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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Magpies, moths and memory loss: Korean superstitions

Every culture has their own superstitions; The British won’t put new shoes on a table, the French believe stepping in dog poo will bring them luck, and Indians refuse to get their hair cut on a Tuesday. Here are some of Korea’s most bizarre beliefs!

  • On the day of a big exam you shouldn’t wash your hair, as it will wash away everything you have learned. It’s also best to avoid ‘slippery’ foods like noodles or seaweed soup as they will cause information to slip away, and instead eat sticky foods like rice or sticky Korean candy.
  • It is said that if you give shoes as a present to your boyfriend or girlfriend they will break up with you and use the shoes to run away. If someone does give you shoes you should give them a tiny sum of money, like 100₩ (5p/10¢), so the shoes are considered a ‘purchase’ and not a gift.
  • Similarly, a woman should never feed her husband or boyfriend chicken wings, in case with a stomach full of wings he takes flight and leaves her. Especially if he’s wearing those new shoes.
  • It would seem that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t visit this part of the world. Instead lower teeth should be thrown onto the roof, to encourage the new tooth to grow upwards, while upper teeth should be thrown under the house to encourage the new tooth to grow downwards.
  • Don’t cut your nails at night, as Korean folklore says that mice will eat the clippings, become human and steal your soul. This one comes from the days before electricity so if you cut your nails at night, you wouldn’t be able to see to clean up, and the room would become dirty.
  • You should also avoid whistling or singing at night, as it can attract ghosts or snakes to your house. Apparently no one told our neighbour this one.
  • When moving house it is important to ensure that evil spirits don’t follow you to your new house. You should choose a 손없는날 (a day without uninvited guests), and moving companies often give a calendar for each month showing which days are ‘safe’ to move on. You shouldn’t sweep up before leaving the old house, because it tricks the spirits into thinking you’re still there, and by the time the new people arrive and clean the place, it’s too late for the spirits to find you.
  • In Korean culture the number 4 is considered to be unlucky, because the words for ‘death’ and ‘four’ have the same pronunciation. In Korean elevators the button for the fourth floor is often labelled ‘F’ or sometimes missing altogether, and you should never give gifts in sets of 4.
  • White is the colour of mourning and funerals, so wearing white ribbons in your hair is an invitation for death. At funerals the name of the deceased was traditionally written in red, to ward off those pesky evil spirits, so writing the names of living people in red is seriously unlucky, and can even be taken as a sign that you want that person dead!
  • Many Korean girls believe that cutting their hair short will make them grow taller, and if you jump over a baby (not quite sure why you would!) the baby will always be short.
  • On a baby’s first birthday people often present them with a pencil, some string and money. Whichever one the baby goes for first is a sign of their fortune. If they reach for the pencil they will be a good student, the string symbolises a long and healthy life and the money, of course, means they will be rich.
  • If you see a crow or a raven when you leave the house in the morning it means you will have bad luck that day. However, if you see a magpie in the morning it’s a sign of good luck.
  • If you catch the bouquet at a Korean wedding you have six months to get married, or you never will. For this reason Korean brides usually choose one of their friends who is engaged beforehand to catch the bouquet.
  • Apparently if you touch a butterfly or a moth and then rub your eyes before washing your hands you will go blind. A similar thing is said for orange flowers.
  • And lastly there’s every foreigner’s favourite…fan death. The genuine belief that sleeping in a room with the fan running overnight will kill you. According to the South Korean government this silent killer claims around ten lives every summer. There are several theories behind this one, including hypothermia, the fan creating a kind of air vortex around you causing you to slowly suffocate, the fan motor converting oxygen into carbon dioxide, and my personal favourite, the blades chopping up the air molecules making them un-breatheable. I’m no Einstein but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. The origins of this myth aren’t very clear as electric fans had been used in Korea for 80 years before the first reported case of fan death, but some people think the government started this rumour as an attempt to reduce energy usage at a time of limited supplies.

A bovine body part buffet…

Apologies for the delay, I think it’s taken my stomach a week to get over it, but last Friday I added to the ever-growing list of bovine organs that I have now eaten. My best friend (at least she was up until then!)  took me to her favourite restaurant for what she described as ‘an authentic Korean experience’. That probably should have set alarm bells ringing, but as we’d already polished off a few bottles of soju, we set off, with me proudly announcing that she didn’t need to worry and that I would try anything. In hindsight it might not have been the best choice of words.

Gopchang (곱창) on the left and makchang (막창) on the right…yum

Unable to decide whether we should have cow rectum (막창 – makchang) or intestines (곱창 – gopchang), she ordered a plate of each. And two more bottles of soju. The banchan (side dishes) at this restaurant didn’t just consist of the usual kimchi, bean sprouts and seaweed soup. Oh no, this place served chunks of raw liver with sesame seeds, and something called 천엽 that Google translated as ‘superficial lobe’, but further research has shown me that it’s proper name is the ‘omasum’ and it’s just another part of the stomach (also served raw). The liver was absolutely horrific, and both of us really struggled to eat it, but the 천엽 actually wasn’t so bad. The soju probably helped though.

천엽 (cheonyeop) and raw liver

Mmm…yum yum

Then came the main course; a large plate of 소막창 (cow rectum) and an equally large plate of 소곱창 (cow intestines). Having already eaten 돼지막창 (pig rectum) I kind of knew what to expect, it was just…bigger. Although 소막창 (beef makchang) is meant to be much better than 돼지막창 (pig makchang), I can’t honestly say I’m a fan of either. It’s not because of the taste, it just tastes meaty, but it is simply too chewy for me, although that is part of the appeal for Koreans. I quite liked the gopchang, it tasted a little bit like bacon if I thought really hard about it, and it was a lot less chewy than the makchang. The only slightly off-putting thing was the thick white paste oozing out of either end, which I later learned was mucus.

As the owner was so surprised to see a foreigner in his restaurant (now I know why), he gave us a dish of 염통 (sliced cow heart) as service. I thought it was the nicest part of the meal really, it was a little bit like steak, only it tasted a lot bloodier than that. It was actually quite hard to get the metallic-y taste out of my mouth, but again, the soju helped.

Gopchang and makchang

When I was beginning to struggle both my friend and the restaurant owner kept reassuring me of the supposed health benefits of eating intestines. They also said eating it guaranteed I wouldn’t have a hangover the next day. Lies. Barefaced lies.

Still best friends really!

My real best friend during this meal!

6 months in Korea

It’s exactly 6 months since I hopped on that plane and left England’s green green grass for South Korea. As with many English teachers out here, there was so much I thought I would have achieved by now; paid off my student overdraft, become fluent in Korean, seen most of Korea and half of east Asia, decided whether to stay for another year or not, grown to love kimchi, the list goes on.

Well, despite all of my grand predictions the truth is I haven’t done any of those things (sorry Mum and Dad!). No, I’m not fluent in Korean, but I can get by and I’m doing a weekly language exchange, so maybe I will be in another 6 months (ha, who am I kidding!). The furthest I’ve got from Incheon is Seoraksan on the east coast, and the furthest I’ve got from Korea is Tokyo; I really didn’t bank on this job malarkey getting in the way of my travel plans. Still not made up my mind for sure about renewing, and I absolutely cannot stand kimchi.

Without wanting to get into the whole smushy ‘I’ve grown so much as a person‘ spiel, I genuinely feel that I have learned a huge amount over the last 6 months.

Turns out that despite me insisting to my Dad over Skype a couple of weeks ago that I’d like to see him try to teach a bunch of 5 year olds English for the first time in response to a quip about not having a proper job, teaching really isn’t so difficult. Of course, I felt differently 6 months ago. I was absolutely petrified walking into that classroom for the first time; what if they don’t like me, what if their parents don’t like me, what if I accidentally teach them swear words.

By the time I’d got my head around teaching kindergarten I was faced with the dreaded 13 year olds. Flying them around the classroom like Superman and giving them Angry Bird colouring pages probably wasn’t going to wash with them. Time to actually impart knowledge. But that’s when the pressure really kicks in. Just how much about the quirks and exceptions of English grammar do we really know? How many times can you be told that, ‘teacher’, you’re spelling ‘favourite’ and ‘colour’ wrong before you start conforming to Americanisms? And why can ‘-ough‘ be pronounced in a multitude of ways?

Anyway, with a few minor mistakes along the way, mostly in the Geography department, both the students and I have got through the last 6 months largely unscathed (except for that incident with Ryan’s front teeth).

I’m sure there will be many more learning curves to come over the rest of my time in Korea, however long that may be, but it’s all part of the fun right?

You know you live in Korea when…

1. Kimchi comes as standard with every meal, even fried chicken or pizza.

2. It’s not unusual to see an 80 year old man playing with his iPad (or more likely his Samsung Galaxy tab) on the subway.

3. Likewise, seeing your 7 year old students with iPhones is not unusual either.

4. You forget how to use a knife and fork.

5. Going out for coffee costs more than going out for dinner.

6. You bow to everyone when you meet them, even fellow waygookin.

7. You use scissors to cut your food.

8. It’s perfectly normal to carry toilet roll around in your handbag.

9. Traffic lights don’t apply to drivers turning right. Even if there’s a pedestrian crossing.

10. The concept of personal space no longer exists.

11. You can’t remember the last time you saw a red car, a yellow car, or a blue car, in fact any car that isn’t black, white or silver.

12. You’ve realised that there’s no point trying to get the kids to stop saying ‘so-so’ in answer to everything.

13. You start to speak Konglish (usually just adding -uh to an English word, like bus-uh, or Homeplus-uh)

14. Being asked what your blood type is, and then being given an assessment of your personality, is not uncommon.

15. You find yourself absentmindedly humming the subway song.

16. You regularly get soaked when brushing your teeth, having forgotten to change the tap from the shower setting.

17. Seeing teenage boys sitting on each other’s knees on the subway no longer seems strange.

18. You can use a unisex bathroom and think nothing of it. Even if there’s a urinal.

19. You no longer feel concerned about the group of 9-year olds eating instant noodles in your local mini-mart at 10pm on a Sunday night.

20. You can use a squatter.

21. You know not to use a red marker pen when writing a kid’s name on the board.

22. You’re no longer confused in the elevator when the fourth floor button is replaced with an ‘F’.

23. You automatically cover your mouth when you laugh.

24. It’s near impossible to find a birthday card.

25. Seat belt? What seat belt?

A Korean wedding

Just two weeks after landing in Korea, Nath and I somehow qualified for an invitation to his boss’ sister’s wedding. As with many Korean weddings, it took place in a ‘wedding hall‘; a building designed purely for wedding ceremonies, complete with high ceilings, white drapes and extravagant chandeliers.

It was much more informal than any English wedding I’ve been to (all three of them that is!). As we arrived guests from several different weddings were milling around in the foyer, and people wandered in and out of the ceremony room even during the vows.

The mothers of the bride and groom, and the bridesmaids wore traditional Korean hanbok but the bride wore a big, beautiful, white princess dress. After a lot of bowing between the bride and groom and their parents, the ceremony finally got underway.

In many ways it was quite similar to a typical Western wedding, but what surprised us the most was how quickly it was over. The whole ceremony took 25 minutes, then we were led into the buffet hall as the next couple’s wedding began. I hate to say it but there was something slightly impersonal and conveyor belt-esque about the whole thing.

During the meal the bride, groom and their parents appeared on stage (to the Pirates of the Caribbean theme tune…) to cut the cake and say thank you before disappearing off to start their honeymoon on Jeju island.

Jokbal and Oli gogi

So, tonight I had my first, and perhaps last, experience of eating pig trotters (jokbal).

We went out for a work dinner to celebrate the start of the new school year, and my co-teachers couldn’t get enough of them but we waygookin weren’t as convinced.

They were mouth meltingly spicy, my tongue was completely numb after the first (and only!) piece. However, after a few chews I realised that the extreme spiciness was probably to disguise the texture. I’m still not sure how to describe it, or what I could compare it to as it was pretty unique. Imagine big knuckles of warm, rubbery lard and you’re probably on the right lines.

Fortunately, after the trauma of trying to eat the pig trotters, a huge platter of pink duck meat was placed in front of us. Juicy, smoked, delicious goodness. This was more like it.

It is called oli gogi in Korean, and it was served with the usual array of sauces, salads and kimchi. We polished it off in minutes, and I am already looking forward to having it again.

One of my main reasons for moving here was for new experiences, and whilst it was definitely worth a try, once is enough for me!

20 things that still amaze me in Korea

I’ve been in Korea for 5 months now, and every day I find something new to love. There are some things however, that never cease to amaze me, and I thought I’d share them with you!

  1. When meeting people for the first time ‘are you married?’ is invariably one of the first questions they will ask you. Even the kids asked me when I started teaching them.

  2. Korean children are so much cuter than English children. Even the ugly ones are still so adorably cute! 

  3. The way my kids will whinge incessently about being too hot in the classroom, but refuse point blank to take their North Face puffa jackets off.

  4. The driving. Oh my god the driving. I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands everytime I get in a car. Most drivers show blatant disregard for traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, and road lanes. The pavement is seen as a perfectly acceptable alternative to the road for scooters and bikes, weaving their way through the pedestrians, beeping impatiently as they go.

  5. Despite the obvious language barrier, people will go out of their way to help you if you look lost or confused (which for me is most of the time!).

  6. Spitting on the street. And the accompanying noises. Ew.

  7. I’m not sure I will ever get used to the staring. The unashamed, spectacularly unsubtle staring, often accompanied by the word ‘waygookin’ (foreigner) muttered to their friends. I think it’s usually done out of curiosity rather than anything more offensive, but I spent the first couple of months being completely paranoid that I had mascara all over my face or something in my teeth.

  8. Being told that I have yellow hair, a long nose, and big, funny coloured eyes. Certainly makes a girl feel good about herself!

  9. Fan death. The genuine belief that if you sleep in a room with an electric fan running, you will die. What is that all about?! 

  10. How polite Korean people are, until they step onto any form of public transport. As soon as the doors open the elbows come out and people surge into the carriages while others struggle to fight their way off.

  11. There is one travel card that you can use on the bus, the subway and in taxis. You can even use it to pay for groceries in some convenience stores. Why hasn’t this caught on at home?

  12. Efficient banking. You can do pretty much everything at an ATM, transfer money home, withdraw, deposit, and pay bills. Unfortunately I only figured this one out after trying to gesture ‘send money home’ to a bemused Korean bank cashier.

  13. Couples in head to toe matching outfits. Seriously, matching baseball caps, jackets, jumpers, jeans, and shoes. There are shops that specialise in his and hers clothes. Somehow can’t see this one catching on in England.

  14. Korean boyfriends carrying their girlfriend’s handbags for them.

  15. Fashion isn’t just for the two-legged. The dogs outfits are incredible here. I’ve even seen dogs wearing shoes! It is also fairly common to see a dog sharing it’s owner’s jacket, with it’s little head peeking out of the top.

  16. The yogi-yo (call) button on the table at almost every restaurant. No more waving, head bobbing or trying to make eye contact to get the waiter’s attention, just press the button. Simple.

  17. Pot noodle is considered a proper meal. 

  18. Kimchi, you either love it or you hate it, but in Korea there’s no escaping it! It is served with every single meal, from galbi to sushi. It’s a soft, pickled cabbage in a spicy red sauce and is a source of national pride.

  19. Almost all Korean cars are just black, silver or white.

  20. Ondol (underfloor heating) comes as standard in the apartments. Perfect for those cold winter mornings!