We’d heard about Korean sauna’s or jjimjilbang, mainly just that they are an altogether naked affair, men in one, women in another, but also that they are places with games rooms, relaxation rooms, places you can stay overnight- all in all a bit of a ‘must do’ while in Korea. We came across an oncheon in Yuseong (an area of Deajeon, the city we live in) and decided to give it a go. Maybe spa’s are different, maybe they aren’t all naked, who knows?! So with a fair bit of optimism and a couple of pairs of swimming togs we headed off on the subway to find this place and see what it’s all about!
‘Excuse me, where’s the spa?’
‘Eh…just wondering…we’ve heard that eh….is this a naked kind of place or….'
'Yes, naked one’.
‘Right, yeah, great!’
Great! Big red embarrasses heads on us! Got to the 3rd floor and there was a reception desk with a pricelist. No idea what any of them were…basic entry was w12, 000 (€8) after that who knows what else you can pay for! The girl at reception gave us a key each and we peeled off, me to the left into ‘Womens Spa’ and Nick to the right into ‘Mens Spa’. And then the fun really began!
I walked in through the door way and there was a little room of cubby holes on my right (which in hindsight was so obviously for shoes seeing as Koreans don’t wear shoes inside) but I just looked at it with bewilderment thinking to myself ‘am I supposed to get naked in here??!’. I walked past it into a fairly plush looking locker room, carpeted not tiled. Reminded me of the locker rooms in Riverview when Derval took me there as a child. Except for one thing- there were no benches or chairs to get changed at, just lockers, full length, narrow lockers. I wandered around looking like a total eejit until some woman came running at me (naked obviously!) ‘your shoes, your shoes, take off your shoes!’ She didn’t only seem put out I was wearing shoes, she seemed offended….great start Stef, nice one!
Taking my shoes off gave me a few minutes to gather myself. I’d seen (some of) the inside of the place now, did I really want to do this? I did think about just walking out, there and then, but then I’d only have to sit there and wait for Nick so I sucked it up and braved myself once more!
I wandered around aimlessly again trying to get a grip on the place before I took my clothes off so I could head straight to the nearest spa pool with a bit of purpose! Another lady (not naked this time!) stopped me:
‘Excuse me, where are you going?’
‘I don’t know’
‘OK, do you have a locker key?
I showed her my key and she took me to my locker, all the while trying to keep my eyes from popping out of my head from starring at all these naked women walking around, not a bother on them! ‘Now, take your clothes off!’ and she disappeared! Ok….try not to act too weird, this is obviously perfectly normal for them. The woman came back a second later with a robe for me (delighted!) and I pulled it on quick-sharp and headed for the door into the pool and sauna room.
The room was pretty big, rectangular in shape, and consisted off a shower block immediately to the left. Ten showers in all, five opposite five. To the left was another shower area, hand held showers, more of a hose-and-a-tap type job in front of a mirror. Pull up a stool, sit down, get stuck in! To the back of the room were the three hot spring pools. The water comes from a source 350m under-ground and is pumped into these pools. One is between 19-21°C, the next between 37-39°C and the last between 45-47°C. No bubbles, not Jacuzzi style, just still water about waist deep so sit on the floor and be up to your neck in it, sit on the shelf and be only waist deep or sit on the edge of the pool and just have your lower legs in the water, the choice is yours!
I stood at the door in my robe feeling like a total eejit, thinking ‘what in gods name am I doing here?’ It wasn’t that busy, maybe ten or fifteen others there in total but it can obviously cater for a lot more, there must’ve been 100 lockers at least. Anyway a woman was on her way out, had a towel around her shoulders making her seem less naked so I asked her if she could speak English. She could.
‘What do I do?
‘What do you need?’
What?! I don’t need anything! She explained that only soap is provided, no shampoo or conditioner (it was then I noticed all the other women, or the ones at the sit down showers at least, had plastic baskets with products in them…shampoo, conditioner etc) I tried to explain I was clean, I’d had a shower before I came, I didn’t need a shower I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about! She told me about the different pools, and the different sauna’s, of which there were three: one dry one at 97°C, one wet one at 47°C and one much cooler one that was all stone inside where she said I could lie down and sleep if I wanted to! Yes! A nap, while I’m naked in a strange place, surrounded by strange people, sounds great! Absolutely!
I thanked her, asked her where I should leave my robe and made a bee-line for the body temperature pool. Got in, tried to act like it was a totally normal thing to do and was just beginning to relax when someone came over to talk to me! Apparently I needed to go back out and get two towels. One to cover my hair (obviously!) and the other….well, no idea actually!
OK try the sauna Stef, go on, try it! Then have a shower and get the hell outta here! Into the sauna with me so and as soon as I’d sat down more bloody women started talking to me! Two women, in their fifties I reckon, both sitting cross legged without a care in the world, started asking me if there were oncheon in Ireland and did we wear clothes. I obviously looked as awkward as I felt! I made my excuses and left fairly pronto!
The whole thing was mad. Apart from the naked part, and the fact that I’m a good aul Irish prude, it was really nice, really really relaxing, and such a nice way to spend an afternoon. I think I was probably in and out in less than an hour but it is somewhere you could spend a while, a long while. There was a dressing room when you come out of the saunas with lots of individual stations, each with a hair dryer, hair spray and gel, cotton buds, tissues, body lotion, eye gel etc so pop your robe back on (or not!) and spend some time there doing girly things. There’s also a relaxing room. You can pick up a pair of pyjama type clothes from the same stands you get the towels and robes from, pop them on, and head in. There are loads of lazy boys, big comfy lookin’ armchairs, a magazine rack….stay there as long as you want. Nobody will bother you, nobody will tell you your time is up. You get such a sense of it being about personal time and maybe that is what it’s all about. Maybe it’s to counter-balance the madness out on the city streets and the fact that the entire population lives on top of each other in massively high rise buildings. Something like 90% of the population live in urban communist era style apartment blocks that don’t look like they have room to swing a cat in. But here in the oncheon and as far as I’m aware in the jjimjilbang it’s about you. Nobody will talk to you (unless you’re an offensive foreigner walking around with your shoes on, or letting you hair touch the water!), nobody with bother you and you can have time to yourself to think or just to be and to unwind and relax.