Getting Naked in Korea-The Jimjilbang Experience

After catching yet another cold I decided to break down and try the Korean spa known as a Jimjilbang.  Koreans and sauna enthusiast alike swear that going to a sauna will help combat and prevent the common cold.  The theory is that when you’re in a sauna you are manually inducing a fever which in turn helps eliminate the virus.  Koreans also believe that along with sweating out toxins you sweat out germs thus preventing colds as well.  Koreans are not alone in this thinking and a few studies were conducted in Scandinavia, Germany, and Austria which all conclude that Saunas can help relieve and prevent the common cold and its symptoms.

With this in mind I was determined to brave the infamous Jimjilbang; a place that foreigners love or hate depending on their level of comfort as it is an all nude environment.  Koreans can be very blunt and are not shy about asking ones age, pointing out imperfections, or asking questions Americans might find awkward.  As I walked towards the fitness center right down the road from my apartment, I knew that the level of awkwardness would only be enhanced by the completely nude surroundings of a Korean Sauna.

Our local gym

I entered the building and asked the woman at the front desk how much “Uhl mah eh yo?”  She replied “Oh chun” which is 5,000 Won or about $5.  These places run 24 hours and there is no time limit, so all in all, it’s a pretty good deal.  After paying she handed me a key where I proceeded to take my shoes off and place them in the locker.  The sauna is on the fourth floor so I hopped in the elevator and went up.  As I stepped out of the elevator I looked at an unmarked door which I opened to discover the locker room.  While I undressed I looked around and noticed that there were whole families walking around and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, grandpas, sons, and dads together, letting it all hang out.  I do have to admit I was uncomfortable at first but after showering and going into a room full of hot tubs I was quite relaxed.  They had many different pools of water varying in temperature from scorching hot to freezing cold, and some even had minerals and salts added to relieve different ailments.  They also had two dry saunas and a row of granite slabs which were heated so that you can lie down and take a nap on the heated stone.

After soaking in the largest pool of heated water I decided to try the dry sauna.  As I opened the door a blast of hot air hit me in the face followed by blank stares from about ten Korean men.  It was too late to turn around so I entered and squeezed in between two burly Koreans.  I looking around and the room I noticed it was similarly decorated to Hugh Heffner’s grotto minus the nude and attractive Playboy bunnies and replaced by old and naked Korean men.  The ceiling was incased in large purple quartz crystals and at the back of the room there was a massive heating unit that made the place according to the thermometer 93 degrees Celsius.  If that thermometer was accurate that meant that the room was 199.4 degrees Fahrenheit, literally almost boiling.  I could only handle about five minutes before my survival instincts kicked in and told me to get the hell out of there so I left and went and sat in a different and warmer pool than before.


A few minutes later an older man scooted up next to me and asked “Where are you from”?  We talked for a while and he spoke very good English; I soon discovered he was a graduate from the high school where I taught.  This made the man very excited and he started to shake my hand and after the normal few shakes that should have concluded our hand shake the movement stopped but the hand did not release.  In Korea it is not uncommon for men to be more comfortable with each other than their foreign counterparts.  In my all-boys high school it is a normal occurrence to see boys holding each other’s hands or stroking their friend’s hair.  As I sat there clasping hands, naked with a male stranger in a hot tub, the talking continued until he finally released my hand to point to my chest “Very hairy, your wife like”?  I responded with an unsure “Yes” and he replied “Good, she would have to, nice to meet you,” and then, just like that, he left.  After my new friend walked away I decided to follow suit and call it a day.  Whether or not I alleviated my cold, I left the Jimjilbang with a new foreign experience that will definitely remain with me, and hopefully my cold will not.

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