"What the heck" you ask, "is a Jjimjilbang? And are you sure that's spelled correctly???"
Contrast luxury with a common, everyday occurrence, and you have a Jjimjilbang! Ritualistic and ingrained in the culture is the partaking of the healing waters, hot and cold, saunas, and massage of the Public Bath Houses of Korea! This is not for one who shies from nudity, or finds it odd to be in a roomful of naked women (well, I am a woman, so I was only allowed in the female area, but I'm working up a plan... hehehe...kidding peeps!) in various stages of relaxing, bathing, showering, swimming, baking in the sauna, freezing in the cold pool, resting in a marble chair in one of three hot pools, chattering, watching Korean soap operas, and all the things girls do. Just Naked.
It was awesome!
And it cost only $6!!!
The J.J. (I will refer to the JJimjilbang from here on as JJ, it's just easier!) Jeong took me to Friday night after class includes 4 floors of an office style building, and is the newest and nicest in Tongyeong.
First, you get a key for the shoe locker at the counter. Remember, you have to take off your shoes when entering most places in Korea! Once your shoes are locked in the shoe locker, you return to the counter and pay for the visit and trade your shoe key for your locker key. There are a few options from which you can choose: the bath house, additional private body treatment (massage/skin buffing/shampoo, etc.), JJ, and exercise room. Just like a gym in the States, you can pay by the visit, or monthly, or class pass option. So for $6 each we visited the "public bath" portion. The body treatment costs only an additional $25 for one hour!
We took the elevator to the second floor, where the women's locker room, showers, and bath house are located. My eyes were instantly drawn to the large design on the marble elevator floor, inlaid with brass, multi-colored stones, and mother of pearl, arranged in a circular decoration. The locker room was typical of nicer private health clubs in the States: well-lit, expansive, hair dryers, vanity mirrors, and the like. As with all the locks in Korea, the lockers had electronic locks, so you carry a key on your wrist. There is a small snack stand in the lokcer room, where assorted women are standing in line, sans dress, buying juice, snacks, special waters, etc. They also offer toiletries in case you forgot some of your own.
Bathing is an art, a ritual, here. There is a standard of undress and behavior and procedure. The first time I went, I was with Jeong, but I ventured in on my own last night ( Friday, Dec. 20). After you disrobe and lock up belongings, you walk through the heavy glass doors into the main bath area. In the center are three large tubs, of differing degrees of heated water, very very hot, hot, and mildy hot. This large square tri-section is rimmed in marble, with a large center square column that divides the three, leading your eyes up to a circular design of multicolored, changing lights. With your legs folded underneath, you can comfortable sit on the bottom with your neck and head above water (2 1/2 feet or so deep?). There are also ledges along the wall in the pool, for sitting. When it gets too warm, or if they are chatting furiously with friends, many women sit out of the water, on the cool marble ledge that forms the edge of each pool. There is a sense of respect, disinterest, lack of competitiveness here. Or perhaps Koreans are just okay with nudity and understand it's natural. We all have vaginas and breasts so what's to look at. Everyone is comfortable and at ease with their bodies ( or so it appears from outside). There doesn't seem to be staring or competitive sideways glances to see who is skinnier than who, etc. It's a given that it is impolite to stare, and yet you look at each other and greet, and your eyes pass along another's body as though it is another fixture of the baths. This is a remarkable refreshing and comforting experience for someone coming from a puritanical country where nudity is still seen as "sinful" or socially unacceptable, and the female body is still objectified by men. It is an absolutely relaxing, new, and freeing experience to walk around and lounge in completely nude outside the boundaries of my own house!
Anyway, so you'll see many women sitting in various positions on the ledges of the pools engaged in vibrant discussion, or taking respite from the hot water. As I mentioned, there are lights above the three pools, in a swirling pattern, that change color, and it is immensely satisfying to lie back in the medium-hot pool, which has dolphin fountains and bubbling water, and lazily watch the muted light show above, as the colors melt into each other, pink, green, red, blues. The hot-hot-pool is a little too hot for me, but the same size as the medium-hot. "Size" meaning being large enough for 10+ women to sit comfortably spaced well away form each other--like 4-5eight person hot tubs put together maybe (?). Then to the rear is the less-hot tub, with marble "seats" built in along the wall: large armchairs made of marble and hard as such.
The three giant "hot tubs" are the focal point of the room as you enter, with a whirlpool bath and body exfoliating machine to the left, showers and bathing areas to the right, and to the rear of this huge room are the wet and dry saunas and the two cold tubs (and I mean COLD people!) The private massage rooms are directly left of the entry door.
Just how clean can you get? Well, you'd be amazed that it takes several hours and two good scrubbings to qualify as fully bathed and finished. That's two hours if you're in a hurry! And following is what you do!