Ten reasons why I love the public bath:
10. Good for your skin
8. Good for muscle ache
7. Good for exhaustion
6. Nobody saying “Mommy! He peed on the floor again!”
5. Can get exfoliated.
4. Makes you feel warm all day long.
3. Good for circulation.
2. Sauna social life.
1. Check out what real women really look like.
I’m no David Letterman, huh?
In the beginning, I was not thrilled about the prospect of being nekked in front of strangers. That’s not what we Americans do. Unless you grew up in a Naked House (not me) or lived in Synergy (ditto). Especially since my future mother-in-law was the one who kept telling me how great it was, and how she wanted to take me there. Ah, hello? Being nude in front of your future mother-in-law? I don’t think so.
First time: We were staying in a resort on the east coast of Korea, in the off-season. I went down to the public bath by myself. It was empty, so that was good, but because it was empty I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. The worker tried to explain it to me, but my Korean wasn’t very good at the time. Verdict: no glasses + naked + clueless = BAD
That put me off for quite a while. I don’t think I went back until after we moved here, that’s what, 8 years later?
Second time. I think we were at a water park with a big public bath. Went with my mother-in-law. She totally checked me out. Said, “You don’t look so bad for having had a kid.” AWKWARD. But I started to appreciate the experience more. Maybe it was because I was not so self-conscious about being naked? I guess after childbirth in a University hospital -- after having your nether regions exposed to any visiting EMT who happens to wander into the delivery room -- you don’t really get rattled by that stuff anymore.
Anyway, I’ve been going to the public bath regularly for a while now. You may be picturing something like the Roman baths, or thinking that people just stroll in off the street, but it’s not quite like that. It’s more like a cafe -- there are neighborhood public baths, which are more crowded, not as nice, and cheaper, and there are more upscale ones. Public baths seem to be analogous to cafes in the U.S. You pay 4 bucks or so and you can hang out there for quite a while, chatting with your (same sex) friends and relaxing, or you can breeze in and out every morning or evening. The public bath is a part of everyday life, a place to congregate and relax, to see and be seen, to connect with others or sit and think.
I guess the term “public bath” is misleading. Here, they are often called “saunas,” but that’s also misleading because they include more than a sauna. A basic, neighborhood public bath includes a locker room/dressing area, shower area (usually sitting down and standing up showers), a place for massages and exfoliation, two big pools of water (one hot, one cold), one sauna, and an area for lying down/sleeping. The fancier places have more pools of water of different temperature, made from different materials (jade, wood, marble, etc.) and with different additives (ginseng, charcoal, honey, green tea, etc.). The different materials and additives are supposed to have different healthful effects. The fancier places can also have multiple saunas, also made from different materials (wood, jade, etc.), different humidity levels (dry or moist), and different aromas for an added aromatherapy effect.
Here’s a primer, in case any of you are interested in going and don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Usually, you pay first (about 4 dollars is a good price, though the nicer the bath, the more expensive it will be. Hotel baths are really nice and often open 24 hours. Sometimes people will, instead of getting a hotel room, just sleep in the bath all night long). The cashier will give you either a ticket or a key. You go into the correct entrance (men and women have separate entrances) and take off your shoes before entering. Many places have shoe lockers at the entrance; if you have a key, usually you put your shoes in the locker with the same number as your key. If you have a ticket, upon entering you’ll give your ticket to a worker who will give you your locker key. Find your assigned locker, take off all your clothes and stow them away, and head towards the shower area, picking up an exfoliating towel along the way.
Then you should take a shower to make sure you are clean, rubbing yourself with the exfoliating towel if you want to. After you shower, head into the pools of water or sauna. People usually alternative hot and cold, staying in for as long as they want, sometimes immersing themselves but most often only going in halfway. This “반좌욕" (“half sitz bath”) is supposed to be really good for your circulation. At first you won’t feel too hot, but if you sit there for 20 minutes or so you will be sweating like crazy.
After you’ve dunked and steamed to your heart’s content, you back to the shower area and wash yourself again, this time scrubbing with the exfoliation towel. Lots of dead skin will come off, leaving your skin nice and smooth. BUT often, after going through the bathing and sauna process, you will feel so tired and relaxed that it’s hard to gather enough energy for the scrubbing. That’s why you can also be scrubbed down by someone else (it costs extra, about $15). These exfoliation people (they also do massages and facials) are really strong. The process may be a bit painful but it is worth it.
After that, you dry off and get dressed. Most places have lotion, hair dryers, curling irons, Q-tips, etc. so you will see all sorts of people going through the process of beautification. Then you leave, giving your key back to the person who gave it to you, and feeling... very... relaxed.
Now, I go to the sauna to be by myself and have some time away from Silly and Naughty. I get a little bored sitting there for a long time so I bring things to read. Usually I copy the vocabulary I need to memorize onto a piece of paper and put it into a Ziplock bag. The bath I go to also has laminated articles to read.
But many people are there for social interaction. Friends and families go to the sauna together and sit and chat and gossip. They scrub each other’s backs, talk about their problems, catch up on news.
I think if I ever have a daughter that I will make sure she goes to the sauna periodically. It scares me to see so many young girls having a warped idea of what human bodies are supposed to ideally look like, and I think there’s something healthy about being exposed to naked bodies from a young age. Old wrinkly bodies, fat bodies, thin bodies, young girls starting to sprout hair and breasts -- you can see them all on a given day in the public bath, walking around without self-consciousness. This is what women look like in the non air-brushed world, and they all are, in their own unique ways, beautiful.
But one type of body you don’t often see in the sauna is the foreigner’s body. I can’t see much without my glasses and I’ve mostly lost my sense of self-consciousness so I don’t notice it much, but people often are curious about me and my presence there. That’s how I met my Chinese teacher -- she had seen me in the public bath several times (we used to both go on Sunday afternoon) and one day she said, “I thought foreigners hated places like this!” On top of being a foreigner, I have a very non-Korean body; KC’s opinion is that if people stare, it’s because they’ve never seen such a muscular woman before. I don’t know about that, but I do have a nice six pack under my stretch marks. They also stare because they are curious what I’m studying in those Ziplock bags. “What is that girl studying so diligently?” “Is it Korean?” “No, it doesn’t look like Korean.” “How can she see such small writing?” “It looks like Chinese.” “Why would she study that?” An enigma, indeed.
A last word on baths... baths are part of Seoul’s neighborhood culture. Even though Seoul is a huge city of 14 million, there is a strong sense of belonging to one’s neighborhood -- not because of some sort of neighborhood patriotism, but just because daily interaction is centered around your neighborhood. Since most people walk, and because Seoul is a good mixture of residence and business, almost every need can be met in a 10 or 20 minute walk from your apartment. I tend to see the same people at the grocery store, the public bath, waiting at the bus stop, at the video store, the dentist, the river, the bank, and walking on the side walk. So often, I’ll be at the bath talking with some stranger who will say, “Oh, I know you, you live in HanShin, right? And you have two boys? I see you walking around with them.” Which sometimes disturbs me in a big brother type of way, but in general makes me feel like part of a community. Mental note: don’t do anything embarrassing in public. And tell Aiden to stop picking his nose. You can see where the social pressure comes from... but that’s another topic.