Jjimjilbangs are a combination of spa, family getaway, and cheap sleeping space. At least that was what this one was all about – admittedly the one we stayed in was one of the larger ones, being in Seoul and near a train station (I just looked it up — It is also apparently one of the more famous ones). I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this.
When we checked in we were given a uniform. A loose fitting shirt and pair of shorts identical that everyone wore; like a prison uniform or scrubs. Really, it was pajamas. Everyone wearing the exact same pair of pajamas like we were all on the same spa and sleep team. We also got a key numbered to designate our locker spaces; everyone wore theirs around their wrist, its springy bright cord reminiscent of a friendship jelly bracelet or an old phone cord.
Uniform in hand, we first went to an area to take off our shoes and store them in a small locker. Then it was upstairs to get into our proper attire. Women went to one floor, men to the other, so our group separated. The first floor was for co-ed mingling, but the rest of the place was gender segregated. Another set of lockers – these bigger – so we could put away our civilians and become one with the masses. Except for my skin tone and hair color, I looked like everyone else in the shapeless getup.
Back downstairs to look for the men. They were nowhere to be found. We scoured all the offerings on the first floor – snack bars, an arcade, a common room where some watched TV, but most just lounged about. Sauna rooms and an ice room where young couples had a chance to snuggle and others just enjoyed soaking up the warmth or cold. A restaurant, an internet lounge and a movie theater. People everywhere and of every age from toddlers to the elderly all here to doing all sorts of things before going to sleep. Purchases such as food, arcade games and internet time are recorded by swiping your bracelet on electronic pads; payment is due at check out.
My friend (a Korean woman who married one of Dave’s good friends) and I gave up searching for the men and went back upstairs to enjoy the spa. In a jjimjilbang spa clothing is prohibited, so I stripped off my uniform and placed it in the locker.
Walking around naked, I found myself sucking in my belly even though no one seemed to care. Even my white skin seemed uninteresting to everyone else. Yet I remained unhappy with my body in a place that displayed all shapes and sizes. My body certainly was unique (relatively large breasts on a medium-sized frame), but so were ALL THE BODIES. I continued to the spa.
The spa area is amazing. Several pools of varying temperatures ranging from the scalding to the freezing; some of the pools have jets, while others are filled with water containing minerals meant to improve health by either reducing arthritis, increasing energy, or decreasing stress. There are also optional treatments such as massage and the salt rub, a Korean specialty.
After relaxing in the pools, it was time for sleep. We stayed up pretty late (it was around 2AM by the time we decided to turn in) so space was at a premium. We managed to grab the last two spots on a heated floor; thankfully we had grabbed two pillows – more like plastic covered square cushions – downstairs when we were looking for the guys. Normally people sleep on foam mats along the walls, but those were all taken. Bare floor space in the middle of the room was all that was left; my friend and I slept head to head, trying to leave enough space on either side of us for when others got up in the middle of the night. There were about 50 women in the room.
I didn’t really sleep. Sleeping on a bare floor among a bunch of people I didn’t know proved to be a little much for me. But I can see me getting used to the concept and I would try it again. Nevertheless, that day I gave up slumber early and left the room to head downstairs. People who had gone to bed later than I were still curled up on the floors, in stairwells, and even under tables. Note to self (and others): if it’s crowded at the jjimjilbang scope out a place to sleep sooner rather than later.
Eventually the rest of my group woke up, found each other, and we checked out. Unlimited access to the spa pools and the right to fight for a place to sleep ran us $13 a person. Pretty damn cheap even if the sleeping accommodations aren’t my favorite. The other reason it was worth every penny?: The experience of the jjimjilbang reminded me that beauty is culturally constructed; there is no universal ideal shape, curve, or skin tone. People don’t come to a jjimjilbang to show off or judge others. They come here to relax and take care of themselves.
Sorry I didn’t take pictures – it felt like a violation of people’s privacy and rude to do so. But you can check it out here!