At the Bathhouse in South Korea

by Dina Lyuber

Being naked in public, for a North American, is the stuff of nightmares. Why? Is it because our bodies are so embarrassing? Perhaps it’s just a social convention; we are expected to hide our bodies, and so we feel awkward in public spaces when we must expose them. Maybe this is why many tourists avoid bathhouses.  After all, they have a perfectly nice, private bathtub in their hotel room. And back home, they can wear a bathing suite as they sink into the hot tub at the community pool.

They may have avoided exposure, but they have no idea what they are missing.

I spent a year in South Korea, in a small town called Gimhae. My husband and I occupied a tiny one-and-a-half room apartment that was walking distance from the hagwon (English school) where we worked.

In fact, everything was within walking distance in Gimhae. A nearby park had outdoor exercise equipment where the elderly pedaled and stretched their sinewy limbs. A stone-lined path that one could cross barefoot was perfect for reflexology, and a large pond  hosted a fountain-light-and-music show in the evenings. Neon lights flickered on every block and made the little suburb look like the height of urbanity. There were karaoke bars and DVD rooms, and cheap,  delicious Korean food around the corner – kimbap and bibimbapand spicy barbecued meat with mushrooms and garlic on the grill. Heavy, wet rain  fell in weighted sheets from dawn until nightfall. Small children who ran free of their parents in exuberant hordes huddled around ancient arcade games outside of corner stores. Teenagers in school uniforms talked on their cell phones. Families played badminton in the park with birdies catching in the wind-gusts. Dead-eyed-but-alive fish swam in crowded tanks outside of restaurants, and octopi writhed in tubs at the night market between baskets of purses and shoes.  

But among all these flashes of nostalgic memory, the one that stays forefront in my mind is the Korean bathhouse.  Near our home was a large shopping mall; the first three floors were brightly lit and filled with clothing stores and posters of photoshopped models in brand-name outfits. One would never guess that the top floor of this ordinary mall opened up to something completely foreign: a large jimjilbang.  At the front desk, a smiling Korean girl took our W9000 (roughly ten dollars) and handed us a pair of orange pyjamas and a wristband. Here, my husband and I parted ways into our separate changing rooms, to enter separate baths.

The wristband resembled a plastic watch. It held a chip that allowed you to access and pay for anything at the bathhouse– from opening lockers, to booking spa treatments, to buying fermented eggs at the snack bar. Shoes were removed at the entrance. Inside, the changing room was lined with row after row of wood-paneled lockers. I found mine and got undressed. The towels provided were small: hand towels, we would call them. They could not be used for covering oneself, but they could be used to towel dry or wrap one’s hair.  Once the locker shut, there was not a shred of clothing between me and the world.

Thus exposed, I left the changing room for the bath area through a set of fogged-up glass doors that led to sit-down and stand-up showers. Korean women generally chose the sit-down ones. They brought plastic baskets with shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, lotions and razors, loofahs and washcloths. They scrubbed each others’ backs rigorously and applied mud masks, chatting while they shaved their legs. They filled plastic buckets with warm water and dumped it over their heads to rinse. Then they expertly wrapped their gleaming wet hair into the small towels. Their nudity was not a matter of awkwardness or embarrassment. It was not a matter of anything – it was simply the norm. In the cooler saunas, kept at a comfortable 28oC, there were even small televisions tuned to Korean soap-operas which women watched naked on the woven floor mats while drinking green tea. On the men’s side, I later learned, men lined up nude to get their haircut at the barbershop. They sat comfortably in the chair with a newspaper across their lap next to a fully dressed barber in a shirt and tie.

I always showered in the stand-up stalls out of habit. I never had the forethought to bring my own basket of supplies, so I used the free soap in dispensers on the wall. Past the showers, in a haze of steam, I could just make out the rectangular stone baths.  They ran from ice cold to burning hot, some with jets, some made of marble or jade, some boasting aromatic waters or special properties. The space was large and dimly lit with blood-orange lamps. Voices and running water echoed off the stone walls. The jet-tubs were wide and shallow, and the jets ran along in varying pressures to massage my neck, back, arms, feet – the water pleasantly warm.  But the best way to ease the tension from my mind and my limbs was to use the alternating temperatures of the stone baths.

I eased gingerly into the scorching water until I felt overheated – and then I plunged into the cold bath. My nerves screamed in protest, then pulsed with unsteady, invigorating shock, then grew comfortably soft, pliable. I emerged from the cold water superhuman: I could sink easily into the hottest bath or rest comfortably across a cedar bench in the hottest sauna with my head light and my body like jelly. It is a feeling unlike any other I’ve experienced – a feeling of unencumbered relaxation. When the effect wore off – when the sauna began to choke me with its heat – I dipped back into the icy water, and back into the soft, steamy warmth, and my mind would float gloriously up to a disembodied calm. Untethered from the world, my body had ceased to be an embarrassment:  it had become, instead, skin and sinew, muscle and bone, blood and breath. 

By the end, I felt so light that I had the sensation of floating through the whorls of steam and shower-spray, back to the bright, open changing room to find my clothes and re-enter the outside world.

Dina Lyuber is an ESL Teacher and freelance writer with an English degree from the University of Calgary. She got her start teaching English while living in Japan and South Korea. She now lives in Canada with her husband and two children.

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