I just realized I forgot to write about this a week ago. The whole time it was happening I was thinking about how exactly to describe the goings on around me on this platform. New Years Day 2011. After a night, well let's be honest, a week of excessive drinking, Paul and I decided to do something good for ourselves. We decided to go to a jimjilbang. I've been hearing about these from day 1 in Korea, I have just never made the venture. Perhaps fear of the unknown, perhaps lack of companions, and perhaps just lack of opportunity, all prevented me from experiencing this Korean specialty.
Jimjilbang is a Korean spa. You pay a fee and get a variety of options. Depending on which one you go to, so I hear as I've only been to one, you get different things. They all have saunas, hot tubs, cold rooms, and then in addition you can pay more for massages and scrubs. Paul and I ventured down to Yongsan (5 mins from my house) to the Dragon Hill spa. This is supposed to be the nicest in Seoul. I went once before but only to use their pool, which is outside but open 365 days a year and always heated to 96 degrees. We approach and there's a line out the door. We are told there is a long line because "today special day. No children." Despite this tale, there were approximately 800 children running around. We were also instructed one in one out. Pass.
I remembered there was a jimjilbang just steps from my first apartment in Bongcheon, so we take the 40 minutes bus ride down. We go in, having no idea what to expect, each pay our 7,000 won, get a ticket, towel (more like hand towel) and a matching t-shirt and shorts, and are instructed men upstairs, women down. There is a common area in the middle where we will meet after we change. I go down to the women's locker room and have no idea what to do. I put my shoes in a tiny locker unsure of where I'll put my other belongings, when someone takes my ticket and ushers me to the correct locker. You leave your shoes, take the key and go to a locker room filled with big lockers.
I have never seen so much bush in my life. Everyone in the locker room is naked. Im used to it from my gym days in Bongcheon, but this takes it to a new level. There were hundreds of women and children walking around in their birthday suits. I change and go to the common area. As I'm waiting for Paul I take a tour. It's a huge open room with mats on the floor and everyone there is wearing the matching tshirt and shorts. Since this is the common area it's all families. Everyone is either laying on the floor sleeping, or eatings, or reading a book. There's a snack bar, a restaurant, a cold room (-16C), several hot rooms ranging from 40-70 degrees C, massage parlors, massage chairs, and then the best part. There's two igloo-y, indian hallugienagine-looking rooms. I wait for Paul. Did I mention we are the only non-Koreans? So of course everyone there, especially the children, are just jaw to the floor wide-eye staring at us. Paul comes and we get into the igloo-y room. It's super hot, has a cool unidentifiable smell, and is wall to wall with people. You have to crouch through a mini oompa loopma door to get in, then scurry around looking for a vacant square foot to plop down on. We finally find seats, Paul and I meet eyes, raise our eyebrows, and then bail. Had we had books, or perhaps not been so hungover we may have lasted longer. Next time we'll see.
As we walk around, Paul notices we're being trailed by a chubby 12 year old. He doesn't say anything, he just follows us into every room we check out. We are facisnating, I know! We eventually duck into the cold room and lose him. For 1,000 won you can sit for 10 minutes in a massage chair. Holy shit do I need one of these in my living room. Its a full neck, back, and leg massage. We definitely sat there and kept feeding it chonners (1,000 won notes). After we held up the chairs for a while it was time for a drink. As I have mentioned before, you can't just drink places, you must accompany booze with food. We go into the restuarant and agree to share subdubu (spicy tofu/seafood soup) and order a mekju. The amazing thing about Korea is that there is no price discrimination. The price of a Cass at a bar, is the same as the price of a Cass at a restaurant, is the same price of a Cass at a baseball game, is the price of a Cass in the spa. 3,000 won is the price of a Cass, unless of course, you're at a hotel.
Post food and we venture in separate directions and check out the gender specific floors. I go down, he goes up. You go in, strip down and walk into the hot tub room. It's a huge room with multiple pools of hot water, a warm pool, and then rows and rows of vanities that are a foot off the ground. And every single one of them is packed. This place is wall to wall naked ladies. There are women everywhere scrubbing themselves down. I was clearly not prepared for this. Had I known I would have brought a scrub brush and some exfoliant. I kind of wander around checking out each pool with the eyes of several hundred women and children on my tall naked pale body. There are also steam rooms and saunas which were quite enjoyable. The kicker with this room is how social is was. Not only am I the only whitey in there, but I'm the only one rolling solo. This is supposed to be a social or family activity. Maybe it's just me, but I don't picture my girlfriends and I sitting around chatting in the buff. Especially not while we're scrubbing ourselves. But hey, to each their own. Oh and a really funny thing about Korean ajumas in locker rooms. They always blowdry their crotch hair. hahahaha oh brings me back to my Bongcheon gym days...
So yeah, that was my experience at the jimjilbang. As weird and foreign as it was to me, I can't wait to go back. You can spend an entire afternoon relazing, eating, drinking, for less than $10. Why not!? Now just to find one closer to home.