Archive for May, 2011

Jjimjilbang(찜질방) translates to heated bathroom.

Bang is the Korean word for room as in noraebang (노래) or singing room.

The reason I am being so scrupulous with including the Hangeul is that sometimes the Roman alphabet is woefully inadequate when transliterating Korean words. Let’s face it, how many words do you know that start with a double J?

Calling a찜질방 a heated bathroom is also woefully inadequate when you consider what else is on offer in these places.

So what exactly is a Jjimjilbang?

A jjimjilbang includes the basic elements of any health club or spa you find the world over: shower, steam room, hot tub, sauna, massage tables, vanity area and  swimming pools – in larger places anyway. These basic elements are combined with many other ways for Koreans to relax and enjoy themselves. I have noticed that in Korea you are never far away from people shouting or eating, sometimes both at the same time. This is well catered for by the provision of noraebangs, PC rooms, videogames, snack bars, juice bars and often other traditional restaurants. It’s quite common for people to eat salty snacks after a sauna session, a great idea when you can taste the salt of your own sweat on your lips, a sure sign of dehydration. Charcoal infused hard boiled eggs are also very common and can be bought at the same counter as crisps and ramen noodles. When you consider the health aspect it seems strange that you can also buy beer too! The whole concept is more about relaxation than actual health. Relaxation can be difficult for many without the use of beer so I am happy not to judge the inclusion of beer  in these temples of health. Actually, I had a beer whilst watching a re-run of a Champions League game in my first visit to a jjimjilbang. Depending on the place itself you are likely to find TV areas, DVD rooms and most importantly (for me anyway) sleeping rooms. This being Korea virtually all jjimjilbangs are open 24/7 so it’s a cheap and convenient option for the budget traveller or for people using a place just for a kip. I suspect their use may also include drunken men escaping suspicious spouses and drunken men pre-empting hangovers. I initially used a jjimjilbang to sleep in because I was simply waiting to get a train in the morning and it would have been foolish to check into a Motel or Hotel at 2 in the morning just to leave again at 7.30 in the morning. I have since been converted though;  last week I used one for relaxation alone.

Gang&Jam (26)

The culture shock (for some cultures anyway) comes in the complete lack of privacy. To some Europeans and Scandanavians I don’t think there would be a big problem with the nudity, North Americans seem to have a bigger problem with this and the UK and Ireland are probably somewhere in between. The censuring of any kind of nudity on U.S TV, the lack of European style sunbathing and the refusal to call a toilet by its real name (a toilet) all combine to make any visit to a jjimjilbang quite a shock for many North Americans. People from Germany, Austria and all those other countries where people like to skip round forests in the nude will find it all quite…normal.  The etiquette is to be in the nip for all the showering and hot tubs, this is in gender segregated areas next to the locker rooms. The locker rooms are for clothes only as you leave your shoes near reception with the same key. The vanity areas located near the locker rooms and bathing areas are also gender segregated, and although it is not strictly necessary some men wander round in the nip here too. When I say ‘vanity area’ I mean wash basins with mirrors, hair dryers and products for making oneself handsome, or ‘make handsome style’ as my own Korean hairdresser says. In the bathing area there are communal showers and individual sit down cleaning areas with mirrors. Showers are necessary before entering a hot tub or sauna (hygiene) and the sit down areas are for more detailed scrubbing and grooming. You can get towels and scrubbing towels from behind the counter or from the area adjacent to the bathing room(s). In fact, you can get just about everything from the jjimjilbang including the customary uniform (shorts and T-shirt with branding), slippers, toothpaste, toothbrushes and hair products.

Gang&Jam (23)

I suppose this part of the jjimjilbang is simply a bath house.  Most apartments don’t have baths in Korea so these bathing areas are primarily for cleaning oneself. This may be the main difference to the U.S or Europe where visiting a spa would be less common-place and more of a treat or part of a health regime. The Arab cultures have the Hamman which I suppose is similar, and the Romans had their baths of course. I come from a culture where you do you personal cleaning and grooming in private, so the weirdness for me is not nudity in a shower or bathing area, it is the lack of privacy regarding personal grooming. I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of some guy shaving round his nuts on my way to the sauna, either that or he was creating a bizarre winter themed puppet show with shaving cream, I say pretty sure because I didn’t stay around to find out. Many people just sit around chatting whilst attending to their cleaning needs, I find this quite strange. I just cannot  imagine people talking about the baseball results or a work promotion whilst shaving round their nuts or scrubbing their backs, it’s multitasking gone too far. I also don’t understand when people use their mobiles whist using the toilet, sit down toilet that is, every pause in the conversation would be followed by an unpleasant splash.

Gang&Jam (29)

After personal grooming is completed you have the option to watch TV in the unisex lounge or retire to a sleeping room. The sleeping rooms often have bunk beds and are dimly lit with ‘yo’ sleeping mats and square cushions. I have never slept in the sleeping room because sometimes people snore and there are too many people there. The sleeping rooms I have seen resemble a cruel plot for battery farmed humans. There is also quite a smell with so many humans confined into one room. On the three occasions I have managed to sleep I found a quiet corner near to the main TV lounge and used my mp3 to block out any noises. To say that I slept soundly in jjimjilbangs would be a gross exaggeration, I did get a few hours though, and I think with practice it would be possible to sleep ok in these places. On all sides of the main hall, or TV lounge are rooms of varying themes and varying temperatures. Such rooms often have aromas piped in or crystals lining the walls. Himilayan rock salt rooms seem quite popular. They even have oxygen rooms and ice chambers. My personal favourite is the charcoal rooms, they are very primal and I think they date back to prehistorical times. Bowing under a low slung door and climbing through earthen tunnels reflects a time when saunas carried great religious or shamanistic significance, as they did for the ancient Finns, Baltic people and Russians. The décor of the charcoal rooms is very understated, kind of like the vice chief’s hut of a primitive village in Matabeleland. In contrast to the relaxing charcoal rooms they also have Jade Pyramid rooms with small tomb like areas to crawl into. The Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul excels itself in gaudy Las Vegas like reconstructions. If you have ever seen the old tv show ‘The Crystal Maze’ you will have a pretty good idea of what these places are like. I woke up in a 40 degree Egyptian tomb on my first visit, it was the quietest place to sleep with only a handful of people in there. I soon realised that falling asleep in a 40 degrees Pharaoh Mausoleum  might not be a good idea and took myself to the 35 degrees pine scented wood hut instead.

I’m still unsure about the health benefits of saunas and jjimjilbangs. All I know is that I feel absolutely great afterwards. If you have an ice cold shower after a 96 degrees sauna it sorts out your immune system. I think the health benefits may be worthy of another post. Obviously I didn’t take my camera into the jjimjilbangs so I have put some links below to get a feel for the aesthetics. If you live in Korea there is an amazing blog about Jjimjilbangs in all the different cities of Korea.

A few weeks ago I was feeling unusually restless after my working week, I usually feel restful, or at least too tired to do anything of consequence. I finish work at 20:30 on a Friday so I usually just crash, or go for something to eat locally. This particular day was one of those spontaneous occasions where I ended up doing something rather strange. After completing various chores  at home I still had itchy feet and almost without thinking, I packed a bag and headed out to the express bus station. This is actually less spontaneous than it sounds because I usually keep a small travel kit ready packed in case I ever decide to travel without having time to pack. This consists of a toilet bag with sachets purloined from hotels, flights etc, a travel towel and some spare clothes. I walked the 40 minutes to the bus station, almost a straight line from my neighbourhood, and then bought a ticket for the 23:30 bus to Seoul. This gave me enough time to get a drink and some chicken before boarding the bus. I was still wired on the bus so I watched a film on my laptop, by the time the film reached its closing credits the bus was approaching the expressway exit in South Seoul. Psychologically, the journey was no great feat, it seemed almost local as I had not prepared for such a trip, mentally that is. My first journey to Seoul some months earlier seemed more epic in nature than this little jaunt because I was thinking about it for three days beforehand.

The bus passengers spilled out of the bus and seemed to scurry off in all directions until I was left wandering through the bus station alone. They clearly had well practised paths of departure and well rehearsed exit strategies. I on the other hand, had only been in this Bus Terminal once so everything seemed unfamiliar, especially because  on the previous visit it was packed with people, and it was daytime. I managed to follow some of the passengers to the exit near the subway station and main road. It was approaching 02:30 so things were quiet but not dead, this is Seoul remember. Obviously the metro line was closed at this hour so I decided to wander to the intersection to get my bearings. I had never been in this exact area of Seoul before so I wanted to know how close I was to the river. The river gives me comfort because it makes it impossible to get lost if you follow the course. A normal person would have got a taxi but I had this weird thing about the River Han. After three visits to Seoul I still hadn’t really seen the Han so I thought, it’s half past two in the morning, it’s too late to check into a hotel or hostel, I think I’ll have a walk over the river.

When I arrived at the bridge I realised that most people wouldn’t choose to walk over the Han. There are several bridges for bicycles downstream but the bridge I was trying to get over was clearly for cars. There was a pavement though so I wasn’t deterred. The size of the river is staggering, I was so taken aback by how big it was that I actually timed it on my stopwatch.From one bank to the other, timed just as the road meets the riverside banks and paths, it was just under 11 minutes. I walked at my usual brisk pace so it would probably take more time for a normal paced walk. I tried to calculate a similar walk at home or in other places I have stayed but I still can’t fathom it. Over 10 minutes to walk over a river! The river looked black and empty from up high, and the complete lack of pedestrians added to my general feeling of alienation. This area of the big city, at this time in the morning, made me realise how most of what I could see was not meant for me. Each side of the river was lined with expressways, slip roads, flyovers and and various other barriers to the pedestrian. The entire landscape was fitted for the car, not for the human. I suppose all the concrete designed for the efficient transportation of vehicles is necessary in such a busy city. However, I cannot help wondering how many journeys are necessary and why they need so many roads, and so many lanes in those same roads. If the rate of car users and the number of journeys is exponential, then one day most of the city will just be roads. Despite my complaints there are walking and cycling paths on both sides of the river, and they are flanked by outdoor exercise machines and the usual array of leisure related urban furniture. These river paths are both useful and well used, but they didn’t help me with the direction and convenience of my walk.

Once I reached the north bank it seemed quite unfamiliar as I had never even seen it from the train window and didn’t recognize any of the landmarks. I decided to head in the rough direction of the U.S Military base at Yongsan. This is a large area which is bordered by the cosmopolitan Itaewon area on one side and the National Museum on the other side. I skirted round the southern side and headed for Yongsan station. My plan, somewhat vague I admit, was to finally reach Yongsan station where I could either wait for a morning train or head to a local 24 hour Spa place. My spontaneity is usually safeguarded by some basic knowledge, otherwise it ends in disaster. On this particular occasion I was well aware that there was a 24 hour Spa near Yongsan, I was also aware of the basic route to get there. What I didn’t know was how safe it would be at this time or how far it was. It was pretty safe and very far.

After the sterile inhuman route I had followed, it came as something of a relief to see people and shops. The life on the opposite side of the large station, at this time, was a few street stalls selling things on sticks. Things on sticks dunked in tanks of red chilli sauce is a common street food everywhere in Korea. There was a sliding scale of louche characters eating at the small plastic tables, the steam from their noodle dishes condensing on the plastic walls of snack tents . The scale of louchiness was funny to see from my sober eyes, I was also very awake after my brisk walk so all sensations were heightened. There were salary men navigating the tricky phase between being drunk and having a hangover, there were youngish types refusing to call it a night, blue-collar workers who had the misfortune of working nights and there were full-blown tramps trying to cobble money together to buy things on sticks. The older women were either touting for custom or packing up their things and getting ready for tomorrows round of eating things on sticks. The dimly lit alleyways contained some hovel like bars and figures in shadows. It all sounds rather seedy but this is Korea. I once came back from drinking at about 4 in the morning and saw a teenager in pajamas and flip-flops buying chicken in my local Lotteria (McDonalds type place). It really is a very safe country, even at 3 in the morning in the biggest city. I think there was nothing really unusual about the streets near the station other than the fact that I was there. There are many cities in the world where walking in the streets by a major station in the early hours would be seen as borderline suicidal. Compared to places like Milan, Manchester or Buenos Aires, this place seemed far from dangerous.

My journey from the expressway flyovers and the dimly lit vice holes  took me quite some time. Many people, including myself, would be asking the question, why not get a taxi? I actually asked this question to myself several times en-route, and answered in the negative each time. The simple answer to this question is, I don’t know.  I think I may have taxiphobia. It’s irrational like most phobias but I just hate taxis. I have enough Korean to get to any station, even in Seoul. I know the main roads and major landmarks so I have no fear of being ripped off. I just seem to hate taxis. It’s not just a Korea thing. I cannot remember the last time I took a taxi in the UK either. It always feels like I’ve lost when I resort to taking a taxi. I like buses and trains because they are logical and have stops, times, maps and colour codes. Taxis are anarchic, unreliable and selfish. They are a product of humanity trying to isolate itself from humanity, like net curtains and Leylandii hedges. If transport systems are reliable there is no need for taxis. Taxi drivers choose their own routes based on incompetence and ignorance.

I scaled the steps in front of Yongsan station half expecting something to be open but everything was fully closed. The station was vast and silent, every entrance was wrapped up by metal shutters.  I turned round and drifted back down the steps to the forecourt of the station, from here I finally caught a glimpse, then an eyeful, of the  7 story Dragon Hill Spa. I cannot understand why I had never seen this place before, probably because I was not looking for it. It is in the same school of architecture as love motels and theme parks. A kind of Disneyesque rendering of neo-classical Masonic tat. A pastiche of a pastiche. It was also enveloped in neon and flashing Christmas style lights. Despite the aesthetic assault I was genuinely happy to have reached the destination which I half suspected I would end up at. In case you are wondering, many of the Spas in Korea allow you sleep there overnight. You still pay the basic entrance fee, between 8000 and 12000 won (roughly 4 – 6 pound sterling). Such places are ideal for restless semi spontaneous people who don’t book anywhere to stay.  The spa was a real experience deserving of a separate entry.