What are some activities that will embed one into Korean culture? Where can one go for some requiescence and get away from the menagerie of all the social goings-on? Well, of course, the answer is the Jjimjilbang.
Jjimjilbangs – 'Jjimjil' meaning heated bath; 'bang' meaning room – are everywhere: If you have seen a neon-lit sign entitled '24', chances are it's a Jjimjilbang. It's a place where families and friends go to convene. In English-speaking countries we tend to go to each others' houses to hang out; in Korea people go to a Jjimjilbang.
So what is it? A Jjimjilbang is a mix of sauna, spa, entertainment – and accommodation if you want to spend the night. It's a gender-separated bathhouse, furnished with saunas, hot tubs, massage tables and heated floors. In most – but not all – there is a co-ed section where you can stroll around in your baggy clothes and sweat until you drop. The rooms all vary in temperature to the guests' preferred state – and each has a different ambiance created by the various assortment of minerals, crystals, and stones that decorate the walls. Each room also purports to have traditional medicinal properties, too. If all this talk of stones and herbal remedies sounds too much like a hippie's empyrean, don't fret; it just means the walls look cool.
As you roam the corridors you will also see hundreds of boiled eggs. These are priced at around 500 won each. Sikhye – a traditional Korean rice wine – is also on offer for around a 1000 won. It's good to ingest some protein as you soon loose your energy in the hot rooms. And when all the moisture has seeped out of your body and your head is feeling a bit spacey, it's time to go to the shower room. Here the sexes are separated; each go to their own floor. This is where you have to strip down and banish any lingering apprehension. A variety of jacuzzi await – each varying in temperature like the rooms in the co-ed section; some are ice-cold, some are hot.
For a country that is traditionally conservative it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Koreans have no problem walking around naked with each other – they love it. It's here where the Confucian nature of Korean society becomes apparent: father and son, mother and daughter, friend and friend – even grandparents. It spans generations in a remarkably non-judgemental way, which is something I have never experienced before. In our home countries we are much more individually-minded; just the idea of conversing naked with your fellow countryman would fill most people with a genuine sense of fear. From my experience in the UK, just making eye contact with a stranger is enough to make them think you are probably a murderer with every intention of following their every move before going home to slay their family.
Jjimjilbangs arguably offer a truer reflection of Korean society than any other pastime. It's not for everyone – but I didn't think I would ever do it myself and found it to be a richly rewarding experience. Prices vary from place, but are usually priced between 5,000 – 8,000 won. And you can stay there for as long as you want – even spend the night and sleep there if you want (it's much cheaper than a Motel).
The bottom line is that any anxieties you may have about walking round in the nude with a room full of people are purely chimerical. This is a place where people bare all – both figuratively and literally speaking – and its all the better for it.