Korea offers many experiences alien to the Western world. The 찜질방 (jimjilbang) is no exception. ‘Bang’ holding a meaning far from its western counterpart, denotes room, ‘jimjil,’ denotes hot bath. Put plainly, a jimjilbang is a gender-segregated area for naked cleansing. A place for Koreans, old and young, tall and small, hairy and not so hairy; to congregate in a giant sweaty room, naked. To share bath water, naked. To eat hard-boiled eggs, naked. And to give ones friend a deep body scrub, naked. Kind of like cats, but with less tongue.
Today, In Sasang, Busan, I made my jimjilbang debut (putting aside the shinsegae of the jimjilbang scene, Spa land). Post-10km race my body was pining for a hot cleanse. (Although I’ve since been informed, and experienced in waking up this morning feeling 50 years my senior, I should ignore said pines. Post-race, cold is gold, thank you Martin Impey!). Feeling accomplished with our placement in 3rd, my fellow racer, Dillon, and I, boarded a takshi and requested ‘jimjilbang kayo.’ The old Korean teeth sucking chestnut, translated as ‘I need time to think/this is causing me a slight amount of stress,’ was employed. ‘잠시만요’ (wait a minute). He tapped atop his nav, and confirming the jimjilbangs popular prominence in SK, he discovered an exclusive category alloted for said venues. He looked just as pleasantly surprised as us. Niceh. As a veteran Korean, therefore, presumably, a lover of naked sweat-fests, we trusted his choice in a suitable bathing destination and enjoyed the unknown adventuring.
Jimjilbang, it technically wasn’t. Jimjilbangs offer gender-segregated sau-nas, hot baths, showers and body scrubs from close friends/staff (if you’re putting up the won). Alongside communal, non-gender biased and disappointingly, non-naked, areas. Often kitted out with k-drama showing TVs, nooks for napping, magical ‘massaji’s by chair and smokey steam rooms. Our ajeossi (old Korean guy)/jimjilbang seeker, opted for a ‘sau-na.’ No non-naked area included. He must be a fan of his birthday suit.
Whilst Dillon had an unruly Vietnamese kid spitting at him, I was kindly treated to the dummies guide to jimjilbang etiquette. Itching to soothe my sore accomplished muscles, upon entering the sau-na, I went straight for the tub. But oh what a big anneyo anneyo (no no). I noticed some stares as I slowly submerged myself in the searingly hot pot of over-shared water, as occasionally occurs when you’re constantly holding the foreigner card, particularly naked, but eyes spent longer than usual lingering. Before I could even begin contemplating their motives, in the flashest of flashes, an ajumma came to my inappropriate jimjilbanging behaviour rescue. ‘You dirty. Face wash, hair wash, everywhere wash.’ Her body language uttered. I acquired a shower gel sachet and set about my pre-bathing clean. This didn’t sit well with the seasoned jimjilbangers. A few moments later a fellow mentor/ajumma accomplice stepped in for further educating, it seemed she was fully equipped for providing a jimjilbang initiation. I don’t think this was her first.
Her tools were shampoo, hair rinse and shower gel, pre-squeezed onto a pink scrubbing cloth. With the latter came a complimentary short arm-scrubbing demonstration, disappointingly we weren’t on full-body-scrub-providing friendship terms. (A common facet of a regular jimjilbang routine). She wasn’t rude or impatient in her endeavour, but remained solemn looking throughout. Very transactional. Business-like. She was there to ensure the order of the jimjilbang remained intact, secured through this welcoming clean, no niceties required.
Feeling very well cared for, and basking in my freshly washed scent, I hygienically rejoined the comforting sting of the steaming bath. Soon after, it came to light, her work was not done. I’d gotten the first rule down, my initiator squeezed the shampoo into my palm herself, but was there a second? Had I disrupted the order once again? The snack bar lady approached me, uttering ’emo’ ( aunt, i.e. an actual aunt or a non-related female elder) as she handed over a plastic coffee carrying tumbler. Was coffee consumption a requirement or a subtle indication her body laundering intentions weren’t so transactional? I assumed neither; and enjoyed it as a simple cup of kindness.
My initation complete, kindness coffee consumed; I left feeling cleansed, relaxed, high on nakedness endorphins and warm; both inside and out.
And, could I have said naked more times? And if I could, and did, would that have made it all the more readable?