On Saturday, I finally submitted to the modicum of modesty that for eleven months has kept me from publicly disrobing, and I visited the jimjilbang.
I’d read about Jimjilbangs—public bath houses—before I got here, and my openness to the idea of luxuriating au natural with the denizens of Changweon has wavered perpetually between varying degrees of “Maybe” and “Aw, hell no.” Monica—who goes to the jimjilbang so much, she’s got books of coupons—had invited me to tag along several times over the colder months. But I always declined, saying—honestly—that I wasn’t quite ready yet.
It’s not that I have an issue with nudity, per se; it’s only that Korean women have these tiny, perfect little bodies; and a few of my coworkers had told me that they go frequently; and urban legend has it that one is likely to run into the mothers of students, who probably know your face, while you don’t know theirs; or, worse, the students themselves.
And so, as a quasi-professional, was I wrong for so long avoiding an unclad encounter with any of the aforementioned parties?
Yes. Emphatically, entirely, and stripped of vacillation: Yes.
This time, it was actually my idea. My Saturday evening invited a little lounging: The night before, I’d taken in a bit more bourbon than my head was happy with. Then I’d gone and defied the Rules of Hung Over and Out of Shape and run for nearly an hour. My body hated me. And so what else was I to do but plunge into a baking bed of smooth stones, rooms covered from ceiling to floor with ice and frost, and dry-heat, suffocating saunas?
We exchanged our shoes for lockers, changed into prison-orange, thickly woven uniforms, were given two white hand towels, and headed upstairs for the dry rooms. Each of the rooms had an exterior thermostat warning of the level of hellishness inside. Only there was no hell, there; not in the whole damn facility. We entered the rock room and veered to the right into a shallow pool of smooth stones. The lights were muted, and in the corner a couple Koreans sat entranced before some Korean drama playing on a TV set mounted to the wall. Monica grabbed a squat wooden block with a half-moon indent and laid her towels into the sanded-away portion. She motioned for me to do the same. And then we burrowed, like crabs into the sun-warmed sand, covering our legs and arms with stones. After a couple minutes, the heat seemed to fade, but shifting your body even slightly served to impassion the embers, and envelope your body once more in intense heat. The level of relaxation my body slipped into was nearly overwhelming, and if Monica hadn’t been there to rouse me, I might have laid there and fallen asleep and dried up like a banana chip.
After the rock room, we bounced between three heated rooms with wood-knit mats and clay-plastered ceilings. One was too hot, and more than three or four minutes left you feeling a little woozy. One was practically room temperature, and decidedly not worth the trouble. And one was juuuust right.
And then the ice room. Sounds like some alternate version of hell, but scampering to the ice room and plunging our bodies into the Siberian climate actually provided a nice balance to the pass-out heat of the other rooms.
By now, my prison garb was soaked through with sweat, and my eyes were stinging with runoff, and I’d resorted to wiping my face with my towels.
“You’re gonna need those to dry yourself off later,” Monica warned. Oh, I whimpered, and said that my eyes were stinging, to which she said, “Buck up!” and ordered fifty one-armed pushups. Between sets, I sneaked a few brow swipes, only when she wasn’t looking, of course.*
Time to get naked! We made our way back to the locker room, the portal for the bathing room. Inside there were four diminutive pools heated to different temperatures, and rows of vanities—complete with personal sinks and shower heads—so close to the ground they looked to have been made for miniature people.
I was a bit hesitant to unclothe, wanting to wait until it was absolutely time. Was it time? I asked Monica several times. Now, Monica? Now?
It was time. And no big deal, really. We lounged. We dipped in the cold pool. The lavender pool. Skipped between saunas. Nearly passed out in saunas. Monica gave me hell for not being able to scale the cold pool’s wall without the ladder.
At the end, we sat at the vanities and scrub, scrub, scrubbed everything dirty off our bodies. Monica accidentally sprayed me in the face with her shower nozzle, but did the same thing to herself several minutes later. Then she dropped her towel that should have stayed dry into her water bucket. Karma?
How best to describe the jimjibang but half spa, half nudist colony? And at fractions of the prices! They serve snacks. They have those awesome massage chairs you see in malls, with none of the Yes-I’m-actually-using-one-of-those-mall-massage-chairs embarrassment. There’s a small workout facility. Video games. A computer station. They even have tiny one-person cubicles where you can sleep. Need a cheap hotel? Check out the jimjibang. A mere 8,000 won, friends. Which is, what, less than seven bucks back home?
Had my first trip to the jimjibang occurred approximately two months ago, when my biggest indecision revolved around “Should I stay or should I go?”—as in, Korea, or Colorado?—my decision might have been different. Yes; I really might have extended my stay in Korea for the jimjibang. My skin felt so smooth; my body purged of bourbon wastes; my weary, mile-bogged muscles relaxed. I weighed myself in the locker just before we left, and I’d lost nearly two kilos. I don’t know how much that is in pounds, but hey—it’s something.
*Note: Certain creative liberties were taken in sections of this narrative, especially in regards to the dialogue of Miss Monica. She only ordered fifteen one-armed pushups.