Korea Series: Jimjilbang: The Secret to Korean Beauty & Relaxation

Korea Series: Jimjilbang: The Secret to Korean Beauty & Relaxation

Had to snag a picture from Chris Backe on TravelWireAsia.com because I couldn’t take pics of nekkid women. He’s a popular blogger on traveling in Korea so go read his post here and his bio is here. Give him a cheer for all the beautiful pics he takes!

Before today, I had heard from a friend about a Turkish bath story where he was scalded in a hot bath and got scrubbed so hard by burly Turkish men that it felt like he got sanded down by sand paper. At the time I laughed at his demise, that is until I was brought into a Korean jimjilbang last night.
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The jimjilbang are large, 24-hr operated gender-segregated public baths with hot tubs, showers, Finnish-style saunas and massage tables.

My boyfriend is Korean and wanted me to get used to his culture, so he got his elder sister (whom I call Unni) to take me to a jimjilbang for some Korean-style bonding with one of her other friends called Jae Hee.

To be honest, I was pretty nervous that our language barrier would be made more stark by considerable time spent together sitting naked in a hot tub, but went along anyway in good spirits.

Here’s how it went…

The Journey Into the Jim Jil Bang

We took a cab and was dropped off by the street. After which we walked past a few doors and took a flight of stairs down from a bright yellow sign, into a weakly-lit narrow walkway that lead up to a recessed counter.

There, Unni paid for our entrance fees and got us some towels. We then proceeded to the shoe lockers to store our footwear, and walked into a hall with another counter where we exchanged our shoe locker keys with banded keys to bigger lockers to store our bags and clothes.

This is when it got a bit uncomfortable. Upon sighting of the first two naked women, I was sure I would have to take everything off, showing my flabs, fats and vejayjay upkeep to my boyfriend’s sister (bearing in mind I just met her a few days ago).

As they had been advising me to lose some weight (I’ll tell you that story another time), I was now risking what could possibly be my execution and subject of conversation to the rest of the family.

But they took their clothes off first, and I had no choice but to follow suit. With shy steps from being conscious about my atypically non-Asian body, I walked behind Unni and Jae Hee, scanning my surroundings to see if anyone was going to point and laugh at my fatness.

But before anybody did, she pushed these glass swing doors open into the jacuzzi area and lo’ and behold’, therein at every corner of the room were dozens of naked Korean women!

There were women of all ages, but they were all Korean except for your KKMOI. From kids to teenage girls, young women to ajummas (Korean aunties), I couldn’t believe my eyes!

Before this, I had always been under the impression that Korean conservatism would naturally mean the women we’re rather prudish, but here they had no qualms about letting it all hang out.

No matter how bushy they were, or how their bellies drooped and boobs hung, nobody was conscious or ashamed about their imperfections. They were unfazed by the full frontal nudity of strangers and were in total liberation mode about their own bodies.

It was the weirdest sight ever, because I had never seen so many naked women in my life. More importantly, I’ve never seen so many Asian women so blasé about their nudity.

My Jimjilbang Experience

(All this while we were naked…)

The Maiden Shower

Unni led us to the common shower areas, where there were stools and mirrors that looks pretty much like the one photographed below, except the one we went to was a little bigger.

We sat down to have a regular shower with soap to clean ourselves before using the public bathtubs. This shower is not assisted.

The Hot Tub

After the shower, we proceeded to the first tub (looks like the one pictured below), which was a scalding hot tub to soak our bodies. There were some other women in there, but by now I figured nobody really cares about my bum so I entered the tub as quickly as I could get used to the heat.

It was hot, REAL HOT! It takes a good 20 minutes of soaking time to melt the scum on the body for a good scrub, so we stayed in there as long as we could.

Alas the heat was unbearable so we moved to another jacuzzi after Jae Hee blurted out dwo yo, dwo yo (meaning hot, hot). The lukewarm temperature in the second tub was comforting but it got a bit boring after a while, so we moved to a third tub.

The Power Jet Tub

The third tub was cooler and had these power jet massagers in strategic points. Two target your upper back, two your waist area, and another two in the front to target your legs.

I enjoyed the fast punching of the water jets, but after about 10 minutes the contact point on my waist started to get really red and itchy from all the prodding.

Jae Hee tells me that the power jets are used to break down fats and to shape the body, so red and itchy is a good sign. We rotated and used this tub thrice, and by the third time I was already a pro at moving my body to let the power jet punch parts of my body I wanted to shape.

There was a 58 celcius sauna room in view, but as we were already so heated up from the hot tub, none of us wanted to go in there. There was also another ice-cold bath, but we just alternated between the three hot tubs.

The Daesugun Hand Scrub

After a good hour, Unni leads us back to the common shower area. There, I was given a brownish paste that smelled a lot like a fragrance-free lye-based natural soap, told to work it into a foam and lather it all over my body.

After that, I was handed a square mitt called the daesugun (better known as the Korean Italy towel) and taught to hold it in at a certain angle for effective exfoliation. It was definitely no walk in the park.

I started rather clumsily, not knowing why I didn’t produce any of those scummy stuff called tae that was promised. This scrub method remove all kinds of residual scum and dead skin cells from one’s body, not unlike the concept of the Hakka towel rub that removes “man”.

Finally I got the hang of it after 5 minutes. Both Unni and Jae Hee helped to scrub my back. The scrub was intense and at times it stung, but eventually a lot of stuff got lifted out of my skin revealing the pink new skin underneath.

The Final Shower

There’s nothing too unusual about the final shower, except that we rinsed all the strings of lifted scum from our bodies and followed it up with a thorough shower using a soft towel and body wash. We also washed our hair before proceeding to towel dry ourselves and get changed.

3 Things that Changed for Me

  • Bonding – It really helped me to bond with my boyfriend’s sister in spite of the language issues. The vulnerability of being stark naked in front of each other builds trust and getting my back scrubbed by her was an intimate and caring experience. I definitely feel a lot closer to her now than I did before the jimjilbang phenomenon.
  • Assumptions – I used to assume that most Asian women looked perfect naked and felt like I was constantly being judged for a body that does not conform to Asian standards of beauty. Especially Oriental women. That’s not true. Even girls with nice arms and legs have funny boobs, bums and protruding bellies. I felt a lot better about my own body after the jimjilbang. Every woman with some hang up about their bodies should definitely go to a jimjilbang for a lesson in “get over it!”
  • Beauty – The baby-smooth skin that I once thought was an Asian mystery and an impossibility for me was now a mystery no more. The daesugun scrub yields the best exfoliation results. Forget the expensive scrubs that don’t work. All you need is a hot bath and a daesugun towel!

So after all that, would I do it again? Sure. Admittedly I’m still not going to be strutting like a peacock at the jimjilbang, but my skin is now Korean-girl standard and I feel a lot better about my own body. For that I think it’s worth every minute spent feeling awkwardly naked in front of dozens of strangers who don’t care.

What about you? Would you go to a jimjilbang?

P/S: Thank you Chris Backe for letting me use your jimjilbang picture before you got a chance to reply. I really wanted to share this story as soon as possible before the brightness of other experiences take over. Off to Myeongdong now! Let me know if it’s okay. If not, I’ll take it down and find another alternative. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Korea Series: Jimjilbang: The Secret to Korean Beauty & Relaxation”

  1. I’ve been to nudist spas before…it’s an enlightening experience as you realise that most non-plastic humans aren’t perfect. Once I went to one, I felt so much better about myself lol!

  2. This would be my first. I guess it’s not so much of the nudist thing as it is about the shift in paradigm. If I had gone to a European nudist spa it wouldn’t have been so weird because it’s common knowledge that some European cultures are very comfortable with nudity as is shown on their TV and magazines.

    But I really didn’t expect Korean women to be so comfortable with nudity (bearing in mind they are quite reserved in public). What a shocker!

  3. THANK YOU SO MUCH for posting the name of the korean italy towel. I had no idea what it was called but knew what it was used for. It was impossible to find to buy on ebay without knowing its name.

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