Elwood 5566

Bathhouse Basics 3: The Italy Towel

The Italy Towel. (이타리 타월)

Other than water, the Italy towel is probably the most universal item in a bathhouse and in some quarters, “Korea Design Heritage 2008,” has been ranked as number 5 among items over the last 50 years, which have defined Korea.  Apparently, Gil Pil-gon who ran a textile factory in Pusan, discovered the cloths’ ex-foliating properties in a piece of  fabric imported from Italy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Defining icons, food delivery boxes, Nong-Shin ramyon and the Italy Towel.

Though available in a range of colours, the predominant colour is ‘silver,’ which is actually the green one.  In addition, they all seem to be made by the same company, BC Choi and hence, the towels, manufactured in Korea, are 100% Korean! Like sandpaper, Italy Towels come in different gradients and these are denoted by the colour. ‘Pink is the least abrasive, followed by ‘silver’ (green) with the most abrasive and capable of removing the deepest ingrained grime, being yellow.

Other colours are manufactured, including red. The green one is actually described as 'silver.'

Italy towels are not to be confused with the larger version cloth which is also supplied in a bathhouse and which is usually red.

The larger, and milder, ex-foliating cloth

What typifies the Italy Towel is its size. My hand barely fits into it. The cloth is used to scrub the skin, usually in one direction, top to bottom and in straight lines and if used effectively a line of gray, dead skin is produced. The towel is fairly abrasive and needs to be used with caution on the face. Minimal soap is used in order to maximise the towel’s abrasive quality. Koreans will scrub their entire body with this cloth in a process which can last well over an hour.

If anyone accompanies you to the bathhouse, a friend or relative, it is natural for you to scrub each-other’s back. Usually you sit behind the person whose back you a rubbing,  though people sometimes stand. For men, that your ‘partners’ dick is dangling in you face is no  more of an issue than any other part of their body. Between men, one of the defining features of a ‘go-ch’u-ch’ingu’ (고추 친구),  literally translated as a  ‘penis friend,’ basically a close friend, is that penises are ‘acknowledged’ rather than  shunned with fear. It is this tacit, sometimes even verbalised  ‘acknowledgment’ which helps define a close, male relationship.  In the western male, heterosexual psyche, a penis is threatening and  ‘acknowledging’ your male friend has ‘one,’ seeing ‘it,’ talking about ‘it,’ and even being too close ‘it,’   have  the potential to terrify.  It is not at all uncommon to see a row of school boys or students all sat in a chain as they have their backs scrubbed while scrubbing the back of the person in front. Between family members the towel is used  much more intimately and again, it is  very common to see parents and children mutually scrubbing each other’s entire body. This is not restricted to small children.  Mutual cleaning and the intimacy involved are an expression of the concept of ‘skinship.’

How often one should use the Italy Towel is a personal preference. If used frequently, the process can rub-away body hair – though I wouldn’t recommend this as a method of waxing. Some Koreans use it every few days, others once a week. Perhaps the best guide is simply whether or not you have a layer of skin which needs removing. I use a pumice stone on my feet regularly and if no skin is being removed I stop the process – this is perhaps the best guide to using the Italy Towel.

I have noticed that you can scrub yourself meticulously and regularly with the larger, less abrasive towel, the one usually provided free in all bathhouses, and that this does not remove dead skin with the effect of the Italy Towel. I was very surprised when after a period of not using an Italy Towel, a friend scrubbed my back and arms and then made a joke about how dirty I was. It is surprising what that little towel removes.

Unlike the larger cloth and towels for drying, the Italy Towel has to be purchased, costing about 1000 Won. I usually keep one for months at a time and have even seen the odd person use ones discarded in the used towel bin.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

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