Surviving the Jjimjilbang

Do you live in Korea? Are you a foreigner? Do you need a bath?

If you answered 'yes' to the all of the above, then you need a trip to the JJIMJILBANG (follow link for a beginner's guide). But jjimjilbangs can be strange and scary places, to the uninitiated foreigner. So how do you deal with the ajumma stares, snoring and public nudity? Here's my ultimate guide to jjimjilbang survival.

1. Nudity

After stripping down in the locker room of the ladies' sauna a few weeks ago, I contemplated that my arse had gotten saggier since the last time I went to the spa. I suspect this had little to do with me gaining weight (unlikely, given my deplorable diet of cereal bars and milky coffee), but more to do with sitting on said arse for long periods of time, for example, now as I write this blog. A visit to the spa is for some an opportunity to peruse one's naked body in the reflection of a full-length mirror, and of course there are dozens of other naked bodies around to compare it with. As I put my clothes into the locker, a mother and daughter started stripping down next to me. When the mother lifted up her top, the young girl exclaimed, 'Oh, bet-sal!', the Korean term for 'tummy-fat'.

Now, I have no problem with being nude in public. In fact I would go so far as to say I enjoy being stark nakers (in spite of my degree in fashion design, do I in fact harbour a deep hatred of clothes?). But the disconcerting thing is the other naked women who are all around. It's hard to know where to put one's eyes. While an older, Korean spa-aficionado might have no qualms giving a foreign figure a good long stare up and down, a shy young woman like myself wilts at the thought of inadvertently looking at someone else's naked body  in the shower room. So I have developed a nonchalant, stare-into-space poker face, the kind that you may already use in other public places, such as a crowded subway. To perfect this look, it is necessary to be at all times trying your best to look away from any other person, while making it appear that you are not actually intentionally looking anywhere. And at all costs, avoid eye contact.

2. Sleeping

If anyone out there is actually able to get a good night's sleep in a jjimjilbang, please let me know. I find it impossible. While lying on a heated floor is nice for a few minutes, it becomes excruciatingly uncomfortable after a while. So here is my survival guide for making the most of the situation:

  • Single women - for goodness' sake, sleep in the women's sleeping room. Why subject yourself to the snores and feet-in-the-face of the co-ed area? Even if those large middle-aged men don't mean to get too close to you, they inevitably will. Trust me, the women's sleeping room is always a little less disconcerting.
  • Bring your own pillow, or use a folded towel to rest your head. There is NO WAY those hard little rectangular cushions were actually designed for sleeping on.
  • Stake your sleeping spot as early as you can. If possible, go for a space by the wall, as it is miles better to have sleeping stranger on one side only, rather than being sandwiched between two of them.
3. Hygiene

First things first: Compared to a clean, hygienic Korean person, you are FILTHY. You are foul, dirty and contaminated, with a pitiful lack of sanitary awareness. The best thing to do is to set a good example for all foreigners in Korea and show off your good washing habits.

It goes without saying that you should take a cleansing shower before getting into any of the communal bath tubs, but the most important thing is to SCRUB. Yes indeed, scrub your skin until it's pink and raw. Slather on the soap and get into every nook and cranny. It's necessary to make a very big show of this, so that other people will be put at ease by your thorough cleanliness. And don't forget to RINSE off all the soap suds before you go trailing any into the tubs.

Now in spite of your best efforts to keep yourself clean, you may still be worried about the public hygiene. After all, you are sharing bath water with hundreds of strangers and you don't even know if they have veruccas. If the place looks clean, you'll probably be OK, so don't worry too much. But skip the tubs if it bothers you, and just make do with the showers.

Personally I am very dubious about the little plastic stools you can sit on whilst washing. I recommend you thoroughly hose it down with the shower head before and after sitting, or better still, AVOID at all costs. Other people's naked bums have been sitting on there.

4. Other People

The spa is invariably full of those Korean older women, affectionately known as ajummas. They are, perhaps, the most intimidating thing you will have to deal with in a jjimjilbang. They will look at you. They will stare at you. They may try to make eye contact, or even smile at you. At some point, they will shout at you, very loudly, in Korean. The best advice I can offer is just to smile back. People here do sometimes stare at foreigners out of curiosity, but most of the time, they're just trying to be friendly.

All things considered, with a little thought and consideration there's no reason why your trip to the jjimjilbang shouldn't be a relaxing and stress-free one. Chilling at the jjimjilbang is one of my most favourite ways to spend a day in Korea, and in my opinion it's not worth missing out on this great experience just because you feel nervous about it. Just follow these simple steps to survival, and you're on your way to becoming a jjimjilbang expert!


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