In 1988, I interviewed a petite, pretty, blond and blue-eyed Englishwoman in her early twenties about her experiences in a Korean bathhouse. Later, from my own experience, I discovered that little had changed since then except for the prices. Around 2005, in a basement-level neighborhood bathhouse, I was still able to get all the services Jane describes here—except for the massage—for about 10,000 won or about ten dollars. At a window I bought a ticket, went below ground to rooms with concrete walls. I put my clothes in a wooden locker, took the little hand towel I was given and went into the larger room with the showers, shallow concrete tubs and massage tables.
With a group of friends, I also tried out a fancier place, a jjimjilbang, where people were allowed to sleep overnight after the massage. Some people use them as surrogate hotels. I found the windowless space too claustrophobic to sleep in, though, and took a late night taxi home. Other luxury bathhouses also have rooms with healing stones of various kinds, computer rooms and snack bars.
Although the bathhouse is a Korean and Japanese tradition, several Korean women have told me they don’t feel comfortable going.
The women who work in the bathhouse know me now, but the other customers I meet there are always different people. They stare. For the first five minutes I have to force myself to stay. The staring is bad when you’ve got clothes on, but when you’ve got no clothes on you feel really vulnerable. Then of course the Korean women my age are all really thin. They just stand there and look at you. You want to hide. But after a few minutes they’ve found out that you have exactly the same bits and parts that they do, and they stop staring. Then most of them are friendly.
The first time I went, my friend Nancy took me. I was worried about it. I’m really modest. In England I don’t even like changing rooms [dressing rooms]. But then I thought, “Well, I’ll take my contact lenses out, then I won’t be able to see what’s happening.”
You go in, and you sit on these funny little plastic stools. They remind me of potties, actually. You sit on there with a hand shower and wash yourself off. The Korean women shower for about half an hour. They scrub between their toes and the soles of their feet and between their fingers. They must think I’m really dirty, but I can’t sit there that long. It takes me about ten minutes to wash all over, and then I can’t work out what to do.
Then you go and get in the sauna and sweat for a while. You have to wet your towel with cold water first and put it over your face because it’s so hot in there that you can’t breathe otherwise.
Then you’re supposed to go into the cold pool. The Korean women just leap out of the sauna and into the pool. But it’s so cold, at first I couldn’t do it. I just stood there pathetically splashing cold water over myself. Once this old woman took a big bucket of cold water and threw it on my back right after I came out of the sauna. I could have killed her, but of course I had to just turn around and smile. She thought it was really funny. I’m getting a little more used to it. Now I can throw a bucket of cold water on myself before someone else comes along and does it.
There’s a Jacuzzi, a bubbling pool that you can go and sit in. It’s so big the children swim around in it. They’ll swim up to you and have a look at this strange creature who’s sitting in their Jacuzzi.
If you want to be scrubbed and massaged, you have to go and tell the woman, and when it’s your turn she’ll come and drag you out of the pool. The women who do the scrubbing wear black underwear. I suppose it’s the most sensible thing to wear if you work in a bathhouse, but the first time I saw it I thought it looked really sleazy, like something women might wear if they gave sex massages in a man’s bathhouse.
She has you lie down on this table, and she gets a green cloth which looks like a Brillo pad. She starts at your feet, scrubbing really hard. The first time I had it done it was quite painful, but now I’m used to it. As she scrubs you, all the old, dirty skin starts to come off in big lumps. You’re lying in it, and as you move you can feel it underneath you. The first time I went, tons of my skin came off, and she must have thought I was really horrible. Many Korean women get exfoliated every week, and they have really nice skin. I feel if I were to go every week I would have no skin left. I usually go once a month.
She turns you over on your side, and she lifts your leg up so she can scrub everywhere. Inside your thighs is the worst bit. The first time I went it wasn’t relaxing at all because I was frightened about what she was were going to do with me, so of course I couldn’t relax, and she kept telling me I was too tense. She kept picking up my leg and dropping it and picking it up and dropping it, and of course I wasn’t relaxed. She thought it was really funny. She kept calling her friends over and trying to say in English, “Relax, relax.” But I was frightened because I didn’t know what they were going to do to me or what bit of me they were going to attack next. Now I’m better, but sometimes I still can’t relax, and they still pick up my leg and drop it and laugh.
She scrubs behind your ears and your neck and between your toes and the soles of your feet. It really tickles. Then she turns you over on your back. When she’s scrubbed you all over, she puts some kind of frothy oil all over you, and then she throws water over you.
If you want a massage as well, you have to dry yourself off and lie down on the bench again. She puts really hot towels on your face—I assume to open the pores. Then she puts something which smells like baby oil on your face, massages your face, wipes the oil off and puts hot towels on again. Then she grates a cucumber up and puts it on your face, just leaving your eyes and nose free. While the mask is on, she oils over your body and starts to massage you. It’s a different sort of massage than we expect in England. It’s thumping your body with a cupped hand. It’s very loud. You can hear it when you’re in the Jacuzzi waiting for your turn, and you feel like changing your mind because it sounds really painful. Some of it is painful. It feels as if you’re going to be covered in bruises afterwards, but you’re not. If you’re sore somewhere, like in your back, the masseuse always seems to know because she hits the sore place more. It hurts at the time, but afterwards the soreness is gone. The massage must be really good for you.
Then she covers you with warmed milk which is slightly perfumed. It must dissolve the oil. She washes it off and washes your hair. She swishes you around on the table, pulling your hair really far back so that your head and shoulders are off the end. Because you’re really greasy, you feel as if you’re going to fall off onto the floor. You can’t hold onto the sides because your hands are really oily. It’s quite frightening. She washes your hair in a bucket, and you stand up, and she throws water all over you from the troth at the end. Then as a kind of finish, she puts some soap on her hands and washes under your arms and between your legs. I don’t know why. Then she pushes you off and toward the showers where you wash all the gunge off.
It’s brilliant afterwards because your skin feels so smooth, especially on your face and neck and thighs. The smoothness lasts a couple of weeks.
When I went with my mum, we were both being done at the same time, and they were talking about us. I couldn’t work it out properly, but I think they were saying that we were exactly the same shape but my mum was bigger than I was. They always tell me I’m pretty, and that’s kind of an ego boost.
At the place I go, the whole thing comes to about 10,000 won [$13.50]. I went to a really deluxe bathhouse with Susan and Nancy. That was much more expensive, 25,000 won. There they did a different kind of massage, much more relaxing. Afterwards I fell asleep. It was morning, and I’d had a good night’s sleep, but after the massage I just went to sleep. When I woke up my friends were standing around laughing at me.
The women told Susan that they could tell a lot about someone just by looking at her body. She didn’t have a wedding ring on, and she hasn’t had any children, but they said they could tell she was married, and that Nancy, who is about the same age, wasn’t married. Obviously they thought I was too young. They could guess our ages as well, which most Asian people aren’t good at guessing.
Korean women spend four or five hours at the bathhouse. They just sit around and talk. I suppose it’s one of the few places they can go where they don’t have to wait on men all the time. It’s nice also because they bring their children. Sometimes they set the child in a bowl and the mother will be scrubbing her daughter’s back, and the grandmother, the mum’s mother, will be scrubbing her daughter’s back, so there are three generations in a line. It’s really good to watch.
People usually talk to you. They come by to talk or throw water on you. And afterwards then you can buy little yogurt drinks to refresh yourself. Now it’s a pleasant experience.