For many people, the allure of travelling has a lot to do with being out of one’s comfort zone.
That goes for me too; like the time I got out of my comfort zone by getting out of my clothes. I then wished my comfort zone all the best for the future, asked it to check on my parents from time to time, and paid an ajumma wearing only a pair of black lacy knickers and a bra to scrub 5-7 layers of dead skin off my naked form.
This post, my dear friends, is about the Korean world of jjimjilbangs.
Although we’d been in Korea for a few months already, my friend and I were plunged into our first jjimjilbang experience much sooner than we’d intended (more details in the full post). We had joined the ranks of Those Who Have Jjimjilbanged and Liked It, and went in search of more. A couple of weeks later we took the long bus journey to Elybaden Spa in Daegu, a monstrous complex which, aside from the standard spas, saunas, and jjimjil (sleeping) areas, also features a water park, restaurants, norebangs, pc bangs, a DVD bang, as well as an arcade, sports massage clinic, and more.
The spa area was huge, but not big enough to accommodate all of the naked Korean breasts and backsides vying for a scrubbing station or spot in the spa. I found myself dodging and weaving to avoid elbows and knees and butt cheeks as my friend and I looked for and eventually found a station each. And then I saw it: the scrubbing room. I had read on a couple of blogs that in some jjimjilbangs you can pay for someone (usually an ajumma) to do the mandatory pre-spa scrubbing for you. Outsourced exfoliation, I’d thought, genius!
Scrubbing in a jjimjilbang is not just for the purpose of being clean enough to enter the water—it’s for the purpose of being clean. Really, really, really clean. Koreans spend up to twenty minutes with scratchy loofas, hand mitts, and towels buffing away any skin not securely attached to the underlying dermis. The ‘communal’ aspect of jjimjilbangs isn’t just about sharing the numerous spas and saunas, either; people scrub their friends and rellies with an impressive attention to detail, and an equally impressive matter-of-factness, given they’re rubbing another person’s hiney.
So when I saw these professional scrubbers, I resolved to make use of their services and get rid of that extra skin, which, let’s face it, was just weighing me down. I paid my 14,000won and then waited in the spa for my turn.
At the jjimjilbang, Koreans stare at foreigners unabashedly. I can accept this; Korea is extremely homogeneous so it would be strange for them to see someone so different waltz around in their natural glory (you probably shouldn’t waltz in a Korean spa; there’s water everywhere and it would make for a very awkward slip). So I can handle the stares, but knowing what to do with my own eyes is another matter. So I act casual. I look at my nails; pretend I can understand what’s going on on the plastic-encased televisions around the room; and above all, I avoid eye contact. All of this makes you incredibly self-aware. To cross legs or not? Don’t slouch, you’re naked for Bob Marley’s sake. What should I do with my hands? Stupid hands.
I must have looked at least a little disturbed as I changed body position every six seconds with a look of affected nonchalance on my face. Thankfully, I was then called (yelled) in to my scrub-a-thon and ordered to lie on a wet, plastic massage table by the lacy underwear-clad ajumma I mentioned earlier. Then, with zero fanfare, the industrious lady was sandpapering off the skin of my legs. Nothing but the most delicate of areas was safe from her exfoliative mitts during the 15 minutes I spent wondering how much skin I could afford to lose before meeting my muscles for the first time. By the end, I was sitting amongst hundreds of tiny, and not so tiny (vom) rolls of my own epidermis before my appointed scrubber dumped a few buckets of water on my head and slathered some sort of peppermint oil onto my newly exposed and raw baby-skin, so prematurely wrenched into the world.
And then it was over.
I waddled out of the scrubbing room a little dazed and unsure of how I felt, until I actually did feel myself and realised that I was as slick and shiny as a goddamn seal. I have never been so clean in my life. I’m pretty sure I have less freckles and quite a few moles that hate me now, but my goodness, it was worth it.
If you see it, tell my comfort zone not to wait around for me.
Words and picture by Stephanie Gall. You can check out her excellently written blog for the longer version of this post. Oh, and you can also follow her on .