Getting naked with strangers: Adventures in a Korean jjimjilbang
Kat: I was standing butt naked in front of a hundred Korean women. And they were staring.
Sounds like every woman’s worst nightmare, but getting naked with strangers is just another Korean social activity. It’s the opposite of anything we’ve been brought up with in western countries, to be protective of our nakedness. The jjimjilbang is a thermal spa, much like the heated baths of Budapest or Iceland. We’d been meaning to check out Spaland for a long time. Spaland is one of Korea’s largest spas. It’s part of the Shinsegae Shopping Mall in Busan. My friends had told me about how amazing it was, with Egyptian and Roman saunas, Finnish hot rooms and of course, the spas.
Justin: Okay let’s get jiggy with it. I’ll be honest. I’m not great getting naked in front of other people, especially foreign cultures who tend to gawk endlessly at you anyway. I have scarring memories of school camp and my towel falling down as I exited the toilet cubicle because I didn’t have enough time to wash the shampoo from my hair. Ahhh the memories, the trauma.
But I vowed that I would experience all of Korea and that definitely includes getting stark naked and submitting to a communal scolding for the sake of vitality and tradition.
Kat: On entry we separated into men’s and women’s sections. Thankfully bathing is segregated. In the ladies change room young and old women walked starkers between the baths. I’d never seen this much nakedness since, well, ever. It’s one of those situations where you try not to look but you can’t not look because naked people are everywhere!
Changing quickly into the spa clothes I went upstairs to check out the saunas to avoid getting naked as long as possible. There are two floors of saunas in Spaland, ranging from 80C to 36C. Most of the rooms were filled with sleeping Koreans. It took me a while to find a spare space in any of the hot rooms. The locals were sprawled out on the floor. In the Himalayan Salt Room I found a space leaning against the glowing orange walls. Four ajumas nattered away as a cell phone rang. Relaxation wasn’t possible in this tiny room of noise. In the pyramid room any hope of meditation was shattered by three friends chatting loudly.
Abandoning any hope of relaxing in the saunas, I faced my fear of getting naked with strangers. There was nothing for it but to take off my clothes and hop into the thermal baths. I walked into the hot room. On my left women blow dried their hair. In front, an old woman scrubbed her friend’s back. Everyone was naked. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a woman staring at me. And another. I slipped quickly into the closest bath up to my neck trying to hide.
Justin: For me, it didn’t start well. I got a hand towel and was trying to cover my package with it à la Adam and fig leaves but in a way that didn’t look too forced or stilted. All I was thinking was how to elegantly do this without attracting too much attention to myself and find a way into a hot bath. I chose the wrong one first, the hottest at a piping 43C. Yowsers! Things were getting uncomfortable.
And the stares were occurring with force. It was then I realised I missed the vital first step of the process – shower before going into a bath. The untrustworthy waygook strikes again and tries to avoid the established way of doing things.
Kat: Korean women have an obsession with appearances. There’s always something they want to fix about themselves. But in the jjimjilbang everyone is equal. Everything’s on display. Every piece of flabby stomach, every bit of cellulite, every flat bottom. It made me feel less inferior about myself; at 20kgs over the desirable weight of Koreans, I’ve often felt pressured to be thinner than I am.
I soon stopped worrying about being naked and tried another bath. I still got stared at, but I met the eye of anyone who looked at me. They always looked away. Meanwhile…
Justin: I tried to collect myself and head into a sauna. I looked for one that was empty. I opted for a 83C sauna, of such intensity and heat the Koreans all avoided it. Koreans generally have good tolerance when it comes to extreme heat and cold, they’ve been exposed to the extremes of their seasons all their life. I lasted about 4 minutes in this sauna before needing to race out and douse myself under a cold shower.
How to describe it? Unique, Korean and odd. I prefer wearing some swimwear in these places. I did actually feel quite refreshed and invigorated afterwards. Korea takes you to a different universe, a different way to looking at the world, a different way of being. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable. Spaland combined these two elements thoroughly!
Kat: In the end, I did relax in the baths, but it’s hard to pretend that you’re not in a room full of butt naked Koreans.
How to get to Spaland
Spaland is located on the 1st floor of Shinsegae Mall, where all the designer shops are. You can get there easily by catching the subway to Centum City.