Getting Naked to Blend in – On Korean Culture and the Willingness to Strip Down

I’ve mentioned before that adjusting to Korea was difficult because of the different mentality. Western vs. Eastern thought. Progressive vs. traditional. Individualism vs. collectivism.

While most of the customs in Korea contrast the liberal ways of Europe, they do have at least one thing in common: Public nudity.

A group of us went to a Buddhist temple in Eonyang (right outside Ulsan) and planned on going to these hot springs that we heard about afterwards. Eonyang is up in the mountains and we walked along the river to reach the temple. The temple was gorgeous and had so many intricate and beautiful details. This Friday is Buddha’s birthday so we saw female monks decorating the temple with lanterns.

Suknam-sa TempleSuknam-sa TempleSuknam-sa TempleSuknam-sa Temple

Afterwards, we were off to these alleged “hot springs”. Regardless of the logo on the door reading “Hot Springs“, it definitely was not. It was indoors and after unsuccessfully communicating – AKA miming – to the staff, we decided to just pay the 6,000 won entrance fee and go in. Two separate doors marked the entrance – men and women. Not sure as to what was on the other side, our group hesitantly parted ways.

Jayne and I walked into the women’s section and were immediately greeted by numerous naked Korean women and their children. My suspicions were correct – we had accidentally stumbled upon a  Jimjilbang – which are common in Korea and translate to “spa” or “sauna”. In other words, public bathhouses.

The only thing I’ve heard about Jimjilbangs before are that they’re cheap to go to, it’s hot, people are naked and you can stay the night. Does not sound like the Korea I know (I envisioned backpackers crashing them after a Soju-filled night).

We weren’t brave enough to immediately strip down, so we left the locker rooms in our bathing suits and entered the bath area. We awkwardly walked around the spacious room hoping to see somebody, anybody, in a bikini but we were the only ones wearing any kind of clothing (which apparently, warranted many smirks and stares).

After getting scolded for trying to enter one of the pools with our suits on (God forbid), we went across the room to hide out in the rows of showers they had set up. People were lined up next to each other, sitting on tiny stools in front of mirrors where there were individual shower heads that you could bathe yourself with. Most people brought little caddies of shampoo and conditioner and went about their showers as normal (because obviously it’s extremely normal to shower with dozens of strangers).

After another awkward 5 minutes of self-consciousness (and realizing that people would stop staring if we were naked like the rest of them), we stripped down. We jumped into the pools and tried the different-temperatured sauna rooms. The wooden floor boards were heated and warmed the entire room and there were 4 different small pools ranging from cold to way-too-fricken-hot. There were massage tables set up, Korean women scrubbing down their children and a wall of large windows, giving us a beautiful view of the mountains. Kind of a bizarre experience, but actually extremely relaxing.

So I understand that Jimjilbangs are common and people here don’t find it uncomfortable at all, but it still doesn’t make sense to me why I can be naked around half of their population, but it’s not okay for me to show my shoulders to the other half of the population. So many Oxymorons in this country, I can’t keep up. They’re hell-bent on following the rules – except when it comes to driving (it’s true, Asian drivers -particularly bus drivers are the worst in the world. Stop lights are merely suggestions and crosswalks and sidewalks are fair game). Pre-marital sex and birth control are an atrocity – and yet there are love motels with hookers posting advertisements on the doors. They’ll blur out blood on television shows like CSI – but they’ll show a girl getting raped on a Korean program. This country is nuts.

Oh Korea, I am yet to understand you. As for Jimjilbangs – I’ll be back. (I don’t think this particular Jimjilbang had sleeping rooms so I’m determined to find one and be one of those backpackers crashing there after a Soju-filled night.)

One comment

  1. Haha, yeah that does sound kind of confusing. 😛 … One of my ‘bucket list’ things is to go skinny dipping (I know it’s not the same as being in a public bathhouse but, yeah … ). I’m generally very comfortable with my body, am quite a sexual person and very confident with who I am … but whenever it comes to getting a little bit nekkid though, I always freeze up. Even when it’s for an exam at the doctor’s or something. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to do the big skinny dipping thing, let alone use a public bathhouse.


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