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My First Korean Jimjilbang Experience

My First Korean Jimjilbang Experience

To get naked or not to get naked?
That is the question. Well, at least that was the question for me last Sunday as I visited a Korean Jimjilbang for the first time.

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.


Tuesday 8th of November 2011

Hello, first of all, thanks for liking my blog, Everything But Kimchi! Just read this hilarious story and loved it! I've been thinking about going just so I can say I did! You're a great writer, thanks for sharing your gift. Blessings :)


Tuesday 8th of November 2011

Your blog is great...and your students seem adorable! Glad you liked this post...I went back to jimjilbang THREE times since this was written and got fully naked and even did the whole overnight thing (it's a great option if you're on a night out in hongdae and can't afford the taxi fare home!) and would highly recommend it!

Odysseus Drifts

Thursday 14th of July 2011

It's funny because I'm super modest in most situations. I would never go to a nude beach, for instance. But in jimjilbangs and onsens, I'm fine with nudity. I guess it's the attitudes. No one seems to think it's a big deal, so then it just seems normal. Also, the gender segregation makes it less creepy than a nude beach (to me).


Friday 15th of July 2011

Hey! Thanks for your comment. You're right it very much depends on the situation when getting naked lol


Sunday 27th of February 2011

I had a similar experience in Japan at an Ofura, or Japanese bathhouse. We were taken there by our "host" after dinner, and we didn't have any preparation time to have a bathing suit or anything. We just had to strip down and follow our host into the room full of naked men. By that time I had been to nude beaches and such so I don't have any problem with the naked in public fears. But it was interesting being part of a custom that has gone on for who knows how long, where people get naked in order to get clean and don't think twice about the situation.


Monday 28th of February 2011

Yes a few of my friends were teaching in Japan and had similar experiences...although I don't think they had any previous experience with getting naked in public... :)


Monday 21st of February 2011

Almonds??Ummm random.


Friday 19th of November 2010

I've always worried what the women's side looks like.

Count yourself lucky you've never seen the equivelant on the male side.


Sunday 21st of November 2010

Not a site I would want to see!! haha

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