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.

  • Josh
    November 9, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Korean jjimjilbangs have always been a bit of an ego boost. :P I’m surprised ya’ll didn’t just join and enjoy. It’s a body, we all have one. Glad you enjoyed it. A great one I”ve heard about is the one in Yongsan..I’ve yet to go to it myself.

    Of course you haven’t experienced the Jjimjilbang until you’ve spent the night in one. Now THAT’S an experience. If you thought the old men spitting was a bit unbecoming…snoring seems to be an epidemic here.

  • intrepidtraveller
    November 9, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Haha I know. I think if my friends weren’t there it would have been easier. Next time I’m going to go all alone so I don’t have to worry about what my friends think of me!

    Yea deffo want to stay the night there…maybe this saturday after doing a late night in Hongdae!

  • Bricona
    November 9, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    wow you totally backed out.. . . tsk

    • intrepidtraveller
      November 10, 2010 at 3:09 am

      I know…I’m useless haha.

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    November 9, 2010 at 6:26 pm

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  • Katherina
    November 9, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Sounds like an adventurous experience !! I thought Koreans were rather modest… but this proves me wrong! In Switzerland you have the hot springs and some of them are “nude only” which is still a bit weird for me – but they love them!

    • intrepidtraveller
      November 10, 2010 at 3:10 am

      You’re right. Koreans are totally modest…they never flash flesh in public and are always totally covered up. Then u bump into then in a jimjilbang and its like “whoa there…put it away!” hahaha.

  • Katrina
    November 9, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Lived in Italy for 3 years and utterly failed to make it to hot springs there. I tried a few times, but circumstances never came together. I did get to go to some cold springs in the summer, though, and that was nice!

    I hope you’ll go again, as you said, and brave it. I wonder if you had braved it this time if your friends would have followed suit(lessness). ;)

    • intrepidtraveller
      November 10, 2010 at 3:11 am

      What was the cold spings like?? Brrr at the thought of it. I could only last in the cold pool for like 2 minutes then ran all the way back to the jacuzzi like hot pools!! x

  • Brooke
    November 10, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I love the “3 brave Americans” but there were only 2 brave Americans! One brave Canadian. At least, that I remember.
    It was great to see the naked body in a completely non-sexual way. The only time we see naked people is when they are about to get some, getting some, finished getting some, or wanting some. It was nice to see people comfortable with their naked selves and behaving as if it were nothing.
    Janet, I wouldn’t have thought anything about you if you have taken off all the clothes. To be honest, I feel completely comfortable with the other American who striped down and I don’t think she feels awkward around me either – as soon as we left, I kinda forgot that I had just spent several hours walking around naked and thought more about the hot springs themselves.

    • intrepidtraveller
      November 10, 2010 at 9:56 am

      Hey Brooke!!
      Nah I knew you guys were totally comfortable but some of the other girls said they wouldn’t be comfortable around their naked friends so I decided for their sake to cover up haha.

      I mean its really weird as I posed naked for a Spencer Tunick installation with 2,000 others in Dublin City 2 years ago…not like im afraid to get naked,normally.
      :D

    • intrepidtraveller
      November 10, 2010 at 9:59 am

      http://tinyurl.com/22q9yjz

      and

      http://tinyurl.com/y9dxr2m

      Spencer Tunick photos…can u find me? haha

      • Brooke
        November 10, 2010 at 10:45 am

        Is it sad that I actually looked for you?
        I need a bigger picture! :)
        Neat picture though.

  • intrepidtraveller
    November 10, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    haha nah I like to be mysterious haha. I had a framed picture of this at home put my mum didnt think it was very suitable for my granny to look at haha

  • youvejustbeenconzified
    November 19, 2010 at 9:49 am

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

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

    • intrepidtraveller
      November 21, 2010 at 6:51 am

      Not a site I would want to see!! haha

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  • Rafi
    February 27, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    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.

    • intrepidtraveller
      February 28, 2011 at 3:24 am

      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… :)

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  • Odysseus Drifts
    July 14, 2011 at 6:31 am

    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).

    • intrepidtraveller
      July 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm

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

  • everythingbutkimchi
    November 8, 2011 at 1:30 am

    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 :)

    • intrepidtraveller
      November 8, 2011 at 1:36 am

      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!

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