Jjimjilbang (찜질방) – a large, gender-segregated public bathhouse in Korea, furnished with hot tubs, showers, Finnish-style saunas, and massage tables. (source: wikipedia :))

Little did I know when I stuffed my tiny shampoo bottles, makeup, subway fare, and bar money in my tiny purse that by the end of the night, I would have sat in a human barbecue pit, shared a hot tub with approximately 20 naked Korean ladies, and yes – conversed in the buff with a 5-year-old boy in Konglish as his mother looked on from the next hot tub over.

My friend had been talking about going to a jjimjilbang  for most of the trip. I’d heard stories from friends who’d studied in Japan. They recounted tales of stripping down with their host mother and spending an evening moving from hot tub to massage table to hot tub. I wouldn’t call myself a prude (well, maybe sometimes), but I never thought I would have the courage to bare it all in public in the name of relaxation.

It was our last night in Seoul, and I just kind of agreed to go with a few friends. I sort of knew what was in store but not really. Maybe Korean bathhouses were different than Japanese bathhouses? Either way, I wasn’t too worried about it. After all, I had already sorta gotten over the whole communal shower thing during the temple stay.

According to the site my friend looked at, our jjimjilbang of choice was the Las Vegas of all jjimjilbangs. It boasted 7 floors filled with restaurants, various saunas, and services of any type. We navigated the subway and emerged into a shopping mall. After searching around for a while and checking the mall directory (all in Korean), we finally found our destination.

An older Korean gentleman greeted us immediately in English; he was our guide. He handed us English brochures full of colorful maps and descriptions. He asked us to take a seat at his welcome desk and open our brochures. This was serious. We sat and listened as he explained the salt sauna, the jade sauna, the cold tubs, the hot tubs, the lap pools, the full body scrub, the restaurant, and the movie screen. I was completely overwhelmed.

We got our spa outfits, put our shoes in our locked cubby, parted ways with Clint, and got on the female only elevator to the 3rd floor locker room. The door opened and we looked around not knowing where to go as clothed and unclothed mothers with small children milled about. We found our locker after a quick search down the numbered hallways. This was it, the moment of truth. The mirrors on every surface didn’t help my comfort level. My friend and I (well, maybe just me) giggled like little girls for a good 5 minutes, more at the fact that we were just standing there not really sure where to go. We found a sign with a few English words and followed the old naked ladies downstairs.

It was a very large room with tiles floor to ceiling, walls of showers and giant hot tubs in the middle set to various temperatures, 40C, 37C, even 18C…brrrr. I got over the whole naked thing for the most part once I realized I was the only one making it a big deal. The funny thing was that when I saw another Western woman, I quickly tried to cover up. In my head, I assumed we shared some sort of cultural norms and walking around baring it all, even in a spa, probably wasn’t one of them.

My friend and I quickly got separated and I admit I had a minor freakout. How the hell was I supposed to navigate this thing? I wanted to experience as much of it as possible but wasn’t really sure where to start. I tried out a few of the saunas and steam rooms before deciding to get dressed and check out the co-ed floors. I didn’t know where the hallways or elevators went so I followed an old lady, trying not to be too obvious. I figured if I was naked, follow the naked people and if I had my little spa uniform, follow the clothed people.

I made it to the co-ed floor and walked around like I knew where I was going. I sat in the jade sauna for a bit before Clint came in looking so relieved to see me. We both laughed at the randomness of the situation and explored the rest of the floor. We went into these human bbq sauna things. No lie, they smelled like roasted pork. They had this little door you have to heave open and it opens into a big brick igloo looking room. Saunas freak me out sometimes so we left pretty quickly. We also found the salt sauna, basically a big room with places cut out to lay down and rest your head. And yes, it was really salt…I licked it to be sure. 🙂 My favorite was the ice room…basically an igloo. What’s not to love?

We only had about an hour left so we decided to head back to our respective floors. I decided to go outside and sit in the hot tubs. There were probably about 10 ladies in one of the hot tubs; I decided to sit in the less populated one. Before I knew it, a little boy came up and sat next me. He stared. I said hi. We had a moment. I tried to remember one of the five phrases I know in Korean. I told him my name and that I was American. He replied in English with his name and I asked him how old he was…5. So there I was, naked, talking to this cute little Korean boy. Truly a WTF moment for the books.

The boy’s mother came over to make sure he wasn’t bothering me. She spoke a bit of English and asked me a few questions about myself. She wished me safe travels and a nice stay in Seoul. I love traveling for moments exactly like this. She scooped up her little boy and took her place among the other 9 ladies in the next hot tub over. I gathered that they all at least knew each other from their gestures and the way they were talking. They took turns passing the kids around, babies and toddlers climbing all around them. I just looked at them, being so maternal in what struck me as a very primitive way. I guess sometimes you have to strip down, literally, to see that. I imagined what their daily lives might be like, urban, dressed in power suits and pumps, shuffling kids to school on their way to work as they navigated sidewalks and subways. I’m sure that wasn’t totally true but that’s what I imagined.

I took a shower, used my spa wear as a towel and waited for my friends downstairs. We all agreed it was one of the more interesting things we’d experienced. Traveling always pushes me in ways I never knew possible. Apart from the little kids constantly staring at me, the waygook, the whole place was just so…comfortable, like a warm fuzzy blanket comfortable. If you’re ever in Seoul and need a place to chill out or even stay the night, check out the Dragon Hill Spa.