Elwood 5566

A Peek Into a Seoul Bathhouse (Korea Times April 28th 2011)

Posted in Bathhouse, bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, Comparative, Uncategorized by 노강호 on May 24, 2011

Nam Sang-so

By Nam Sang-so

Dear Pablo, after you were free from diapers, I used to take you to a public bathhouse in Seoul. I do not think you would remember that.

Public bathhouses are abundant here. I enjoy visiting them. For a mere 4,000 won (less than $4), people can enjoy unlimited time in hot spas, saunas and hot or cold showers with free soap and “Italy towels.” Someone gave them the snappy honorific. They are made of sieve-like knitted nylon, woven pink or blue for the purpose of…read more – for touching account of a grandfather’s bathhouse experience.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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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.

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Fart Pants (방귀 바지) 코딱지

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative by 노강호 on May 12, 2010

rubus coreanus (복분자) 'wildberry'

In the E-bente Tang (이벤트 탕) today was a an aroma I’d not encountered before, black raspberry, or wild berry (복분자).  Translating is always a problem. First of all, the ‘information board’ advertising the aroma had a picture of black and red berries and so too did a bottle of berry ‘wine (more like liquor) I subsequently bought (복분자 주). To compound the problem, I suspect in the UK we call these berries blackberries and raspberries and these are quite different in taste. When I looked up this berry on the internet, I noticed the red and black berries were growing on the same stem. So, I discover that the Korean berry, bokbunja (복분자), is actually a member of rose family and of the genus rubus of which there are hundreds of species divided into 13 sub-genera, one of which contains 12 sections. (more rubus info) Indeed, if you want to be pedantic, bokbunja is rubus coreanus. Interesting, but all academic as from the scent emanating from the pool I couldn’t tell whether I was wallowing in blackberry, blackcurrant, or indeed, rubus coreanus.

I’ve been meticulous in bathhouse ablutions today as I am feeling particularly dirty. The source of this dirt is both mental and physical;  increasingly I come to realise that by socialization westerners are dirty species both mentally and physically but also,  short of being showered in shit,  I was fouled upon. Not having used a bathhouse for 4 days, and yet despite showering twice a day, I was amazed at the scum that washed off my body into the gutter. As I was on the end of a row of sit down showers, I could see it collecting in the drainage grill and it was  gray and creamy, more like sludge than scum. Neither was my ablution particularly stringent and was made using the normal, mildly abrasive bathhouse towel than by the rasp of one of those little green ‘Italy towels.’

Once lovely and clean, and basquing in my favourite patch in the hot pool, I got thinking…

I’ve recently had a new pupil called Fart Pants (방귀 바지) who is currently sitting on the fence between the kids who have a brain and the ones, and there are not many, who I deem ‘hobaks’ (호박). Hobaks are pumpkin head kids who are just incredibly slow and tiring to teach. Most professional teachers, back home at least, will castigate the practice of pigeonholing kids in such a derogatory manner and will certainly condemn me for printing her name except of course, it is not Fart Pants. But let’s not get holy, holy, most teachers pigeonhole kids in one form or another but  usually deny they do so and as is the case in Korea, you can still call one kid intelligent and another a mong without offending the silly sensibilities of political correctness that demand all kids are equal.

definitely worth licking

I’ve always maintained that if ever I had to lick a bum hole, if I was forced on pain of death, if I couldn’t choose a baby to lick upon, it  would be a Korean. Of course there’s a ranking system: all babies first, followed by males (preferably younger) females (preferably younger), old men, old women.  I would think this ranking would be a fairly common for anyone forced to comply but given some preferences. Personally, I think a hierarchy  much different from this, for example, preferring to lick ancient butt to baby butt, a truly rank  preference, would be  suggestive of some sexual perversion.

Although I wouldn’t want to lick any bum, not even for pleasure, if I had to my first choice would be that of a baby. Anyone other than a baby I could probably never look in the face again ether from a sense of guilt or revulsion. A baby would no more remember the act than having its  nappy changed. As a baby has  no personality it’s not like  licking the arse of a real person, and once out of its nappy it’s not much more than a dirty doll.  Denied a baby, I’d select a Korean.  Perhaps some Koreans don’t scrub their butts out but I know lots do because I’ve seen them. On the other-hand, I’ve never seen a westerner clean out their arse.

Koreans must have the cleanest arse holes in the world. I doubt you’ve ever seen a westerner scrub out their bum hole so you don’t really know if they do. I suspect most westerners just flush their butts with a blast from the shower which isn’t very hygienic considering its a deep, dark, dank, dirt dump  which we sit on all day and despite its catalogue of offenses is subject to significantly less scrutiny than our mouths and teeth. There is a veritable arsenal of mouth wash and gargle to both freshen and kill oral bacteria but nothing of a similar nature with which to douche your arse.

Like most arses, Pluto has been exiled

With an arse hole as distant as Pluto, the first time I saw a bide abroad, I assumed it was either for bathing a baby or washing your feet.  And even though its design should have announced its purpose, the idea was repugnant. A device for washing your arse! A filthy idea!  To have deduced the purpose of that alien bide would have required a morally degenerate mind and the inclinations of a pervert.  You dump out of a bum and after mopping up you forget the filthy offence. Poohing is a sin and a sin of such gargantuan proportions that even though ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness,’ the Bible avoids any mention of that dirty orifice. You don’t talk about poohing, you don’t share the experience and you certainly don’t make devices to clean it. If there’s one reason, why westerners are so distrustful of Islamic culture it’s because their poohing customs, ie. mopping up with a hand wetted with water from an old baked bean can, force  infidels to confront the one place we hate to go.  For the westerner forced to muck-out a la Mohammad,  having to touch that unspeakable place, especially when adopting the most undignified of postures, is a  significant form of first contact.  Touching down in that dark and alien cavity and being compelled to blindly explore it contours without the comfort of a wad of tissue, is something you never forget.   It is a first contact not just in that you are forced to acknowledge that  there is life on Pluto and that is not as nearly as far away as you thought, but that in all the years leading up that significant event, you staunchly upheld the prime directive of non-interference  (and if you were interfering with one, even your own, you never talked about it!)  A working definition of a seasoned traveler? Someone who has had first contact with their own arse hole.  Hence, I imagine most arses, especially non Korean arses, have permanent bad breath and while you can have the pseudo medical condition ‘halitosis,’ there is no corresponding medical term for a smelly bum.  Unfortunately, considering their propensity for filth, bum holes are sorely neglected.

But of all Korean butts in Korea, there’s one exception, Fart Pants! Fart Pants (방귀 바지) is the dirtiest Korean to date I have met. And though her parents aren’t poor, her dirtiness has more to do with her habits than being physically dirty. Admittedly, her favourite coat, salmon pink, looks like it has been used to clean the floor but this didn’t bother me until she started farting in class. The pink coat, being padded, has insulating properties and a fart is always more unpleasant when heated. I don’t know how universal it is in Korea, but I’m told that teachers rarely say anything to  a kid who farts because it draws attention to them which of course, they don’t like. In common with the rule of vile farts, hers are silent but I  know  they’re hers  because her eyes will be sparkling and she will be salivating heavily in a manner that suggests she’s either been fingering her own butt or  sucking a turd up and down her back passage. Either way, there is an intense look of pleasure and glee on her face.

The smell, still warm, then looms up from under the desk around which we  sit and it’s truly hideous. As the foetid guff engulfs me, I sit up, then press my neck as far back in my collar as possible, before moving my chair back after which there is no escape.  A few days ago, after trying to hold my breath  I knew  was going to retch and had to leave the classroom.  Betty, who is sat right next to her, must have had her nasal passages cauterized as she doesn’t seem to notice a thing.  Fart Pants lets one-off in most lessons. When she first started classes, nerves probably clenched her butt  shut but now she’s in the swing of things and relaxed, she blows  off with as much ease as someone with a prolapsed rectum.  I find her farts incredibly intense and personal  and being subject to them is a form of abuse. Apparently, she farts in other teacher’s classes but no one has heard her which makes me suspect she might have a punctured colostomy bag.  If she moves about too much, even a considerable time after issue, a residual smell, loitering under the lagging of that pink coat, will waft up.

If this hasn’t been bad enough, there have now been a number of occasions when I have noticed her toying with a bogey  (코딱지) between the tips of her index finger and thumb. She seems to keep  a bogey in play for several minutes, massaging it around like a piece of sticky glue or a grain of cooked rice.  Then her hand goes under the table and I anticipate it being dropped. Moments later however, it re-emerges only this time its on another hand. It’s  magical! Not in the sense she can keep amusing herself with one bogey for so long  or that it seems to matter transport from one digital location to another, but because the things are so moisture retentive. A few days ago,  she must have forgotten about one of her nasal playthings: it had been rolled, stretched, palpitated,  passed between various fingers and hands. Suddenly she went still which was quite noticeable because she is always fiddling and tears welled in her eyes.  Another fart was being primed! The intense pleasure its production provided distracted her enough to evaporate that offensive entity being entertained predominantly between her fingers.  When I asked a question which necessitated pointing in a book, her hand reappeared from under the table. From this stage on it’s a guessing game; which hand? which finger? When she pointed to the page, on the end of her right  index finger, perched a pale green bogey still looking fairly fresh despite the copious palpitations. Next moment, her hot fart smacked me  in the face.

Over the weekend I bought some anti-bacterial hand cream, the choice was amazing as this item is currently very fashionable. I also bought a bottle of Febreeze as I noticed that the farts clung to my clothing like fried food or tobacco smells.

Monday afternoon! First class of the week and Betty is on her own. Fart Pants has left the school and I shalln’t miss her!

Bathhouse Basics 1 – What is a bathhouse? (목욕탕)

Aquatic Symphony

Bathhouse (목욕탕) – exactly as the name suggests. Simply a place to wash. However, while some establishments are not much more than a place to administer yourself a thorough scrub down, others offer the chance to wallow in luxurious ambiance. The range is broad and bathhouses often have their own distinct atmosphere shaded by the time you visit. What you will find common to all  are: nudity,  segregation by sex,  places to shower, both standing and sitting and a number of pools. This is the most basic I have experienced. Others will have a number of adjoining ‘rooms’ containing various saunas, steam rooms, ice rooms (어름방), salt saunas, yellow mud sauna (황토방) sleeping rooms, and a place to be scrubbed down by an attendant. Once again, the variation is extensive. Pools vary in size and number and like the various ‘rooms’ often utilise specific minerals which are believed to promote good health. The most common are probably hot pools (열탕 – yeol-tang), warm pools (온탕 – on-tang),  cold pools (냉탕 – naeng tang) but I have also bathed in pools of gold and saunaed in silver. Baths may contain herbs, or green tea or be built with health inducing minerals. In addition, some bathhouses have heated areas around the pools where it is possible to take a nap and these may be heated by ondol (온돌) heating (underground heating) or by infra-red lights.

Changing rooms

Chilling

In the bathing area, bathhouses often have:

conveniently located televisions

various types of massage

soap, towel, body clothes, toothpaste

a large stone on which to eradicate hard skin

In the changing area:

sofas, television

a room in which to dry and preen yourself

toothbrushes, shampoo, Italy towels, hair conditioner

socks, underwear, ties

soft drinks, some snacks, especially smoked eggs

In the steam room of the Kayasan Hotel Bathhouse

A typical seated shower area

Grouped around the bathhouse (목욕탕):

barber, hairdresser

shoe shine facility

shoe repair facility

a sports complex or some exercise facilities

a jjimjilbang (찜질방)

In the pools

Some may have outside areas or indeed, be located in outdoor settings. Finally, some establishments have limited opening hours while others are open twenty-four hours.

Variations are extensive and endless!

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© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.