Squeaky CleanJuly 13, 2007
Oh, the joy that is going to a Korean bathhouse! Tuesday was made even more perfect by a post-run trip to our neighborhood bathhouse. Besides family, friends, and food, this is definitely the thing I will miss most about Korea.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to write this post, mainly because I felt that since these basically don’t exist in the US, photo illustrations would be indispensable. However, for obvious reasons, cameras are not allowed in bathhouses! But with a little imagination on the part of readers and some help from google images, hopefully I can give you all some feel for the experience.
There are plenty of websites that give general descriptions of Korean bathhouses and what goes on inside of them. One of the better ones I’ve come across provides the following background information:
Everybody from Japanese tourists to Korean ajummas, or housewives, government officials, and even the occasional fugitive are stripping down in steam rooms, whirlpools, spas and saunas throughout the country. . . .
The revival in popularity of bathhouses comes despite a decline in their traditional role. Up to about 20 years ago, the lack of indoor plumbing meant most Koreans had little choice but to go down to their neighbourhood mokyoktang, or public bathhouse, every few days. There, they would wash up, relax and catch up on the latest gossip. Bathhouses were also everybody’s favourite neighbourhood watering hole.
But as more and more Koreans moved into modern apartments and homes in the 1980s and 90s, public bathhouses started going out of business. “Why would anyone go all the way to the bathhouse when they could easily shower at home?” says Kim Soo Chul of the Korea Bathhouse Industry Association. “People just stopped going.” And even today, bathhouses are still closing. Kim says more than 100 old-style bathhouses, or around 5% of the total, have shut down this year in Seoul alone.
But some bathhouses have managed to buck the trend by going upmarket, becoming everything regular showers and baths aren’t–bigger, better, and more luxurious. Once simple showers-and-tub affairs, there are now multiplex mokyoktangs full of scented tubs (options include herbal, green tea, and germanium), a variety of saunas (wet, dry, salt, medicated), and a menu full of massages (exfoliating, aromatherapy, shiatsu). Many are outfitted with industrial-strength steam rooms, others have television rooms, communal sleeping quarters, restaurants and beauty salons. Waterpia, a giant wet amusement park in Kangwon province, is the biggest of the bunch. Its 10,000 daily visitors can choose from 15 different hot tubs and eight saunas.
About once every couple of weeks, Matty and I try to set aside 90 minutes or so to visit our local bathhouse, which, as the French would say, is very “correct”: by no means luxurious, but modern, clean, good-sized, and with a satisfactory offering of services and amenities. Entry costs about $4/person, but you can stay as long as you like. In my opinion, any visit less than an hour isn’t worth the trip. Not only is the experience immensely relaxing and invigorating (a favorite hang-over cure), I swear that you have never realized how dirty you were until going to the bathhouse and that you will never again feel as clean until you go again!
Besides your entry fee, all you really need to bring with you are your personal toiletries. My own bathhouse kit includes the following: toothbrush, shampoo/conditioner, razor, hair hot oil treatment, facial mudpack . . . and, most important of all, an “Italy towel.”
For reasons I will explain, this very abrasive hand-towel is by far the most important bathhouse tool — to be without one defeats the entire purpose of the experience. However, if you forget yours, you can always buy one there for about $0.50.
Korean bathhouses are sex-segregated, so I’ll only be able to describe the experience from a woman’s point of view. After comparing notes with Matty, however, it seems that the men’s experience is identical except for the facts that the women’s side offers a variety of cosmetic procedures such as eyebrow threading, eyelash extension application, and in some bathhouses, even unregulated botox injections!
After paying your entrance fee, you pass through a little room where you take off your shoes, put them in one of the provided lockers and take the key with you. You then enter the main antechamber to the baths. This looks more or less like any large, comfortable, clean, and well-lit locker room you would find in the US. The only differences are that you can buy a large variety of hot and cold drinks (for before, during, or after bath enjoyment), cosmetic products (Italy towels, toothbrushes, shampoos, etc.), and even clothing and lingerie. There is also a central seating area if you would like to hang with the gaggle of ajummas watching the soap operas that are always playing on the big-screen TV, as well as number of smaller adjoining rooms in which the above-mentioned cosmetic treatments are administered. Finally, at the far end of this room is a vanity area with large mirrors, hair dryers, complimentary lotions, hair products, etc.
Generally, I bypass all of this and head straight to a locker and strip down. I soon realized that to try to cover myself in any way, as women normally do in the US when walking around locker rooms, would invite bizarre looks (not that the towels provided are large enough to do so anyway) — carefree unselfconscious nudity is the norm here. I think many American women find this the most intimidating aspect of going to the Korean bathhouse — the idea that you have to walk around totally naked and have people looking at you — but really, no one is looking and no one cares that you (think you) are fatter, thinner, saggier, hairier, etc., than everyone else!
At this point, I head to the bath area carrying only my toiletry kit and a small towel to use as a pillow in the tubs or to sit on in the blistering hot steam room. Matty once told me that a recent poll revealed that the number one fantasy of Korean men was to be a fly on the wall of the women’s baths. Well, the following images are probably not exciting enough to fulfill those fantasies, but they’re the best I could do. (It should also be noted that the picture of the woman covering herself as she lounges on the side of the tub is misleading — I have yet to see anyone cover herself in this manner.) Basically, if you imagine walking into a room with a combination of these photos, you have a pretty good idea of what the inside of a bathhouse looks like.
As you walk into ours (a relatively large one, I believe), there are to your right about 5 rows of 10 personal stations, exactly as you see in the black and white photo. In the central area are 4 granite tubs, each about 2 feet deep and large enough for about 10 people to soak in comfortably, hot-tub style. The first warm one (40 degrees C / 104 F) bubbles like a hot tub; the next two are set at 42 degrees C (107 F) and 45 C (113 F). Unfortunately none of these are infused with minerals or green tea (as are some others I’ve experienced), but there is a nice Hinoki tub, set at 45 C and made of the famous Japanese cypress prized for its aromatherapeutic and curative properties. The last tub is an ice bath set at 20 degrees C (68 F) — brrr! — and is twice as long and deep as the others, which allows for a nice little swim, if you can stand the cold for more than 60 seconds! On the left are two rooms, a wet sauna (65 degrees C / 149 F) and a dry sauna set at a blistering 88 degrees C (190 F)!! At the far end of the bath area is a 10′x10′ granite floor set under heat lamps for resting/sleeping and, finally, another area with two massage tables where you can pay for someone to scrub every inch of you raw, then shampoo and condition your hair.
The only real rule to follow is that before soaking in any of the tubs, you must sit at one of the individual stations and take a soap and water shower. This is for obvious sanitary reasons. I should also say that I am someone who is loathe to walk around a US locker room without flip flops and that idea of sitting bare-bottomed on any public surface seems rather gross to me, but for whatever reason, I am not bothered at all by this here. Perhaps it’s because the place not only looks, feels, and smells immaculate, I’ve also witnessed how diligently all surfaces and each of the tubs are scrubbed clean on a twice daily basis.
After the soap and water shower, you are free to do as you like. I personally start in the warm bubbling bath, then try to work my up in temperature, soaking and relaxing for about 10 minutes in each tub. By the time I’m done in the 45 C bath, I’m feeling almost dizzy from the heat — a perfect time to jump into the ice bath! After about a minute or two, my heart starts beating again and my lips are purple, which means that I’m ready to try the saunas. The wet one is usually not a problem, but I’ve not yet been able to endure the dry one for more than a minute. I sometimes even have to stand on a towel because the floor is so incredibly hot. I’m amazed at the women who sit in there and klatsch for 10+ minutes at a time.
After at least 40 minutes of alternating hot and cold soak/steam sessions, it’s finally time to scrub. The whole process of head to toe scrubbing takes at least 10-15 minutes, so I generally sit at a personal station with my toiletries at hand, then wash my hair. Both my mud face mask and deep hair conditioner need to sit for ~10 minutes, so I apply these first and the timing works out perfectly. Here is where the Italy towel comes in. You put your hand in it like a mitt and start scrubbing from the feet up. The layers of grime that have been accumulating since the last scrub are finally liberated and let me tell you, it’s pretty gross! Even if you shower daily with soap and water, you will be amazed at the rolls of muck that come off (and keep coming off) as the Italy towel works its magic. This, for example, is my forearm after just a few strokes:
Pretty disgusting, no? Now imagine that times two all over your entire body! You can see how someone might get a bit obsessive about scrubbing and scrubbing until every last dirt roll comes off, which it eventually does, but only after your hand is so sore that you can hardly hold the towel anymore. I can understand why so many people think it’s worth the $10 to have someone else scrub for you. It’s also pretty hard to scrub your own back, so it’s nice to go with friends or family who will happily do it for you. I’ve seen some very tender scenes between mothers and daughters, friends and sisters at the bathhouse. Just the last time I went, in fact, I saw what appeared to be a 90+ year woman sit down to scrub herself when a stranger approached and offered to do it for her. The older woman clearly enjoyed and appreciated the help and conversation. After finishing the scrub-down, it’s time to wash off the hair and mud mask and brush the teeth (you bring your own toothbrush, but the paste is provided). Brushing the teeth is essential. When the rest of your body is so sparkling clean, your teeth will feel absolutely furry in comparison. After a final rinse and dip in the ice bath, it’s back in the locker room to dry off, get dressed, and use all of the complimentary skin toners, lotions, and hair products you like. I love planning these trips just before heading out for a night on the town — there’s no better way to feel like a billion Won!