▲ The temperature in the salt room at Songjukwon reaches a toasty 65 degrees C (149 degrees F). Photo by Kim Rina
The doors open and a hot steam blinds your eyes. Before you know it you're naked among a group of gossiping, middle-aged women in a pool of hot water, praying for once that the language barrier will hold steady until you've finished relaxing. At least, this might be the awkward way in which an unseasoned foreigner first approaches the Korean jimjilbang experience. However, with an open mind and willingness to bear, and bare, all; the benefits derived may just be worth checking the squeamishness at the door.
There are various kinds of Korean saunas, though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably and all typically have public bathhouse facilities like jacuzzis, hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms. The so-called sauna, spa, and jimjilbang, translated loosely as "hot-bath room", are larger in scale and have more recreational facilities and sleeping areas. There are also mogyoktangs, which are smaller, often have no sleeping facilities, and are not necessarily open for 24 hours. Lastly there are oncheon, or outdoor saunas, which can be found separately or as part of a larger bathhouse.
Jeju is home to dozens of jimjilbangs worthy of a visit. Prices vary by location but can start as low as 3,000 won for facility use. Massages and other services typically cost upwards of 10,000 won.
Bathhouse how-to There are a few key things to know about the bathhouse experience in order to appear in-the-know, and not embarrass yourself. Upon entering a jimjilbang, you can expect to make arrangements at the reception before storing your shoes, clothes, and other personal effects in a gender-specific locker area. Emerging from the locker area wearing nothing but the key around your ankle and your birthday suit is your initiation into the experience. Don’t worry; the bathhouses are segregated by gender.
The bathhouse area is usually separate from the preparatory area, and inside you will find hot tubs and jacuzzis of various sizes, temperatures, and medicinal compositions. Rows of stand-up or sit-down showers should be nearby, and a pre-bath rinse off is absolutely imperative to observe proper bathhouse etiquette. The jimjilbang facilities may vary widely, but often include dry or humid saunas, heat lamps, swimming pools, and body-massaging waterfalls.
After a good scrub down, there are often massage tables and masseuses on-hand for an additional charge, though Korean-style massage is meant to be firm and deep, which may surprise those just expecting a peaceful little rubdown. Facials, manicures, pedicures, and even acupuncture can be found at more luxurious locations.
Upon completion of the spa activities, you can leave the bathhouse area to dry off and use some of the provided amenities such as blow dryers, lotions, and sprays. Towels, T-shirts, and shorts are usually provided for you to enter the unisex areas. A true jimjilbang offers after-the-bath recreational activities for men, women, and families such as hot rooms, widescreen TV rooms, snack bars, PC Bangs and sleeping quarters.
Tradition and therapy
▲ Songjukwon's main gate to the sauna presents a clean and peaceful entrance to a cleansing experience. Photo by Kim Rina.
Though bathhouses have been around for centuries in many countries around the world; Korea has its own unique additions to the tradition. For example, the hanjeungmak is a Korean kiln sauna that was originally heated with burning pine wood. Sauna-goers still wear protective blankets when entering to receive the full benefits of this unique sauna and to prevent overheating.
Alternative therapies with traditional roots are also currently available. Often there are mud baths, green tea baths, ginseng baths, or other types of special herbal baths. One popular treatment that is sure to leave a mark is called “buwang,” which involves vacuum-cupping the skin on the back. Buwang often leaves circular bruises as it draws the blood to the surface of the skin, and is used to relieve a variety of complaints from toxin build-ups to backaches.
The purpose of a jimjilbang visit is essentially therapeutic. Birthday suit bonding with your same-gendered friends in the hot tubs and saunas relaxes and rejuvenates. People with stress, heart disease, circulatory problems, and a host of other illnesses are thought to benefit from its effects. Korea is well known for its focus on "well being" and good health, and it could be said that the cornerstone of this healthy mindset can be found in the jimjilbang experience.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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