During my first week here, family offered to take me to a jimjilbang and I nicely refused them. I still wasn't sure if I could handle being naked with a bunch of tiny Korean ladies, much less being naked with tiny korean ladies that I know. When I finally decided to give this thing a try (you can't come to Korea and not go to a bath house, right?), I opted to fly solo. I figured I rather be a little clueless than be with naked with my mother in law.
I'm pretty sure you are supposed to do the bath house portion of the jimjilbang first and then go to the clothed sauna portions. I decided that I would do whatever I darn well pleased today as I couldn't handle the scarier part until I was seriously relaxed. I threw on my uniform and ran away from the dressing room. (Ok, no running. I was a grown up about it all.) They had different rooms for you to sauna away in with different temperatures. I started off in the 39 degree salt room (you are laying on salt rocks) and after feeling pretty relaxed, decided to move to the 49 degree salt room. At the beginning, I felt like I was going to leave with burn marks all over my body. As I acclimated, I hit a point where I think I could have fallen asleep. Maybe I was starting to cook? I then headed to the ice room, which felt pretty cool (hehe) after the previous one. I then decided to repeat the cycle but this time around the 39 degree room wasn't hot enough so I went to the 49 degree one. So relaxing, folks. Maybe it's just the mom in me, but it felt rejuvenating to lay on what felt like a bed of burning legos, using a big ole salt block as my pillow. There was another room that was shaped like a oven and said 72 degrees. The Korean on the door had the word fire on it. Because I've read Hansel and Gretel, I decided to skip this one. No need to be grilled up in Korea. Now I was sufficiently relaxed and running out of time. Never go to a jimjilbang when you have to meet your kids in 2 hours. More time would have been ideal.
Now to the good part. Oh. My. Goodness. I never fully adjusted to locker rooms in high school, I really don't dig being in the swimming pool locker room. But I did exactly what Lilly told me to do. Get naked and forget that you are. Best words of jimjilbang advice ever. From the mouth of babes. They have different pools that you move back and forth from of varying temperatures and contents. One pool was purple. I'm not sure what I was soaking in but I'm pretty sure it had plenty of health benefits. Right? Another one was mugwort and there was a long ole list of health benefits on a sign. But it was in Korean and I didn't have a phone on me to translate. It probably cured me of at least 10 life threatening ailments. There were also two saunas (49 and 72 degrees. Celcius, of course.) I went back and forth between cool and hot, every now and again going to the cool sauna. Cool as in it didn't kill me. It had this strange combination of "I don't feel like I can breathe" and a tingly feeling as my pores were releasing every toxin they could. Ok, I don't actually know what my pores were doing, but it felt pretty dang good.
I was doing all of this while waiting for the ladies in their underwear to call me over. At every bath house, there are ajummas who over an intense scrub down. I don't know how much it normally is, but I handed them 20,000 won ($18) and I got a full body scrub and a cucumber mask. (They had a price list but I didn't have enough jimjilbang vocab to make any sense of it. This was pretty intimidating as I'd read that they scrub every nook and cranny but I sucked it up, took of my big girl panties and made it work. I basically used an age old technique used by toddlers. If I can't see you, you can't see me. At this bathhouse they have you lay on a massage table of sorts for your scrub down. It takes about twenty five minutes and takes off so much dead skin that you see big balls of dead skin all over the table, despite the ajumma's continual cleaning of the table as she scrubs you. The cucumber mask was freshly grated cucumber and did a superb job of keeping my eyes closed. Every nook and cranny. Every now and again, she would throw warm water all over me and start again. She ended with some pounding, stretching and massaging. I've had massages before but this was a whole new realm of relaxation. There are no words. It was the most...agh! Really. No words. But I suddenly understood why this is such a huge part of the Korean culture (up to now I thought it was just to compensate for their tiny bathrooms at home). This isn't something just for women. It isn't just for older folks. I only saw a few kids because I went in the middle of the school day (strategically so!) but normally there can be generations that go jimjilbanging together, scrubbing each other down and talking together. And then I had a realization. I am soon going back to a land that is short on jimjilbangs. The nearest one to my home is 4 hours away and 4 times as expensive. I think we need to move to Korea. I'm pretty sure I could handle anything life throws my way with a weekly trip to the bathhouse. So all in all, it was a pretty life changing week. I now eat kimbap (guess what I had for lunch today??) and I visit jimjilbangs. Lilly is excited to go to one together before going home. Everyone else refuses to go with us, which is why I think we should go to the one with an indoor waterpark. You can call it manipulation but I call it natural consequences for refusing to try scary things.