If you want to see naked strangers in real life, your choices are fairly limited. Or perhaps I should say, there are few places where you have to endure seeing naked strangers. In Korea, it’s the jjimjilbang, or sauna/public bath. Of course, lots of countries have public baths, but here is how things work in the Korean version.
In Korea, going to a jjimjilbang (steam room) can be a whole day experience. For one thing, what is often referred to simply as a jjimjilbang is actually a lot of things rolled into one. Here’s the process:
Pay your entrance fee and get a uniform and key. The uniform is a pair of light cotton shorts and a t-shirt. At the place I usually go, they are color-coded for men and women. The key is on a plastic ring so you can put it around your wrist in the shower.
The key has a number on it. First you take off your shoes and lock them in the shoe locker of the corresponding number.
At this point, men and women say good-bye to each other and go into separate changing rooms. You put your clothes and uniform into the locker with your number on it. The problem with this is you cannot choose your own locker. Last time, my locker was right next to an open window that overlooked an apartment complex. At night. Someone messed up the design somewhere. Anyway, then you go take a shower.
This is the only naked part and luckily it is separated by gender. You take a shower and have the option of soaking in one of a variety of hot tubs. There are varying temperatures (including a cold pool), often ones with massage jets. The one I go to has an outdoor hot tub, made up to look like a natural hot spring, so it’s nice to sit out there at night and talk.
The baths are the place where you see the most
culturally different awkward things. I have no idea what the women’s side is like, but there is a section for lying down on the floor and some men like to sleep there, face up. I have seen two men sleeping next to each other, holding hands. In the context, there was nothing gay about it, since in Korea I could totally imagine two straight men doing that, but it was strange. As well, since Koreans are very big into skin exfoliation, you can pay a guy to rub you down with what is basically a scouring pad and get all your dead skin off. There are some things I will do as a cross-cultural experience, but lying down naked on a table and having a practically naked old man scrub all my dead skin off is not one of them.
When you finally feel like getting out of the baths, you go back up to the changing room, dry off and put on your uniform and then go out to rejoin the women (or men, if you’re a woman). This is the actual jjimjilbang part of it. Here you can go into hot rooms and lie around, sweating a lot. However, there are many other things to do. Such as eat. Most jjimjilbangs have a cafeteria there where you can get drinks and snacks and even full meals. There are massage chairs and pool tables and karaoke booths and places just to sit around and talk or place cards or watch TV. In other words, it’s a spoil-yourself-with-whatever-you-like-best sort of place.
Personally, I don’t like to sweat that much, so I don’t go into the hot rooms for very long, if at all. My ideal time is to go in the baths for a while, then go up and eat and hang out, and maybe use a massage chair once or twice. Lemonade and boiled eggs are very popular foods in jjimjilbang.
Another good feature about many jjimjilbangs is that the key has a microchip on it, so if you want to buy something, you only have to scan the key and then pay for everything when you leave. This lets you not have to carry money around and so, buy a lot more than you normally would. Win win, right?
Whenever you are tired of having fun, you go down, take another shower to wash off all the sweat, and get changed back into your street clothes. Then you check out and find out with shock just how much money you racked up on food, drink, massage chairs, air hockey, etc. You leave feeling very, very relaxed. It’s a good time.