I wake up in a yellow brick cave next to complete strangers; a sleepy voice across the room mutters something in Korean, and bare feet on tatami mats make a satisfying ‘phut phut’ noise. At around 6am I’m too hot so crawl out and sleepily pad my way to the Charcoal cool room and lay out of the cool stone floor. Before I know it I’m dreaming about kimchi again and wake after two more hours of pleasant and uninterrupted slumber. I need a bath my body tells me, so I go to my locker and strip off and then sink into a pool of Mugwort infused water so hot the steam makes ribbons.
A large red and white sign hanging from the ceiling in the public bathing area declares, quite aptly, ‘Korean buff’. Here you pay for a jimjilbang-mamma to scrub you down from head to toe with an exfoliating cloth, leaving no nook or cranny unscrubbed! Before my ‘buff’ I anxiously point out my sore knee and indicate that it should be treated with extra care. Jimjilbang-mamma tuts and makes soothing noises and lays a warm wet towel over it. Although I’m more than old enough to not need my own mum when I’m sick, it’s achingly comforting to have an older woman care for my poorly leg and I’m momentarily choked by a pang of mother-daughter nostalgia. However, this soon passes as I am scrubbed so voraciously I’m almost scrubbed off the table. It’s worth all the eye watering moments though and I leave with tingling renewed skin feeling like I’m floating on a lily pad.
I’d read about jimjilbangs in blogs and in the guidebooks, but never really believed they existed. Appearing almost too good to be true, I’d been aching to partake in this seemingly mythical ritual since I arrived in Korea. Frustratingly though, the stitches in my knee after an accident had prevented me from being able to ‘jimjilbang’ safely, and I had had to postpone my venture into the great naked unknown for almost three months. But with the help of my savvy co- traveler, Lindsey Coulter, (who’s been jimjilbang-ing for a few months now) I made my first pilgrimage to ‘Dragon Hill’ last Saturday. Since then I’ve gone three times. In fact it’s been so good, I did a night visit at another sauna, ‘Siloam.’
In a world where nakedness is largely taboo, it is immensely liberating to enter a public space where the human body isn’t altered, hidden or disguised and where there is no room for prudishness or critical wandering eyes. I won’t deny that at first all that nudity in one go made the prim English in me blush a little, but once my brain adjusted to the facts, I felt ridiculous in my jeans and T-shirt and couldn’t take my clothes off fast enough.
Jimjilbangs are ubiquitous in Korea and are now a regular part of my working week. Open twenty four hours and for unlimited time they are accessible, cheap and do nothing but pure goodness to the body and the soul. Buffing is not compulsory, but other curious treatments are always on offer from massages to hot stones. I’d shied away from such intimate beauty treatments at home, but find the brisk nature and conceptual distance from modern conventional ‘beauty’ so welcoming and normal that I just can’t get enough now. Coupled with a diet of kimchi mandoo and green tea ice cream, a jimjilbang is the perfect past time for a Sunday afternoon.