My trip to a Korean jjimjilbang 찜질방

One of the things I miss most from home is a lovely, big, hot bath. Something that I have now managed to find in a Korean jjimjilbang. However, at home I never had to worry about sharing my bubbles with a gaggle of ajummas (not entirely sure what the correct collective noun for ajummas is but gaggle somehow seems to fit. Either that or a coven).

It can be rather difficult to explain what a jjimjilbang is to people back home. Partly because we don’t have an equivalent in England, and partly because people can’t get past the ‘What?! Everyone’s naked?!‘ bit. I suppose the best way to describe a jjimjilbang would be like a public bathhouse but with added extras like saunas, a gym, a restaurant, an internet cafe, a DVD room, a library and sometimes even a norebang. They are open 24 hours a day and entry is usually somewhere between £4-£7.

There are two parts to most jjimjilbangs; the segregated (nude) bathing areas and the mixed sex (clothed) areas with all the other facilities. A visit to a jjimjilbang is usually fairly high up a foreigner’s to-do list in Korea, but despite having lived in South Korea for over 18 months I only tried it for the first time last week.

We decided to start with the mixed area, and hoped that we would be so relaxed afterwards that we would have lost our inhibitions, and some of our British prudishness, by the time we went to the baths. Having changed into our super-flattering standard issue shorts and t-shirt we ventured forth into the jjimjilbang. Around the edge of the main room there were a series of dome-shaped saunas, each with different temperatures, scents and purported health benefits. We tried Himalayan rock salt, bamboo, rose quartz, pine and, my favourite, a big cave-like room where the floor was covered in a layer of marble-sized hot pebbles. A nightmare to walk on but utter bliss once you managed to lie down.

Korean jjimjilbang

Once we dragged ourselves away from the saunas we tried a massage chair. Well, I don’t know what I ever did to that chair but it seemed to hate me and was taking it out on my back. We somehow sat through 10 minutes of back-wrenching, shoulder-punching ‘relaxation’ while the Koreans all walked past us chuckling to themselves. Maybe they knew something we didn’t.

After another trip to the pebble sauna it was now time to brave the baths. Having said goodbye to the boys, I left my clothes, and my modesty, in my locker, made a mad dash across the changing room into the bathing area and just prayed that I didn’t bump into any of my students.

After a quick shower I headed for one of the steam rooms, thinking that they looked nice and dark and would give me a few moments to adjust to my new-found nakedness. But oh no. I stepped into the steam room and before I could even see through the steam I heard an alarmingly friendly ‘Hi! What’s your name?‘. After a few minutes of polite conversation the sweltering heat got too much for me so I made my excuses and escaped to the relative cool of the nearest hot tub. My new friend came over to join me and before I knew it started scrubbing my arms and back. ‘Don’t complain‘ she told/ordered me as she proceeded to scrape the top three layers of skin off my back. ‘You’re getting a bargain!‘ she assured me as she gestured towards a corner of the room where some jjimjilbang masseuses were charging ₩50,000 (£28) for all over, and I mean all over, body scrubs. I just hoped she wasn’t going to be quite so thorough. Fortunately she stopped after my arms, back and shoulders and after a little more stilted conversation we went our separate ways.

Korean jjimjilbang

After a little more soaking in various pools, and accidentally hopping into the cold pool without looking at the temperature first, it was time to find my clothes and head home for the best nights sleep I’ve had in a long time.

We went to Sky Land Spa in Bucheon (Sang-dong Station, Line 7). The entry fee was ₩9,000.

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Life as normal in South Korea

Another day, another threat. Long, vague, wordy statements reeled out one after another with all too familiar stock phrases such as ‘sea of fire‘ and ‘disastrous consequences‘. With joint US and South Korean military training exercises currently taking place and a newly elected President in the Blue House, Kim Jong-Un and his regime seem to have taken the bluster and hyperbole to a whole new level over the last couple of weeks. But despite the potential outbreak of ‘thermo-nuclear war‘, (Kim’s words, not mine) there is no sign of panic in South Korea and life goes on as normal.

Many Koreans have lived their entire lives listening to such threats, and the truth is that despite all the talk, North Korea’s threat-to-attack conversion rate is (fortunately!) very low. The general consensus seems to be that starting a war would be tantamount to suicide for the Kim regime. In fact, most people don’t even think that they want a war, but that they actually just want to be able to start negotiations for aid for their starving population and failing economy, and what better bargaining chip than a nuclear bomb. All these ominous threats and imminent rocket launches are seen as desperate attempts to be taken seriously and to get some attention, much in the same way that a petulant child might whine and stamp its feet until the older kids take notice.

For outsiders I think the situation looks a lot worse than it is, and most of the panic and fear-mongering is coming from several thousand miles away. Most Koreans seem remarkably unfazed by the presence of a tinpot dictator sitting on a reported stockpile of weapons just 30 miles away. However, every time I look at the Western news and read things written well out of reach of any nuclear weapon North Korea might possess, people seem to be genuinely afraid. I saw a headline on BBC News last weekend that proclaimed in big, bold letters ‘N Korea at war with S Korea‘. Well that’s been the case since 1950 so it hardly seems like news to me.

So to those of you (Mum and Dad!) waking up to headlines like ‘N Korea threatens nuclear war‘, don’t start sending gas masks and water filters just yet!