▲ After bathing, Koreans often retire to the sleeping rooms at typical jjimjilbang. Photo by Kim Rina
I have showered with naked dudes all my life. Public showers are the norm when you play sports growing up and serve time in the Air Force, as I have. So, what was my problem with going to Korea's famous jjimjilbang?
Between regular workouts at the gym, discovering amazing Olle Trails, and even hiking the majestic summit of Mt. Halla, my muscles have screamed for the healing waters of the local jimjilbang. So, why did it take me six months to finally go?
A runaway imagination got the best of me. I knew the odds were I would be the only "waygook" (foreigner) there. I would walk in wearing nothing but a nervous smile. In my mind, I kept hearing the familiar Sesame Street tune:
“One of these things is not like the other. One of these things is not the same. One of these things is not like the others. Now it's time to play our game.”
I imagined everyone in the hot tubs or scrubbing down would stop talking and turn in perfect unison to look at me, a strange bird that had somehow lost its migratory path and ended up in a Korean bath house. Of course, I'm an idiot and none of these things happened.
▲ A typical steam room in a Korean jjimjilbang. Photo by Todtanis.
The large majority of bathers couldn’t care less about the goofy American scrubbing down in the shower. When I go I am surrounded by ordinary people like me who just want to unplug, relax and recover from the stresses of everyday life. And something I had not considered is that this is a cell-phone-free environment. That in itself is a beautiful thing. A real no phone zone. That alone is worth the admission.
There have been a few surprises along the way that are worth mentioning. One night a young guy in his twenties strutted around the perimeter of the bath house like an alpha male - head high, chest thrusted out. Without notice he would stop and drop to the floor and pump out twenty push ups. Honestly, I didn't judge, but rather thought of the dangers of dangling participles.
Another time I was sitting in the firey hot sauna sweating buckets and thinking about how my Boston Red Sox would do this year. Only one older gentleman sat across from me. He suddenly bolted into a standing position and started doing various stretches that included deep toe touches in which he would face north, south, east and west. Oh boy. Not a pretty sight. I made a quick exit and splashed down in the jet pool and tried to forget what I had just witnessed.
And finally, there was this little boy that thought he was Jacque Cousteau. He had huge goggles on his face and he kept diving down just feet in front of bathers as if he was discovering rare and never before seen sea creatures. I finally splashed water in his direction and said politely, but firmly, "Anniyo!" He took off for unchartered waters and further adventures.
▲ Saunas are renowned for their health benefits. Photo courtesy Sanbang Sauna.
I have seen the light. I have felt the strong therapeutic jet streams. I'm a firm believer in the physical and mental benefits of the public-bathing experience. And the unexpected benefit has been the peaceful, easy feeling I have when I walk back into the real world.
And if you truly want to understand and appreciate Korean culture you have to experience the jjimjilbang. Sometimes I see three generations walk in together: grandfather, father, and son. I'm always moved by this demonstration of togetherness and unity.
Who knows, maybe you too will be inspired to write about your experiences. However, I strongly advise that you do not enter the tubs with notebook and pen.
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