There is a peculiarly Korean activity and it is to spend the night in a sauna.
It’s not quite what you’re thinking. For one, you’re not literally in the sauna itself . . . unless you want to be. And secondly . . . it’s not remotely dodgy.
Jimjilbangs, as they’re known, are essentially bathhouses, and you’ll find them in every city, town and village throughout the country – although most are significantly smaller than the one I visited. They’re open 24/7 and you can enter or leave whenever you want, which makes them the ideal crash pad for exhausted office workers or late-night clubbers or just a safe, friendly space for a gang of friends to spend an evening. I knew I had to experience this before leaving and had heard good things about Siloam in Seoul: not as glitzy or touristy as the much-touted Dragon Hill Spa, but still attended by enough foreigners that there would be some English instructions, and my flabby white body wouldn’t receive too many curious/disgusted glances.
Oh yes, that’s the other thing. Not a big deal. We’re all friends here. For the first part of it, you’re required to be entirely naked.
Nudity begins in the locker room which is immediately past the check-in desk, at which all visitors are given a matching uniform of shorts and t-shirt; at Siloam, a rather fetching orange and puce. I chose a locker in as hidden a corner as I could, nervously stripped and stepped out expecting gasps or jeers.
Obviously, nothing happened.
Nudity is so accepted at these places that to cover yourself with a towel is quite untoward. All ages, shapes, and sizes pad happily nude around the locker room, hair is dried, greetings are exchanged, and everything with barely a downwards glance.
Downstairs, the bathing begins. This is the serious part and the original purpose of the jimjilbang. Lining the room are showers and mirrors above a low shelf, with piles of plastic buckets and stools. I carefully watched and copied the other women: first, grab stool; second, wash self very well; third, enter the hot pools. Just like the hot springs we visited in Budapest, this was a series of different-temperature pools for alternatively scalding the skin off my feet or giving myself ice burns. I still kept expecting the stares or comments, but they never came. It was quite revelatory, actually, and after a while I really began to relax and enjoy the experience. I found myself climbing in and out of pools without vainly trying to cover myself, and sat quite cheerfully in the water, almost completely heedless of multiple boobs flapping freely in my face. I guess when one does this is on a regular basis, it’s perfectly normal. It’d probably take me a few more visits for my inner repressed Englishwoman to rid herself entirely of the occasional desire to giggle into the mugwort-scented water.
On the advice of a few Korean friends I had made along the way, and several blog posts, I booked myself a “rub” which I was warned would be “painful, but worth it”. This turned out to be a truly bizarre but one imagines completely addictive experience where one of the ladies working at the jimjilbang stripped me of my dead skin by scrubbing me with an extremely rough cloth – like the green side of a washing-up sponge. This takes place in an alcove off the side of the main bathing area, and the scrubbing ladies are identifiable by being dressed in black lacy lingerie. I swear, true story, I wasn’t drunk off the mugwort fumes. Sadly I have no photographic evidence for obvious reasons but you’ll just have to take my word for it.
The alcove contained four tables, covered in baby-pink plastic over which they would occasionally slosh buckets of water. The surface was so smooth and slippery that once she’d started the scrubbing, she often had to put a knee on one of my legs to stop me shooting off the other side. But oh, the scrubbing. I suppose it was painful but in that deliciously satisfying way that it is to scratch a mosquito bite. It was intense. She didn’t hold back. She started off on my back – and I do apologise for the visual, but to adequately portray the experience I must remind you that I was still entirely starkers – scrubbing away with remarkable force, and after each side was done, I’d get a tap on my shoulder and a gesture to flip over – front, left, back, right. The boob scrub was a bit unexpected. I’d have felt violated by the whole experience if it hadn’t been so pleasing to see chunks of dead skin balling up all over the pink table and my body transforming into the pink softness of a recently boiled lobster. She even washed my hair. And then I got a “massage” which was the genuinely painful bit, and I kept writhing away as she pushed her knuckles into my rucksack-carrying muscles which begged for forgiveness.
After I was given a final tap and sent on my way – with surprising concern that I had enjoyed the experience – I floated into the shower room for another rinse and then it was back upstairs to dry off. At this point I ran into another westerner who asked me about the correct order of things and I felt quite relaxed standing there talking to her in my birthday suit.
Once dry, it’s into the matchy-matchy t-shirt and shorts and up to the formentation rooms. Now please tell me I’m not the only one who’s never heard the word “formentation” before? It’s not a hilarious Korean-English misspelling, either. It’s a genuine thing and means, according to the dictionary definition I just googled, “The therapeutic application of warmth and moisture, as to relieve pain” which, I can’t deny, is precisely what the jilmjilbang provides.
Shiloam itself consists of several floors, each of which has a big open space kept at a lovely comfortable temperature, and then smaller rooms off the side, each at different temperatures, and with its own particular healing property.
There was an oxygen room, a jade room (I’m still none the wiser as to whether or not it contained real jade), charcoal, steam, ice . . . there was a room which was filled entirely with salt, in which one could lie down to help soothe infection . . . another (my favourite) filled with little balls about a centimetre in diameter. With the traditional ondol heating in full force, it meant that the balls were heated and lying down in them felt like settling into a warm, slightly bumpy bath – or wiggling your toes at a pebbly beach but without the inevitable grime.
The best thing? You don’t need to worry about sharing head rests or lying in anything mucky because you can’t enter this part without first going through the wash-and-scrub experience, so everyone who makes it this far is as squeaky clean as it’s physically possible to be.
And the second best thing? You can sleep wherever you want. In the main area, or the rest area, or the part designated for sleeping – in the snoring room if that applies (!) – or even the little saunas and formentation spaces themselves. Pick a room with a temperature and ambience that suits, grab two towels and a sleeping block (a pillow, of sorts – I used my second towel to cushion my head and chose a room warm enough not to require a blanket) and settle down.
If you’ve ever visited a hot springs or a spa then you’ll know that contented feeling of relaxation that envelopes you at the end, and the surreptitious thought that maybe nobody will notice if you just kip in a corner for the next few hours. Well it’s like that, but you’re not doing anything wrong, and in fact they give you all the accoutrements required to make it as pleasant as possible.
I had enough foresight to bring an eyemask and earplugs but they weren’t really necessary. It wasn’t perhaps the best sleep I’ve ever had but it certainly wasn’t the worst; and by the time I turned in, I was feeling so utterly relaxed from the boiling, scrubbing, pummeling, and steaming, that it required no effort whatsoever just to quietly drift off.
The next morning I rose at about 9am, primed and ready to face the next five days in the city at the centre of the second-most populated metropolitan area on Earth. I’d entered the jimjilbang with grim determination to partake in an authentic Korean activity but departed with my only regret that I didn’t have time to do the whole thing again. If you ever find yourself in Seoul then I can’t recommend Siloam enough. If I lived in Korea, I’d be there every week.
Siloam/Shiloam/Silloam Sauna (실로암불가마사우나)
49 Jungnim-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea