(For reasons which will become apparent there will not be many photos on this blogpost. The one I have used have been lifted off of Google)

Sign for jimjilbang.

Yesterday I joined a gym next to my house, and experienced my first bang this time round in Korea. Just to clarify, “bang” in Korean means “room” and is a suffix added onto facilities that serve specific purposes. There are many types of bang in Korea: Dvd bang, PC bang, Norae bang and sojubang are just a few, and I will be covering all of these on the blog at a later date. Today I’m going to talk about the jimjilbang, something which I would recommend every foreigner do if they ever visit Korea.

Essentially it’s a big sauna/bathhouse. Sometimes they are attached to a hotel or gym but there are jimjilbangs that are independent also. I’m guessing that in the past jimjilbangs were frequented weekly by families who could not afford private bathrooms. These days it is seen more as a relaxing day out than a necessity, but people still go with their families and on one more than one occasion I’ve seen 3 generations of a family all bathing together.

Once you have paid your entrance fee (usually between 5000 and 7000 won (or £3-£5), you go up into the segregated changing rooms. Here you find not only lockers but also comfy chairs, tv screens, and refreshments. You can also have your haircut there (in the buff if you so wish, as many do). Because many jimjilbangs are open 24 hours they are a popular place to take a nap, or indeed a whole nights sleep as I have done on a few occasions (although I wouldn’t recommend doing unless in a state of slight inebriation). The atmosphere really is quite relaxing.

After stripping down (nudity is strictly enforced in the bathhouse area, the men’s and women’s areas are of course separate) you enter into a large room with baths of varying temperatures (from very hot to very cold), a sauna and steam room, a heated floor area, massage tables and rows and rows of showers (it is necessary to shower before using the baths unless you want to elicit angry stares from the Koreans).     I’m sure that there is a particular sequence in which you are supposed to use all the various amenities, however as I am ignorant, I usually just do whatever takes my fancy. My particular favourite is a warm bath that has power jets of water which massage different parts of your body.

Once you’re done with that section, there are rows of plastic stools in front of shower heads and mirrors which are used to wash and scrub oneself. It is a common sight to see men lending each other a hand in the washing duties, something I cannot imagine happening in England.

After that, you return into the changing area to towel off. Inside, there is a row of hair-driers and various grooming products to make use of. If you are going to sleep for a while, there are usually T-shirts and shorts that can be used as pajamas.

The result of the jimjilbang is certainly invigorating. It seems particularly effective to switch between the very hot and the very cold baths, so as to leave you with a certain dizzy euphoria that lasts for at least a couple of hours. At any rate, it certainly ensures a newfound level of cleanliness as well as a newfound removal of modesty.

During my time in Korea I have slept in a jimjilbang on 3 occasions and I could not honestly say that they were ever particularly comfortable experiences. There are no beds, so you must either make use of the reclining chairs, or of the floor. A friend of mine chose the latter option on one occasion and woke up sweating having forgotten about the under-floor heating.

The most interesting time I stayed, was in the big jimjilbang in Haeundae. After a night of drinking we made our way there and had good relax in the baths. As it was nearly morning, we decided to make our way upstairs to get some sleep. As the doors to the lift opened an almost hysterical sight (at least it was at the time) came before my eyes. In a huge room similar in size to half a football pitch, were around 250 sleeping Koreans. They were sleeping on thin mats on the floor. Rather than being segregated, this was a communal area for men and women alike. The men wore blue pajamas and the women pink. It was hard not to burst out laughing so surprised was I to see it. We just about managed to find a small space on the floor and laid our mats out and tried to get some sleep. There was a Korean man snoring next to me, but I was able to drift off before too long….only to be awoken 3 hours later by an ajumma “accidentally” kicking me so she could retrieve one of the 3 mats I was using as a makeshift mattress. Evidently she thought I was hogging them.

All in all it wasn’t comfortable but it was endearing and a great experience, and for £4 I can’t complain. I’d love to see what would happen in England if you tried getting 250 drunk people to share a room together for the night. Well, I’d like to see it, but I’m not sure I’d like to join in.

(One note to those westerners who wish to use Jimjilbangs: the Koreans will doubtless take an interest in your naked foreign form having probably never laid eyes on one before. This is either quite unsettling, or quite exciting, depending on your proclivity to voyeurism. The fact of the matter is that Koreans grow up using jimjilbangs and are quite unconscious about their nudity when they are there. I think in many ways it functions as a bonding experience.)

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