Sunday, 21 February 2010

It’s a Sauna, But Not as You Know It

Here is an article I wrote for Ulsan Online a while ago and have just re-discovered it. Click here to have a look at Ulsan Online

When the fresh autumn winds come to Korea, they sweep away the incredibly hot days of summer and replace them with cooler, more manageable days. Days when the air con is off and you can walk to work without feeling you need a change of clothes. Summer activities and their accompanying summer clothes are packed away for another 6 months and fleecy woolens are brought in from the cold to be used throughout this chilly period. Korea is a beautiful country and has many islands and beaches but for me the country really comes alive during the colder months, the nations famous spicy, chilli laden cuisine comes into its own, warming your body from the core. Dishes like dak dori tang sit in your stomach, smouldering and radiating heat right to your extremities to try to combat the winter chill. Winter offers great opportunities to stay indoors and with Korea being a nation of ‘bangs’ it couldn’t be easier. Bangs are entertainment rooms, literally meaning room they are scattered all over every town and city and give expats and Koreans alike plenty of indoor activities to do. Of all the ‘bangs’ (PC, DVD, board game, norae) there is one that not only makes winter bearable, it makes it down right desirable and that is the jjimjilbang. These steam rooms are like the European saunas, but with an Asian twist.

A jjimjilbang in Jeonju

Jjimjilbangs also come with entertainment areas for all the family, usually including a restaurant or two, a video game room, DVD rooms, a gymnasium, usually foot and/or skin care specialists and acres of space to lounge around reading, playing games, chatting or sleeping (many are 24 hour and are great and cheap alternatives to hotels or motels for a night or two). The hot sauna rooms, usually three or four, vary in temperature with some having a mineral element that heals the body in some way. At a sauna in Jeonju there is a salt and light room; heat radiates through bricks of salt for added health benefits and the soothing low light is easy on the senses too. There are usually hairdressers and various beauty treatments in the dressing rooms too, as well as concession stands selling toiletries, face masks and other products to beautify your exceptionally clean body and snack bars selling juice, smoothies, coffee and even beer. Some jjimjilbangs even have a big screen and can be a great place to watch live sport, eat and have a few beers before having a sauna and a shower and going home gratified and purified. There is often a cold sauna, a room kept at a very cold 1 or 2 degrees Celsius to help replicate the traditional sauna experience. In Finland, the general idea is to sit in the hot steamy sauna until you can take no more, then go outside and cool your body down, either by jumping in an ice cold lake or by rolling in the snow before repeating the cycle at least another two times.


Unfortunately, expats in Korea don’t really take advantage of the jjimjilbang. For lots of expats the idea of getting naked in front of anyone, let alone, gawking, staring, pointing Koreans is a step too far, which is understandable. It will come as no surprise to anybody who has been in Korea more than twelve hours (and people who have travelled around Asia) that Koreans like to stare and sometimes point at foreigners and whilst it can be frustrating and annoying it is more to do with curiosity than any xenophobia but still, the thought of exposing yourself to people who seem that interested in you is too dire to contemplate, after all how can you relax in a spa if you can always feel eyes gazing upon your naked form?

An expat relaxes in a steam room

How to get in

It couldn’t be easier getting past reception. Most jjimjilbangs will have two prices, one for the naked pools and one for everything. The more expensive price is for the entire jjimjilbang, the lower price is just if you want to soak for a few hours in the various pools, sometimes confusingly referred to as the sauna. Even if you can’t speak a single word of Korean, just point to the more expensive price (unless you actually want to soak in the naked soup, then point to the lower price) and off you go. Most employees in jjimjilbangs will help you with what to do next if you look lost, but it is very simple. You will be given a key for a small locker, usually in the reception area, this is for your shoes, so don’t get naked and try to cram all you things into this tiny locker! Then you should see a desk with towels, shorts, T-shirts etc. This is where you get your uniform for the communal area. If they don’t offer you anything after you show them your receipt you have paid for the wrong thing so start again. Gear in hand the way to the changing rooms is usually obvious. Once inside get changed or get naked and explore. There is nothing to be afraid of, just try everything and don’t leave until you feel truly relaxed. It’s usually best to go with someone the first time if you are a bit nervy, but the steam and the floating on air feeling you get when you leave will see you returning soon with company or alone.

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