First, even locating the facility was a tad of a challenge for me. I know not how to speak, or read Korean and had only heard in fairly confusing terms where the facility was located; the basement of a large complex one block from my house. After attempting to descend to the B1 level of the building from several elevators only to be delivered to the B2 garage and failing to enter by several stair cases, I finally found the appropriate elevator and I was B1 bound.
As I exited the elevator I was greeted by crowds of busily determined people rushing to check in at the front desk. As I patiently waited in line, I wondered to myself, "how am I going to explain to this old lady what services I want, and how the hell is she going to tell me even if she does understand what I'm asking?" Luckily, the lady spoke fairly proficient English and was able to tell me how much it would cost for the bathhouse (7000 won, at last check equated to 5.18 US dollars) and Jjim-Jil Bang facility. After attempting to explain to me where the men's room was, she handed me a receit and a pair of shorts made out of the same material as my middle school gym shorts and a large baggy tee shirt. At this point I still had know idea where the Locker room was located. As I was again asking the woman where exactly the men's locker room was, a stoic man of about 37 silently indicated that he would direct me to the locker room. He ushered me towards a platform where he directed me to take off my shoes by pointing at mine and then taking off his. Okay, so I took off my shoes and followed him into the locker room where we entered a long cooridor of small lockers designed to store our shoes. We placed our shoes in the lockers and then took the corresponding key to an old man at a cashiers stand in the Men's room. He in turn took our recets and shoe keys and gave us each a bracelet with a numbered key attached to it. My new found guide took me to the corridor where our locker was and gestured to me to take off my clothes and follow him to the entrance to the bathhouse. We each grabbed a very small towel, about the size of a hand towel, and entered. After pointing at 4 different bath's he led me to the dry sauna. At this point, very grateful for the help navigating this byzantine process, I bowed my head and said "kamsamnida," or thank you, to him. He was silent and a couple of minutes later pointed at his ears and mouth and then made a large X with his forearms. It was immediately clear to me that he was a deaf mute! I was both shocked and extremely excited. Until this point I had simply assumed that he did not speak English and was attempting to explain how to navigate this new territory to me in the best way he knew how, hand gestures. Shortly after this epiphany he began drawing on his palm. At first I was unsure what he was trying to indicate, but then he moved his palm closer to my face and I could see that he was drawing English letters on his palm. He very slowly began to draw the letters, "U-S-A" and then pointed at me. Totally stoked that we were able to communicate I exhibited a huge smile and shook my head up and down and began to spell out CALIFORNIA (No one here knows where Oregon, let alone Portland is and I did grow up there). He then smiled in return and spelled out, "L-A" and lowered his hand close to the floor explaining to me that he grew up there when he was younger. He then began making a there and back motion and pointed to himself, leading me to believe that he was trying to explain that he currently travels back and fourth from Korea to LA on a regular basis. He showed me around probably 6 or 7 different bath's and we were able to maintain pleasant conversation the whole time. It was so awesome. While there were a few people who would immediately leave the bath when I entered here was a man who couldn't even speak who was showing me such kindness and making a genuine effort to make me feel comfortable. I was so shocked by his generosity and humanity. Most of the time I feel like an alien here unable to communicate even basic ideas to most of the people around me and here was a man who also probably had difficulties communicating with his neighbors sharing and bonding with me. It was incredible. I felt deeply close to this man and totally free to communicate my ideas to him.
Eventually he explained to me that it was time for him to brush his teeth and be on his way. I rotated through the various bath's and eventually made my way back to my locker where I put on my ill fitting P.E. uniform and made my way down the corridor to the Jjim-jil bang. As I entered the door I immediately saw people of every age walking and lying about, all seeming to be enjoying themselves equally. I decided to take a lap around the huge facility to survey the different amenities occupying the area. I was shocked and awed by the huge range of different sauna's and relaxation rooms available. There was a charcoal sauna, a natural salts sauna, Hinoki forrest meditation room, a pure oxygen room, a freezer sauna with icy pipes and fake snowmen, a room with hot soaking tubs for your feet, several other cutty hot sauna's that were infused with herbs and minerals that i can't recall. In short it was amazing. Never before had I seen such a facility soley dedicated to the relaxation and rejuvination. Even more amazing was that this was a place where people from age 4 to age 90 seemed to be equally enjoying themselves in equal quantities. I can't think of anywhere in the US where a similar range of demographics could be seen. With that said however, I only saw one other westerner and one other person with a tattoo among the thousand or more people occupying the facility. And there were definitely stares. Not so much in the naked rich bathhouse, but in the Jjim jil bang with all of the little kids there were many instances of outright staring. At one point in the Oxygen room a young girl of about 5 walked up to me, probably only 2 feet from where I was lying down and stared down at me for about 3 minutes only to later run out and bring her 2 other friends to the room to stare some more. Alas and alack, I thought it was cute and stared back in turn.
Some of the other facilities that I did not entertain were a "cinema room" where apparently there are new release movies shown in the dark, very popular with young couples from what I understand, a nice traditional korean restaurant, another restaurant of lesser quality, a snack bar that serves everything from fine teas to cheep beers, a PC room, and even a kareoke hall. Amazing
I loved the open nakedness, the variety of relaxation, and the novelty. I left totally blown away and refreshed. I only wish we could enjoy this level of relaxation and socialization in America.