In Japan they’re called ‘onsen’s, in Korea ‘jimjilbang’s. What are these strange words? Are they a type of noodles, a strange piece of cultural clothing? No, it is the term used for the public baths. If you’re British, the phrase ‘public baths’ may conjure up an image of a dirty government swimming pool made of rough concrete, but rest assured: these are anything but.
It is my opinion that you cannot say you have lived in Asia until you’ve experienced one of these. I’d heard a lot about them before my first visit – my co-workers described them as incredibly relaxing and indulgent places to spend a day. Jimjilbangs are bathhouses, or big spas, with saunas, jacuzzis, steam rooms, a variety of hot and cold pools and massage rooms. You can get a full body scrub, any kind of massage you like, and you can even take in your own toiletries and use them as you wish. They are dirt cheap (around £3) and you can stay as long as you like. If you want to stay overnight, the price is about £5, cheaper than most hostels. You can eat a meal there, have beauty treatments, and in some there are even singing rooms. They are EVERYWHERE, in every few buildings you’ll find one.
Sounds great so far? Why wouldn’t anyone want to go? What the natives always neglect to tell you (probably because it’s so normal to them) is that you have to be naked….
So, this is why I was content with just hearing how great they are. But they are so cheap, and they are meant to be so relaxing?!
My female friends and I pondered for a while, we all wanted to go. The idea of sitting in a jacuzzi all day after working all week was heavenly. Just not quite yet. We needed to get to know each other a little better – after all, we’d only met a few months ago. We were still uncomfortable drinking from the same bottles, let alone walking around together au naturel.
It wasn’t just that. We are ENORMOUS white people (think about it: Asian women are stick thin!) with strange body shapes. ALL EYES WOULD BE ON US. I had heard horror stories about old naked Korean women going up to westerners in jimjilbangs and embracing them in welcome. Which I’m sure is entirely well-meant and friendly, but I most certainly did NOT want a stark-naked old lady, with all her bits hanging out, coming to hug me.
Too soon for my liking, we were faced with a freezing cold weekend at the end of the month. Meaning we had little money left and didn’t want to spend the day outside exploring (we feared we may turn into icicles). Probably should have gone to a museum or something, but one of my friends decided it was the perfect time to brave the jimjilbang. After a bit of reluctance, the rest of us were persuaded. We’d agreed we would do it at some point, why not this weekend?
My friend informed us of a place near her apartment and we met at the subway station the next day. As we walked apprehensively down to the basement of one of the buildings nearby, we reassured ourselves that, in reality, there would only be seconds of nakedness? We’d get changed into dressing gowns in cubicles, and just take them off and jump into a pool.
This was NOT the case! We walked in, paid (and were given a t-shirt and one of the minuscule towels that seem to be the preferred choice in Central Asia) and proceeded towards the door we were pointed in the direction of. There we encountered a giant shoe closet (used to these now), and another glass door. As we went to walk through the glass door, we were immediately confronted with hundreds of naked women, sitting on chairs and eating, or having their nails done, or just walking around. This was the dry area! Nobody was clothed, yet we had not come across anywhere to change. Where were all the dressing gowns? Actually, why didn’t we have one yet? Nobody was wearing their giant t-shirts either. Gingerly we walked through the door…
As we came face to face with a wall of lockers, it became apparent that there were no dressing gowns, or cubicles. At first, we put on our t-shirts and decided to wander around. Soon, we realised the only place we were allowed with t-shirts on was an empty room with mats (which we later understood was also open to the men), and we headed back to the entrance. We’d have to go for it and strip right there in the middle of everybody. We looked at each other in horror, this was not what we expected! But, we had to do it! Slowly, we began talking off our clothes, which was fine, until we got to our underwear. We stood there, looking at each other, willing somebody else to go first. In the end, there was nothing for it: we counted to three and just did it!
From that point on, there was no going back. It was the strangest experience walking around a room full of naked strangers, naked. With friends I barely knew. At first, we were incredibly conscious of our GIANT WHITE FOREIGNER bodies. The Koreans were probably judging us. In the wet room, there were jacuzzis and hot tubs of varying temperatures, massage fountains, sitting down and standing showers, saunas, steam rooms. Quickly we realised we had to bind our towels around our heads in some kind of Mickey Mouse shape (well, everyone else had done that). It took us a while to get that right. Despite feeling like we were being stared at (we were not), within about 20 minutes we had relaxed and were enjoying the facilities.
My friend described it as an extremely liberating experience. She said she realised nobody has a perfect body (don’t think she was aware of the insult to the rest of us there) and everybody has insecurities, we’re all women, and we are all the same. I totally disagree with all of that – there are definitely women with perfect bodies, and in no way are we all the same! BUT, I did enjoy the place, although I can honestly say that I just FORGOT I was naked. Let’s not romanticise it, there was no epiphany or any feelings of liberation, I just forgot. And then it was okay.
Overall, I would recommend one of Asia’s public baths, just for the experience. It’s a bit of a bucket list thing I think. Would I go again? Maybe, but I’m not a convert. I don’t like to ponder on whether it is super-hygienic or super-unhygienic. But, call me a prude of you like, my nakedness is not for the world to see. One of the girls I went with has since gone multiple times, she loves it, but I’m much more a fan of our Western spas, where we wear bikinis..