Monday, December 15, 2008

In South Korea, the good life is a full-service bathhouse

SEOUL: When Koreans evoke the good life, they often talk of a "warm back and full stomach."

Nowhere has the Korean penchant for finding a hot floor to lie on (a feature of every traditional house) and eating one's fill found fuller expression than in the jjimjilbang, the 24-hour-a-day public bathhouse.

But calling the jjimjilbang a bathhouse hardly begins to describe its attractions.

"Here, you take a bath and a sauna. But you can also eat, sleep, date, watch television, read, play computer games. It's one-stop total service in the Korean way of relaxing," said Kim Eun Yeong, 40, who teaches Japanese at Hanyang University in Seoul.

On this day, Kim was relaxing at World Cup Spaland, one of the city's largest jjimjilbang. She had just crawled out of an igloo-shaped room. Inside, on a pile of snow-white rock salt huddled a dozen men and women, all clad in identical yellow T-shirts and shorts. The temperature inside the room, appropriately called a kiln, was 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit).

Before moving on to other forms of jjimjil, or saunas, Kim was taking a breather in a large common area with a heated floor. Beads of sweat rolled down her face.

Sprawled about her were men, women and children, some asleep, their heads resting on wooden block pillows. Others were watching a soap opera on a wall-hung TV. Kim's 9-year-old son, Cho Yoon Geun, was reading a comic book.

"My family comes here at least once a month," Kim said. "When my friends and I want to get together, we say, 'Let's meet at a jjimjilbang.' We even held our school reunion here."

Although Korean villagers had long bathed in streams, the first public bathhouse was not built until 1925, mostly to cater to Japanese colonialists. The institution quickly became part of Korean social life. Most neighborhoods had one. Inside, patrons sat in or around large, sex-segregated baths filled with scalding water, gossiping and scooping water with gourds. Scrubbing other bathers' backs, even strangers', was common practice.

Being taken to a public bath for a no-nonsense scrub by their mothers until skin turned pink and eyes welled with tears is every Korean adult's childhood memory. (Sometimes arguments broke out in the women's tub if a boy was considered too old to be there.)

But the bathhouse's fortunes declined in recent decades as Koreans began outfitting their homes with showers. So they evolved, adding steam rooms and hiring professional body scrubbers. Then they added barbers and hair salons, and eventually sleeping rooms, where harried salary-earners could shower and nap during the day.

By the late 1990s, many of them had turned into jjimjilbang recreation complexes, as much a part of Korean social life as going to the movies. In 2006, there were more than 13,400 in the country, including 2,779 in Seoul. Some can accommodate thousands of people at once.

Because they are open around the clock, and relatively inexpensive, they have attracted budget-minded travelers. Some have long-term guests. Recently the government banned minors from jjimjilbang without an adult escort between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. after it was reported that they were becoming havens for runaways.

At the front counter, customers pay about 8,000 won, or $7, pick up their top and shorts and a towel and enter the sex-segregated bath halls. There, for an extra fee, they can be scrubbed. The customer lies on a table clad in nothing but soapsuds, as a scrubber with exfoliating mitts scrapes down his or her body, flipping it over with the dexterity of a fishmonger.

From the bathing halls, patrons of both sexes step out into what looks like a hotel lobby, giant living room and shopping mall combined. Here, people dressed in the identical top and shorts are sitting or lying on the communal heated floor or roaming about.

Mothers indulge themselves at the beauty salon. Fathers huff on treadmills or nap in the "oxygen room." Young couples lie side by side on the floor watching movies in the video room. Teenage boys bang away at keyboards in the Internet game room. Some jjimjilbang have karaoke rooms, concert halls, swimming pools, even indoor golf ranges. When hunger strikes, patrons go to the cafeteria, where, again, they sit on a heated floor as they eat.

But a jjimjilbang's reputation owes much to its sauna theme rooms.

In heated huts permeated with the aroma of mugwort (important in traditional medicine), patrons sit in silence, concentrating on the act of sweating. Sometimes the walls are studded with stones - jade, amethyst - that many Koreans believe emit healing rays when heated.

Koreans often say they are drawn to a jjimjilbang because they miss the ondol, the heated floor Korean families slept on until they began moving to high-rise apartments and Western-style beds.

"The first thing we Koreans think of when we're feeling stiff and sore is lying on a hot floor," said Lee Jae Seong, 35, who works for a TV station.

Lee and other patrons at World Cup Spaland were lying on a row of heated "massage cots." Under a heat-trapping hood, the cots' knobby surface undulated like a slow wave, kneading tight muscles.

Chun Byung Soo, who opened World Cup Spaland five years ago at Seoul's World Cup soccer stadium, said the pioneers of jjimjilbang were inspired by the ancient Korean custom of crawling into charcoal or pottery kilns for heat therapy.

The busiest time is winter. But Koreans huddle inside jjimjilbang furnaces in summer as well, in the name of "fighting heat with heat."

Not everything is hot. World Cup Spaland has a cold room that looks like a meat locker, with frosted pipes lining its walls. Jjimjilbang fanatics say there is nothing better for the metabolism than alternating between a kiln and a cold room.

The communal nature of the jjimjilbang comes naturally to Koreans, who until recently lived as extended families.

Traditionally, Korean fathers liked to take their sons, and mothers their daughters, to bathhouses. Rubbing each other's backs has been a time-honored way of building parent-child bonds. Unlike the old bathhouses, which had no common area for men and women, jjimjilbang bring the whole family together.

"We don't consider someone a real friend until we take a bath together," said Han Jae Kwan, 25, a college student.

His girlfriend, Yang Eun Jeong, agreed: "We women also believe we become closer when we get naked and bathe together."

The two were playing the board game Go after emerging from the sauna. Since most young Koreans live with their parents until they marry, jjimjilbang have become popular places for couples to spend time together.

"We often come here on a date," Han said. "At a café, the owner gives you an unwelcome look after a few hours if you don't order more. But here, you can stay as long as you want."

Yang winces at some scenes in the jjimjilbang: young couples kissing, or the girl sleeping with her head on her boyfriend's arm, in a room full of strangers.

Snoring is another problem, when people doze off on the heated floor. So are the potential complications of so many people sleeping together.

"At night, many different families sleep on the same large floor," said Kim, the Japanese instructor. "Sometimes, they get mixed up while they're sleeping. It can be embarrassing."

Written by Choe Sang-Hun for the International Herald Tribune