Sunday, January 16, 2005

Still Waters

I have discovered the beauty that is the Korean bathhouse. I wish more than anything that I had pictures of the place because it's almost too difficult to describe. But heck, I'll give it a shot.

The bathhouse is a central part of Korean culture. They are all over the country and range from small facilities to large and more inclusive ones like the one that I go to. It's an interesting concept and I have to admit that it took me so me time to work up the courage but I am really glad that I went, because now I am hooked!

There is a big desk or reception area when you enter the bathhouse, where you take off your shoes and put them in a locker. (The actual bathing rooms are divided into men's and women's.) Then you are given a locker key attached to a wrist bad. You walk into the large locker area and sure enough, there are a lot of naked people. And a lot of lockers. There is also a food stand where people are lining up (as much as Koreans ever line up) to buy drinks and meat on a stick. Brian thinks the whole naked and eating thing is disgusting...I think it is oddly liberating.

Anyway, after you have gotten undressed (which, as a white chick with an Asian tattoo and a pierced belly button, isn't the most comfortable experience) and you have finished smiling and bowing to all of the women unabashedly staring at you, you go through a set of double doors into the bathing area.

When you first walk in you are greeted by rows of stand-up and sit-down showers. Koreans usually shower sitting down on little plastic chairs. Even in their homes they shower with a giant plastic bucket, the shower head and a tiny little stool. Everybody washes their hair and cleans their bodies before entering any of the pools. The bathhouse that I go to is really big, so there are probably about 80 different showers...nothing private though. Each shower is about a foot apart so you are surrounded by naked people, scrubbing each and every part of their body.

After you've cleaned yourself you can go into the pools. In my bathhouse there are 5 different pools, each with water at a different temperature. One pool (each pool is a different size, the biggest being about 5 feet deep and the size of a small swimming pool, and the smallest is 4 feet deep and roughly the size of a hot tub) is 45 degrees Celsius, another is 30, another is 25 and another is ice cold. One is set at boiling as far as I can tell. The idea is to go from pool to pool and shock your skin to increase blood flow and "revitalize" your body.

The room is quite big and there are probably about 100-150 people in the pools at a time. There are loads of little kids running around since whole families will come for the day. You can bring your drinks into the pools and relax for as long as you want. It costs $4.00 to get in and you can stay all day if you want. There are also several dry saunas located around the bathing area, again all at different temperatures.

One of the saunas is made entirely of quartz and is really beautiful. There are steam jets in the ceiling and it's really warm and relaxing. Another sauna is made of clay and has a TV playing the most recent Korean soap opera. All the women hang out in there and sleep on little Korean pillows made of wood. (That's right - wooden pillows.) The third sauna is your more typical cedar variety but it has some quartz and some nice mood lighting. It also has a cold ice pool in the middle so you can dip your face in it if you get too hot. And you will.

So that's basically it. It reminded me of the pictures of Roman bathhouses I have seen in textbooks and they were probably pretty similar. It's a really nice idea actually and once you get over the idea of being naked with a bunch of strangers it's really relaxing. My skin has never felt so soft and pampered! There is something a little humbling about being naked in public - it makes you feel vulnerable but connected to the people around you.

Strange but rewarding...just like Korea.

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