Two years ago, as a sprightly young native-teacher-in-waiting, I read up on Korean saunas. These public baths dot the country and polarize foreigners. Some appreciate its soothing hot tubs, steam rooms, and cold-water baths. Others recoil at the thought of public nudity.
So when a former co-teacher invited me for a “Korean cultural field trip” to an out-of-the-way sauna, I hummed with intrigue. His awkward advisories failed to dissuade me.
“You know, Ian, you are a foreign man. So maybe the Korean men in there will be interested in seeing your penis.”
By then, we were halfway there. What was I going to do? Make him turn back? Abandon this generous field trip during school hours?
When we stripped down, I found his off-putting warnings overstated. No one stared at me. I was just some tall dude chilling in the sauna-like like any other dude.
My first sauna experience deserves the title of “spa day.” Between thorough showering, scraping dead skin, sitting in hot rooms, bathing in cold tubs, sipping on coffee and traditional Korean sugary-rice-water (a.k.a. ricey-sugar-water), taking brief naps, enduring a wood-fired dry-heat room, and cooling it in a refrigerator room, two hours passed like two days as my body melted into molten butter.
They say the first hit is the strongest. Every other dose merely chases the pleasure of the first high. I’ve yet to visit a sauna so luxurious. So I continue to chase that dragon.
To clarify, a distinction in terminology is in order.
Korean public bathing facilities separate into 사우나 (“sauna”) and 찜질방 (“jjim-jil-bang”).
A sauna is unisex as everyone is nude. Saunas often house showers, hot tubs, a dry sauna, a steam room, and a cold pool. Many also offer services like haircuts and salt massages.
A jjim-jil-bang contains all sauna elements and then some. A jjim-jil-bang also has a co-ed area (the staff gives out shorts and t-shirts to cover up). This area sports hot rooms with unique qualities like wood-fired heat or mineral wall coatings. They also serve beverages and offer sleeping mats. For this reason, many weary travelers visit jjim-jil-bangs when they need a few winks and can’t find a motel (which often leads to price-gouging of foreign customers during late hours).
I’ve visited one other jjim-jil-bang since my initial experience, and the tepidity of the hot room underwhelmed.
However, I also made a tradition of visiting the sauna on Friday after work. Flatcap often joins me. Lounging in a hot tub, steam room, and cold bath while commiserating over the victories and defeats of the past five days bookends the workweek and christens the weekend in a refreshing fashion.
I’ve also developed a growing comfort with my own body after frequenting these nude baths. As a child, I once felt body-shy. Kids used to laugh and jest at the hole in my chest – my pectus. Pectus excavatum is a structural deformity stemming from abnormal formation of the sternum and ribcage. Essentially, I once used my chest as a cupholder whilst laying on the beach.
In high school, I joined the football team, built 20 pounds of muscle courtesy of off-season weightlifting, and underwent corrective surgery to push my breastbone back into place. I am a far cry from the lanky, malformed boy of my youth.
And yet our self-image often lags several years behind our actual image. Before coming to Korea, I still felt like the scrawny boy who hid in the summer camp office watching old VHS event footage while his cabin-mates splashed shirtless in the pool during midday free time.
Communal gym showers and public bathhouses pushed me off the psychological ledge and presented me with the evidence I needed to re-gain body confidence. In fact, that evidence was the absence of evidence. People saw me. Nobody cared. I shed self-consciousness as I shed clothes.
Many wouldn’t dream of relaxing in a nude public sauna. I understand. My preconceptions too were once riddled with anxieties. But as I surrendered stress inside steam rooms and hot tubs, I also found the self-confidence that stems from venturing upon uncomfortable ground.
Discomfort incubates growth.
Someday I will leave this country. And saunas will lie near the top of the list of most-missed elements of Korean culture.