I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write about this.

In Korea, we have jjimjilbang.  Let Wikipedia summarize that for you:

Jjimjilbang (찜질방) are large, gender-segregated public bathhouses in Korea, complete with hot tubs, showers, Finnish-style saunas, and massage tables, similar to what you may find in a Korean sauna ormogyoktang. However, in other areas of the building or on other floors there are unisex areas, usually with a snack bar, ondol-heated floor for lounging and sleeping, wide-screen TVs, PC bangnoraebang, and sleeping quarters with either bunk beds or sleeping mats.

I haven’t been to the regular jjimjilbangs yet, just the big nice fancy one at Shinsegae called SpaLand.  SpaLand is amazing.  I’m going to run you through my latest experience: Kate’s super amazing birthday party.

We (Kate, Chaz, Kayse, Steven, Drew, Kelly, Kat, and I) met at Shinsegae and got some food, did a little shopping, then went to SpaLand.  You pay for 4 hours, and since we got there a little after 8pm and it closes at 12 (less than 4 hours available), we got a discount.  Usual price: about $12.  Discount price?  about $7.

We went upstairs, took off our shoes, put them in wooden shoe lockers, took our keys inside, grabbed robes and towels from the front desk, then segregated ourselves and went into our respective locker rooms.  In the locker rooms, you find your locker, take off your clothes, put on your  robes, and we went back out to the main area.  Out there, there are foot baths, a full salon and spa, a cafe, a restaurant, places to lounge and nap, places to watch personal movies, places to watch tv and movies in big groups, massage chairs (less than $1 for 10 minute intervals!), and a bunch of amazing relaxation rooms.  Yesterday, Kate, Chaz, Steven, Kayse, and I decided to attempt the somewhat difficult but immune system boosting program of back and forth 10 minute intervals between a super hot room and a cold room for 40 minutes.  We were dripping with sweat but felt amazing.  We also laid in a Turkish relaxation room and (my favorite) the “Wave Dream Room.”  That was relaxing until the lights came on unexplainably and an English speaking Korean woman encouraged (tricked) me into pushing the emergency call button.  Whatever.

We went for refreshments at the cafe.  Rice punch, pabingsu (ice flakes+fruit+ice cream+cereal+red beans), and beers.  Mmmmm…

Next, the girls went into the jjimjilbang.  The jjimjilbang are the actual steam baths.  Which means you get totally naked with a couple hundred other women and go soak in super hot to super cold baths, some outside (private) and some inside.  There are also saunas in there.  When you are finished soaking, you go to one of the shower areas and scrub away with an abrasive scrub cloth, use all your favorite body products from Skin Food (my new favorite beauty product store), and get good and clean.  After that, you can go back into the locker room and blowdry your hair, lather up with lotions, and dry off before leaving.  We stayed until it closed.  SO RELAXING.

I don’t know how or why, but getting naked with your friends and strangers just really isn’t that big of a deal.  I didn’t think it would be, but it was such a non-issue – moreso than I expected.  You’re just chillin, and you happen to be naked.  No biggie.  It’s so liberating and somehow also so relational without being sexual or weird or perverse.  I also find it breathtaking and lovely to see what other women look like.  Let’s say this: we’re all in this together.  Nobody looks like what you think a woman is supposed to look like based on ad campaigns and movies.  And yet we are all beautiful and mysterious.  I’m especially fascinated by the older women’s bodies – the little kangaroo pocket of skin around their bellies, still swollen years after pregnancy.  The breasts that have lugged milk around for months at a time.  The years of love and family collected under the skin.  It may be something you have to experience for yourself.  I love it.

So I can leave the spa and feel beautiful and youthful and also know that we’re all beautiful.  There is youth in each person who can breathe and take a step or open their eyes.  In so many ways, some more obvious and some more subtle, it’s a real blessing to spend an evening at the jjimjilbang.

Turkish relaxation room

jjimjilbang (outdoors)