So, having spent a day in the sun on Saturday, we headed back to Seoul station to find that we had just missed the last train home. It was for this reason that we ended up in a jimjilbang – my first experience of this famous part of Korean culture.
Jimjilbangs are everywhere, but I’d never been to one because, well, there’s a lot of nudity involved. It’s all very well to strip off for a sauna or something, but I really feel that there can be few things more awkward than wandering around a completely unfamiliar place in the nip, trying to read the various signs in Korean and not being able to communicate with anyone. Still, the volume of wine and beer consumed at the braai would be enough to settle anyone’s nerves, I’d imagine.
A jimjilbang is a 24-hour establishment designed for rest and relaxation. It only costs about 8,000 won (less than a fiver), which makes it a great option for budget travellers, as you can sleep there and avoid going to a motel. When you go in and pay, you’re given loose-fitting shorts and a t-shirt to sleep in, a couple of small towels, and a locker key. Then you enter either the male or female door and put your shoes in your locker before continuing through to the next room – a large locker and changing area.
Once you’re as naked as the day you were born, you proceed through the glass doors to the baths.
There are loads of showers complete with soap and cloths and brushes, each shower with its own seat and mirror area. There are hot tubs of various skin-peeling temperatures, saunas and steam rooms, massage tables, and cold pools to plunge into after sweating it out. Once you’re all pampered and dried and in your pyjamas, you go through to a mixed-gender area, where you can eat at a snack bar, surf the net or play games in a PC bang, watch TV, or just go to sleep. You just grab a sleeping mat and find a quiet spot to lay it down on the floor and sleep.
I loved it. I was hot and sweaty and uncomfortable by the time we got there, and it was such a relief to scrub away all the grime and then plunge into that cold pool! Being a naked foreigner on the large side is a little off-putting when you’re surrounded by impossibly small and beautiful Korean women, but I’m so used to the staring now that having no clothes on didn’t seem that much different – I might as well be walking down the street naked sometimes, going by the stares I get.
Waking up was slightly disconcerting though. When I went to sleep, I was curled up in a quiet corner of a large, fairly empty room. When I woke up and headed to the bathroom, I was surrounded by bodies, all lying motionless on the floor. I had to carefully step over them to get to the toilets. It seems that a lot of Koreans use the jimjilbangs as a cheap and convenient place to crash after a night out partying.
But everyone being dressed in matching outfits did make it look awfully like some kind of cult suicide pact had just been carried out!