and made our way to a dog cafe near Haeundae that we had both been really excited to try.

Octopods and a statue of a fisherwoman at Jaigalchi:



Cats and dogs

The cafe we tried was located in the second floor of a pet store (probably a wise business decision). It was 8,000 won to get in, with one drink included. There were also complimentary snacks periodically brought out by the hosts. While dogs and food don’t seem like they’d mix, here they didn’t need to; the dogs were sectioned off in a large pen, and to the back were cute tables and chairs (and cats).

Overall it was fun to play with the dogs, but they were usually only interested in me for a few seconds at a time. The food, on the other hand, had their undivided attention. I’d be interested in trying another dog cafe to see if there’s much of a difference. I’d imagine going with your own dog(s) would also be more fun.

While the dogs (and two cats) were cute, the best part was the spontaneity that followed.

One of the other customers was a young woman there with her adorable two-year old son and another young woman. She was tall, thin and very stylish; she wore two hats, but somehow pulled it off. Her son’s outfit was no less fashionable, with an adorable red sweater and boots. I don’t remember why we started speaking, though it was most likely through her son, who kept dropping his toy train. Suddenly, she told us “I’m not Korean, I’m Chinese” and after learning that her English was very good, our conversation took off from there, and we made a new friend.

As we chatted, Nadia and I mentioned our plans to see the fireworks that night. But we didn’t expect to get close enough to have a good view. At that point it was 2pm, but people who were serious about the fireworks festival would already have their spots saved on the beach. It’s a big affair, and Busan is the second largest city in Korea, so popular events require a lot of planning and foresight.

Here was the subway station after the fireworks:


Long story short, we joined up with another ETA, dropped the woman’s son off at home, and the five of us saw the fireworks together…from a norebang (singing room – think karaoke, but with privacy) on the 14th floor of a building. But that was only after visiting our new friend’s home (and not-so-sneakily picking persimmons from the surrounding trees), sightseeing and taking pictures in the area, having coffee, and eating a delicious samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) dinner.

We didn’t end up seeing much of the fireworks, but it didn’t matter. We sang until our throats were sore and spent quality time with new friends. Today people normally aren’t willing to open up so much and so quickly to strangers, but I’m glad ChoHee was.



Fireworks Weekend – Part 2: Nudity

There is a vital aspect of Korean culture that no true cultural ambassador would miss out on. That experience is…

…the 찜질방.

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:

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.