Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Korean Jimjilbangs: The Naked Truth

Koreans have an undoubted propensity for efficiency, and yet they have a deep understanding of the world of relaxation. There's something simply magic and euphoric about a visit to the jimjilbang. Like most things, the Koreans have got relaxation down to an absolute science. The jimjilbang is drenched in tradition and is an important part of Korean culture. It certainly reigns as one of my favourite pastimes since arriving on this pleasant peninsula. It provides an experience that is cleansing, both mentally and physically, while maintaining a seriously enjoyable atmosphere. I never pictured myself as a fellow that would thrive in the confines of a sauna/spa atmosphere. However, a jimjibang isn't just a sauna or spa. It isn't even really quantifiable, but rather something you must do in Korea. Alright, if it's not a sauna or a spa, then what is it? Let me guide you through the fond memories I hold of the one and only Jimjilbang. It's a one-stop shop to make that built up stress burden you a whole lot less. Just look for the sign:
See neon red. Think subtle relaxation.

It's safe to say that ritual purification has been prevalent in Korea since the Silla Period (57 BC -935 AD), but the first record of the modern day jimjilbang occurs somewhere in the 15th century. It's interesting to consider that the establishment of the jimjilbang predates the constitution of Canada by a significant margin. The Koreans have had more time to perfect the jimjilbang than the Canadians have had to build a country. I'd have to commend both countries on a great bi-product of those aforementioned efforts. Some of the initial ideas for the jimjilbang have actually survived through the centuries, and in some cases they have flourished. For example, the ondol floor heating system still finds its place in the jimjilbang. For those who don't know, ondol is a traditional heating system that heats a structure from the ground up, or through the floors. I have ondol heating in my apartment and it's wonderful. Can you imagine waking up in the morning and not being scared to put your feet on the cold winter floor? Instead, your feet embrace the warmth and delight of age-old Korean innovation. You've probably got an array of mental images swirling now about what a jimjilbang is, but let's go ahead and solidify that image for you.

It all begins at the front desk of your jimjilbang of choice where it's more than likely that the attendant won't speak English. You'll pay a miniscule sum that's completely worth it (especially since it's open 24 hours a day) and then head off into a gendered area. However, before this you'll likely be handed a nifty little set of clothing. For men, the clothing consists of a baggy blue pair of shorts and a T-shirt to match. You'll instantly be impressed with pillow-like softness of the cotton, and momentarily debate whether the Koreans have perfected cotton in addition to relaxation. Women will have a pink pair of the same outfit to match. In my local jimjilbang, small children also wear yellow, and seemingly have complete disregard for their supposed bedtimes. It's great once you get into the common area with all of the blue and pink outfits. It's reminiscent of a sort of wonderful health and relaxation cult. You'll be given these outfits for the common area or "dry section", but you certainly won't be wearing them in your gendered area or "humid section". In there, it's all about wearing the birthday suit in all of its glory.
Hey, there's no need to be shy. You're currently in a room surrounded by naked men, but no need to panic, my friend. A jimjilbang is a place where an occasionally judgment-prone Korean society lets down its guard. As a foreigner, you'll certainly attract some attention, but you should embrace the experience. I'm sure most Korean nationals are happy that you're taking the time to enjoy and appreciate their traditions.
The first few moments after you have completely exposed yourself to the Korean populous are a tad nerve-racking. You walk around naked with a fake confidence because you haven't actually quite figured out what you're are supposed to do yet. The first place to head is to the showers. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that, unlike the shower in my apartment, this shower actually maintained a respectable level of heat. After you've showered you'll see an assortment of baths, saunas, and stream-rooms. On my most recent visit, I was the only foreigner there, but that's no excuse not to mingle. You don't have to carry on an elaborate conversation, although it's certainly worth it to experiment with the baths and steam rooms of varying temperatures. I've often found in my travels that you can still make a connection or "carry on a conversation" without actually speaking. A laugh, gesture, or even an awkward silence is a form of communication in a foreign country where you haven't yet mastered the native tongue. I've garnered a few stares, but there's no hostility in the air; only curiosity, and of course steam. Before leaving the humid section, you may notice that there are men scrubbing each other. Good friends and relatives often do this to show just how much they care. My father will be coming to Korea in April, but I'm going to safely assume that we won't be taking part in this tradition. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the jimjilbong experience. It's time to put on those large, loveable clothes your were given earlier, and prance on out to the common area.
Briana and I usually walk across the heated floors from our respective areas to find ourselves in the middle of the common room action. A quick pit-stop at the cafe is usually in order. In our jimjilbang, we have Cass on tap which generally lends itself pretty well to tranquility. However, if you're looking to hydrate instead of dehydrate yourself, then you're also covered. You can usually get a fruit concoction with shaved ice that is delightfully infused with ginger; there's even soft-serve ice cream! I was a little shocked to see brown hard boiled eggs there. I couldn't see the appeal of eating brown hard boiled eggs either in or out of the sauna, but alas, it's apparently excellent for replenishing the minerals lost while sweating. Oh, and the eggs are brown because they've been cooking under the kiln saunas, and not because they're horribly rotten. It's worth trying all that the cafe has to offer at least once. Although, it's worth trying almost anything once.
Now it's time to play Goldilocks. Locate the temperature above a door that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. You can relax in jewel rooms and bask in the minerals, or you can head to the freezer room and imagine what it might feel like to get stuck in a meat freezer. The point is that at the jimjilbang, you can do whatever suits you. You can get a massage from an automatic black leather chair, or choose to pay a little extra for that human touch. You can enjoy the bright television screens that add to the joy of lazing on the warm floor. If you've got a little pep in your step from all that recuperating, then you can ignite your passion for karaoke in the naraebang. You can even sleep in these lovely establishments. You can enter one of the gendered sleep rooms, doze off on the floor, or find a spot in one of the many sleep coves.

The jimjilbang reminds me of a fantastic "choose-your-own-adventure" novel in which you can never possibly make the wrong choice. Upon viewing the fast paced life of sleepless Korea, an institution like the jimjilbang makes so much sense. Koreans evidently give 100% to their occupation, education, intoxication, and seemingly to their relaxation. As a foreigner, you leave the jimjilbang and walk out into the crisp, Korean night wondering how you can instate the jimjilbang culture at home. And then, you realize that Korea has become your home after all.

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