It should not have required much thought considering I, without thinking twice, had jumped into an icy Korean river the night before, sans clothes. However, this was different. We were headed to a jimjilbang in the Seoraksan Mountain range, a public hot springs flowing with water high in iron and carbonic acid, known to remedy anything from anemia to arthritis.
(A jimjilbang, for those not in the know, is a traditional Korean spa where, predominantly old women, spend the day bathing, cleaning and scrubbing each other. Fully naked.)
Throughout the half hour bus journey to the spa, the bus was buzzing with what we should and should not do. Should we chicken out of the whole thing and go for a 3 hour hike up a nearby mountain instead? I think not. Should we just sit outside and be boring, unadventurous old farts? Not a chance. Will the Koreans laugh at us for being too modest and wearing swimsuits? Probably. Will they be angry at us for disrespecting jimjilbang etiquette? Perhaps. Our minds were swimming with questions of which nobody seemed able to answer.
On arrival, the first thing that happened was we were segregated. The men sent off into their own private baths, and us to ours. As we walked in I didn’t know where to avert my eyes. Naked Koreans were everywhere. A room full of naked flesh and most women weren’t even bothering to use their towels (albeit more like handkerchiefs) to cover up their private bits. Far from it in fact. One woman was sprawled out on the bench in the centre of the changing room, nonchalant to her nakedness.
I looked for my locker and was confronted my three tiny ajumma’s (Korean grannies) slowly undressing beside my designated space. I bravely crept in behind them, took a deep breath and slowly started to peel my clothes off. Standing there naked, I glanced over at my friends, who were sitting on a nearby bench looking both scared and uncomfortable. Despite my 6 years at an Irish boarding school where openness to being naked around others was apart of daily life, I reached into my backpack, feeling slightly disappointed at myself, and quickly put on my bikini. Others, it seemed, followed suit apart from 2 or 3 seriously comfortable Americans, and together we walked into the public baths, slightly apprehensive about how warm our welcome would be.
I pushed open the doors and was slightly in shock. It was a huge open plan room, with various hot baths ranging in temperature from 30’c up to a burning 42’c. Over to the left was a showering area, where naked Koreans in all shaped in sizes were doing things that, in my opinion, should only be done in the privacy of your own shower at home. Sitting on tiny chairs washing their hair, shaving,and scrubbing their bodies all over, without a care in the world.
I noticed one family (3 generations of women) in the corner. The wrinkly, old grandmother was scrubbing the daughters back like there was no tomorrow while the grand-daughter played around with the shower spraying passers-by. While sitting in the hellishly hot sauna, I was confronted with 2 middle-aged women sprawled out across the ground, stretching and flashing parts of the body that shouldn’t see the light of day.
After an hour or two of hopping from hot bath to cold bath and back again, averting my eyes from the sea of nakedness, and experiencing heat that I have never felt before (despite more than a year spent in the depths of Africa) and I had had enough. I got out, and was given what can only be described as prison garb; matching orange and white, unfitted Pajamas. And so part two of my jimjilbang experience began…the saunas. This time, we met up with the boys, who were also in matching prison garb, and explored the range of 12 saunas which ranged in temperature from freezing (the roof and walls made of ice, similar to a mini igloo) to the furnace clocking in at a scorching and unbearable 96’c! After half an hour of crawling in and out of the beehive shaped hell hole and jumping into the icy igloo, we ended our day of naked goodness.
Despite it being a seriously bizarre and unconventional way to spend a sunday morning and the fact that I felt equally nervous and excited most of the time, I would definitely recommend a trip to a Korean jimjilbang. Forget sky-diving, swimming with sharks or bungee jumping, THIS will be an experience you will never forget.