Monday, January 26, 2009

JimJill Bang

Hello everyone and Happy New Year! I enjoyed a few days off work for Korea's New Year holiday over the past weekend. While it is known as a the Chinese New Year, it is also a major holiday in Korea. Largely because Korea was a semi-indepentent protectorate of China for hundreds of years, before being conquered by the Japanese around the turn of the century, they have imported many aspects of Chinese culture. Even today students have to learn Chinese charactors, which are used in the newspapers and academic writings. Anyway, for the New Year, extended families get together, eat a traditional meal, and bow to their ancestors. I was lucky enough to snag some homemade ricecakes, a semisweet dessert, from a friend's family party. So welcome to the year of the Ox. According to wikipedia, the Ox is a year for hard work, patience, and prosperity: three things that are fitting for a year working abroad. Here is a picture of all the Chinese zodiak animals lined up outside a temple I visited recently:

But my main topic today will be the unique experience I had the other night at what koreans call a "Jjimjil-Bang". Jjimjil-bang basically means bathhouse or sauna, but it is also so much more than that. I was invited to go by a couple of other foreigners, who thankfully already knew the dos and don'ts of jimjilbang etiquette. We paid only 8000 won to get in, which right now works out to about 6 dollars or so. After buying a ticket, they gave us comfortable pajama-style shorts and shirt and a key to lock up our clothes and shoes.

Our first stop in the jimjilbang was the (men's only) bath/steamroom area. After undressing in the locker room, we entered the main bathhouse area. For someone unused to male nudity, this was quite a shocker. After taking a quick soapy shower, we relaxed for a while in one of the hot baths. All together, the room had about 8 kinds of baths, each with a different temperature, color, or shape. One bath was freezing cold, while another tub was made of fragrant cedar. Alongside the baths were steam rooms of different temperatures and tables where a masseuse (also naked) offered a rubdown. After alternating between sweating your ass of in a hot bath and jumping in the freezing pool, you can take a seated shower before you leave.

All of this was very impressive, but this is only half the jimjil-bang experience. After finishing with the bath area, we put on the pajamas they had given us and went upstairs to an area for both men and women. The main attraction here is the (dry) sauna. Quite the variety again: super hot saunas, saunas with wood, saunas with rocks and hot pepple floors, saunas with TVs... But along with the saunas, there was a snack bar, a full restaurant, a computer and arcade area, massage chairs, a TV projector, a place to get a haircut, a full gym, and a sleeping room. Keep in mind, this place is open 24/7 and they pass out mats for sleeping around 10pm. So apparently many families will come together and spend the night relaxing before a sleepover. As a tourist in Korea, you can visit a jimjilbang to use it as the world's cheapest and most luxurious hostel. That is, if you can handle sleeping on a thin mat over a hardwood floor...
I found the jimjilbang to be a prime place for people-watching. For one thing, the close family bond really stands out. The place had the atmosphere of a family retreat, rather than a spa you would visit alone. I also admired the Koreans' ability to relax. Even if the place seems a little uptight on the subway, and even if Korean businessmen have notoriously long working hours, they definitely know how to chill. By the time I left, I never felt so pampered in my life.
I am sure this won't be my last visit to the jimjilbang. Hopefully soon I can check out what I believe is Korea's largest, which happens to be in my area of Busan.

No comments:

Post a Comment