First things first: JJimjilbang. What are they? A jjimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse/spa. These spas often include many pools of mineral or salt water with varying temperatures, steam rooms, outdoor pools, massage rooms, etc. The one I went to even has a special foot bath where little fish eat away at your dead skin.
I had heard some about Korean bathhouses before arriving in country, + while I didn’t know much, I was intrigued. I heard they were supposed to be amazing + in some, you went NUDE! OOOH scandalous! I figured after meeting lots of new friends + many months of getting to know each other better, I would ask one of my girl friends to go with me! I mean, who wants to go alone to experience some new phenomenon in a country where you can’t even speak the language?? Not me! I was not going to be the only doe eyed white girl giggling in the spa while the Koreans stared on. But I assumed I would have to find the “right” kind of gal to go with, you know, the ballsy, wild, rebellious type who was totally down for new, taboo experiences. And once I found that gal, I figured it would take at least 4 or 5 months to get comfortable enough with each other that I could ask said gal to get naked with me at the spa. So until that person + moment happened, my lips were sealed tight!
Enter Amy. So I go to church with Amy. Lemme tell ya about my good friend Amy… She is a genuinely sweet, pure hearted, + GOOD human. Amy was the first friend I made + one of the first real interactions I had since coming to Korea that didn’t include handing over my military ID + reciting my birthday or social security number. We have had dinner together 3 or 4 times now (but who’s counting?) + our husbands get along too! Neither of us have children or a job so that in + of itself bonds us. Last week Amy texted me asking if I wanted to go to the Asan Spa, her husband was gone for a week + mine would be leaving soon too. It sounded like the perfect girls trip + when I googled Asan Hot Spring Spa, it looked like a nice clothed, “American” style spa/resort. Nudity didn’t even cross my mind. I was just excited to maybe get a facial + try out the natural hot springs. Amy texted me the next day- “So I just learned some stuff about this spa…. How do you feel about being naked with other women??? (insert mixed emoji faces including the monkey covering his eyes). With wide eyes, I burst into laughter + my mind went something like this- ‘UM WHAT. Okay so this IS a traditional Korean “spa” (aka bathhouse). But wait, what do I say??!? This is all happening so fast!! This wasn’t how I imagined it going!! I want to go, but does Amy want to go? Will I sound weirdly eager if I say YES?? And I’m not prepared.. I want to work out a lot more before this experience so I can be in shape!’ (basically the same feelings I had when I started falling in love with Joe). After a few more texts Amy convinced me that we needed to do this + it would be fun. AMY. CONVINCED. ME. Again, I didn’t see it going down like this, but okay.. it was happening. So the next day I jumped in the car with Amy + off we went, our husbands were gone + we’d only known each other for about 3 + a half weeks, but here we were, going to get naked together + hang out in the spa.
The Spa- We walked in with no idea what to expect + the natural fear that we would accidentally walk bare ass naked into an area where you needed a bathing suit. We paid $5 for the indoor spa access (aka just access to the naked female area. You could pay more for entrance into the outdoor spa pools that were not gender segregated + some other co-gender areas but we wanted steam rooms + nudity only). Again, it was ONLY $5 PEOPLE!! We were given watch like bracelets that had our corresponding locker number on it + were ushered to the first locker area at the entrance. These lockers were for shoes only. So we took our shoes off and started walking towards an open reception area with very little instruction on where or what to do next. We passed a cafeteria (sweating everything out makes you HUNGRY), a few coffee stands, + some lounge furniture before seeing a sign that read LADIES LOCKER ROOM (in English + Korean). We passed through the threshold knowing that there was no going back now. Immediately we saw a few naked Koreans walking back to their locker + as soon as we arrived at our lockers (which of course were side by side haha) started stripping down. “THIS IS IT”, we joked. So there we were, standing proudly in nothing more than our skin, trying not to laugh, + acting like we’d done this before, all the while knowing we had NO idea what to do so we just looked like the creepers staring at all the Korean women walking towards the steamy spa. We walked into a giant, open room that had many shallow pools, showering/washing stations, an open massage room, a few saunas and steam rooms. Each pool was different… either warmer or cooler water, jetted, plant/mineral infused (??? One was a jade green + another was neon yellow). All the signs were in Korean so we had no idea but we didn’t care. IT WAS AMAZING. We giddily went from pool to pool trying them out until we realized how dehydrated we were + went to get water from a cooler right inside the locker room. And for whatever reason, we could not stop giggling. We could not get over the fact that we, two adult women, were standing naked leaned against a water cooler + frantically gulping paper cups of water one after the other, while watching other naked women walk around going about their business. (Maybe we sound immature or just stupid, but I dare you to go to a Korean spa with another white girl you haven’t even known for a month + not laugh.) We saw a door off to the side that led to a private outdoor pool. Talk about perfection. The clashing temperatures of the water + breeze were absolutely divine. After talking awhile between the two of us a large group of jabbering Korean women came in + started smiling, giggling, + pointing at us. Amy and I awkwardly looked at each other… One lady was clearly trying to tell us something but we had no idea what she was saying. Finally another lady yelled “UH..UH.. PWETT..PWETTTYY!! YOU PETTY!” The first woman smiled + pointed to us, “You petty!”. We bashfully thanked them using the one Korean word we did know, “kalmsamidah!” (deep down knowing they were probably making fun of our tits or ass or my white hair or something else). With that they all hooted + hollered! They then started spitting out other Korean words we might know like- kimchi + bugolgi, as we smiled + nodded struggling to understand the majority of what was even happening. They offered us a paper cup of tea from their thermos (I wouldn’t have been surprised if they spiked it with Soju). After a few more minutes they waved goodbye + left. We had survived our first naked group conversation in Korean. (SCORE!) As we were finishing up we decided to try out the small washing stations set up inside the spa. We followed all of the older ladies + grabbed a plastic stool to sit on and began scrubbing with salt and body wash before rinsing off for good. Back to the dressing rooms we went to get dressed + gulp down a few more paper cups of water. And that was it, so simple + relaxing, yet so new + exciting for us. I can’t even begin to explain how liberating + utterly delightful the whole day was. We left feeling renewed + serene with the determination to not only come back once a week from now on, but to recruit others to join us on our quest for tranquility. I encourage everyone to give a traditional bathhouse experience a try.. It will change your life for the better!
Until next time y’all,
PS, sorry for the lack of pics this time guys.. I wanted to take pics, but didn’t…. for obvious reasons.