I’ve spent 8 years looking at Korea through an understanding of British culture and now I’m living in the UK, my observations are shaded by my interaction with Korean society.
In the summer, just before I left Korea, my gumdo master suggested we take our students to a spa for an outing. A ‘spa’ in Korea is a water park. My first question was, ‘what do you wear in a spa?’ Of course, I knew the answer, a bathing costume; it just needed confirming. A little wave of nausea washed over me. I’ve become so used to nude bathing that the idea of wearing anything other than nothing is ‘pyontae’ – which in Korea means ‘perverted’ though a closer, not so stringent translation is probably ‘sick’ or ‘gross.’
Now, this revelation, a complete turnaround to how I originally envisaged a bathhouse experience, is strange partly because that despite being gay, I don’t find the bathhouse in the least an erotic encounter. This fact quite confuses some people whom obsess that a bathhouse has got to be an erotic experience for a gay man. Perhaps this obsession reveals more about them than it does me. Indeed, I’ve never really found the experience erotically engaging. Naturally, I’m aware of handsome or attractive bathers but that’s where it stops. Conversely, I find clothed bathing far more sexually intriguing because it leaves something to the imagination. Nudity is noble and levelling while bathing in a costume is simply sad and repressive. In the end, we didn’t take the kids to a spa and I was pleased because I would have felt more awkward, more body conscious strolling around in bathing shorts.
One of the most notable revelations on returning to the UK is that any mention of nude bathing and the fact you find it superior to clothed bathing, even in a segregated environment, instantly labels you a ‘nudist’ or ‘naturist’ both of which for many British people carry overtones of ‘kinkiness.’ In summer, I meet up with a friend who spent 4 years in Daegu. I think I may have introduced him to bathhouse culture and over the years we explored numerous bathhouses and jjimjilbang in and around Daegu. When he visited, we travelled part of the east coast and arrived at St Osyths Beach, near Clacton.
St Osyths Beach is one of those seaside towns that epitomise the ghastly side of British culture. Really, its nothing other than a sprawling caravan park with a row of glitzy amusement arcades, a few restaurants and a bar. The restaurants serve decently priced food in good proportions but the quality is lacking. You can buy a foot long sausage and chips for a couple of pounds but I don’t think the sausage contains any meat and if it does it’s mechanically rescued and engorged with some form of edible padding; bread perhaps.
Part of the beach is quite pleasant but if you walk only a hundreds towards the ‘nudist beach’ it rapidly deteriorates into a bomb zone. Clearly, some structures or an esplanade originally stood on this stretch which had subsequently been bombed flat or smashed by an enormous tsunami. The rubble has never been removed and large chunks of concrete lay embedded in the sand decorated by patches of paving and the odd rusty, iron girder. The beach was strewn with rubbish, beer cans, broken glass and the likes and ornamented by a great swampy expanse which smelt like an enormous drain and sat between the footpath and the beach.
We spent several hours in the nude beach trying to recapture the luxury of Korean bathhouse bathing. Having walked some twenty minutes from the caravan park area, the beach becomes sandy and clean with dunes stretching far along the isolated coastline. Bathing in the sea wasn’t that pleasant; the water is murky and the floor a constantly shifting bed of shingle that at times was sharp.
It was high summer, holiday season, but the beach wasn’t too busy and here and there sat or bathed real naturists. You could distinguish real naturists from those with other motives because they made eye contact and occasionally communicated with us, perhaps smiling or commenting on the hot weather. What marred the occasion were the number of perverts frequenting the beach – all men! They fell into two categories, those tolling the beach-line who simply paraded up and down and those hiding between the dunes eager to eye up whatever it was that attracted them.
One character, wore a complete body stocking which covered all but his hands, feet and head and he minced along the path between the beach and the dunes sporting a lttle hand-bag. Another, paraded up and down fully aroused and every twenty or so paces would keep himself ‘pumped’ with a vigorous fondling. Yet another, trolled the water’s edge wearing a mid-riff T-shirt from which was attached a piece of cord subsequently tied to his nether regions. This ‘reign’ was somewhat tight and as he walked his T-shirt pulled on the reign and his penis reared upwards as if a dinky sized My Little Pony was nestled in his crotch. Meanwhile, in the dunes, heads constantly popped up and peered about like pink periscopes before submerging.
Despite my years of Korean bathhouse bathing, in an all male environment, I felt uncomfortable with the kind of behaviour paraded on this beach. I doubt there were any punters under 25, apart maybe from a few women in pairs and you certainly wouldn’t want to bring children here. The whole experience was tainted by the parading perverts and hidden colony of leering meer cats.
(Originally published March 15th 2011) Here’s something to ponder. You’re going to be forced to stick your nose up someone’s butt. They might be clothed, they might not. The only choice you have in the matter is what nationality they will be.
When I used to train and teach taekwondo in the UK, sweaty sessions often produced brown watery stains on the butts of students’ white suits. I used to refer to it as ‘bum lick’ and basically, after rubbing shit around your arse smearing it clean, residue remains which when mingled with sweat produces shitty water which then stains your pants. Despite the hideously hot summers in Korea, I have never seen ‘bum lick’ on kids taekwondo pants probably because their diet is substantially different. The moment you convert to loading up on pizza, big mac, bread and pastries plus a churn load of milk, cheese, butter and cream and it takes five minutes and half a roll of toilet paper to smear yourself clean.
Now, I’m not into backsides but if I were forced to stick my nose up someone’s crack, but could choose the nationality of the backside, it would most definitely be Korean. I base my choice on two reasons, firstly: a Korean diet leaves less mess and secondly, Koreans are simply more fastidious about personal hygiene.
With a culinary repository heavily based on soupy type recipes, Korean food never hangs about in the gut too long and when it is expelled it is ejected with such force that suction drags out any loitering debris. Typical British food however, loiters in the intestines and has to be squeezed out of the body like toothpaste. It passes through the body at such a slow pace that the entire intestinal track contains one enormous fecal sausage, a gigantic colonic conga which congests the entire gut like an enormous traffic jam as it slowly worms its way downward. Kimchi jjim, or a bowl of bean curd soup however, is ingested and processed at such speed that by the time it is blown out not only is the consistency unchanged but so too is its temperature. With such force is it ejected from the body that it cleans your backside as it departs. And I have to say, cleaning-up up after a Korean meal is not much different to dabbing your mouth after a drink of water whereas a British diet can only be compared with trying to smear-up a muddy hole.
And you know most Koreans wash their backsides thoroughly because you can watch them doing it in a bathhouse. Many people in the UK still use bathtubs as a primary source of personal hygiene but how can you wash your arse in a little swaddling tub that binds your knees together and prevents easy access. Worse, the same water than cleans your body, that contains dead skin cells, hair, and other scud, the same water that rinsed out your backside and crotch, is then wallowed in. Yew! What a filthy habit and one almost as revolting as fitted carpets or cotton handkerchiefs. British showers aren’t much better being taken standing in restrictive bathtubs or in shower cubicles that provide as much freedom of movement as would a coffin. Have you ever seen a westerner clean their backside? And how do western kids learn how to clean themselves in that area? Are they just left to learn for themselves or do they simply let their underwear soak it up? I assume most westerners clean out their arses but I’ve never seen them doing it.
Nothing annoys me more than those who condemn Korean bathhouses, especially if they’ve only been a few times, and consider them places of moral and physical corruption or seething with rampant contagious infections; or those who like to bash Koreans because they use chopsticks in communal bowls of food or because they once had to use a crappy toilet. Yes, of course somethings in Korea seem ‘dirtier than they do back home but traveling shouldn’t just spotlight the inadequacies in your host country but should also expose ones you hadn’t considered back home. Last year I came across a commentary by a westerner who complained:
And my 02. worth. Korean bathhouses? Dirty. Think about this for a minute.
The hot and cold pools. The water is NOT filtered. You have people who scrub their body and DON’T rinse off and still jump into the pools. I’ve seen it and I’m sure you have also. Leave the sauna, sweat pouring off you and hop into the cold pool! I have never seen a sauna in Korea that filters the water. It gets changed once or twice a day. Japan? Yes the water is filtered and cleaned. Not Korea. I know a few people who caught the crabs in these saunas. The blankets in the sleeping rooms are not washed daily. The towels that the saunas give you to dry off usually are not washed in hot water. I’m not bad mouthing Korea saunas, I have been to a few but most are dirty. Even the fancy looking saunas that are expensive to enter do not filter the hot/cold pool water. People are peeing in them also. I’d think twice. The saunas are good things but many are lacking customers who use good hygiene. If you are lucky enough, you might have been using one when it was being cleaned. I was and never did return.
Actually, I don’t totally disagree! People, me included, go from the various saunas into one of the pools, bodies sweating, and occasionally I see kids get straight in a pool without showering and some bathhouses are cleaner than others. I’m sure some people must pee in the water and I’ve certainly seen people pee in the showers. Is the water filtered? Well, I know water is sucked in through vents and in other places blown out. Is this filtration? I’m no more aware of filtration systems than I would be in British swimming pools where people often swim without showering, and if they do it’s only in a cursory manner, and in which they do urinate. I’ve even seen a turd floating in a British swimming pool but most of us aren’t too bothered about pool hygiene because chlorine sanitizes not just the watery environment but mentally as it leads us to believe the environment is biologically sanitized. British pools might be bug free, but are they clean? Would you wallow in a cesspit if it were purged with a bottle of chlorine?
Without doubt some infections are passed in bathhouses, ‘red eye’ (conjunctivitis) being one and possibly a nasty infection of the testicles but even a mild infection of the bollocks is nasty as it results in them needing to be groped by your GP. Personally, such risks I consider small and I’m happy to gamble infection for the pleasures bathhouses provide. In years of using bathhouses I only ever had one infection and it’s debatable where it would have been contracted. I can identify a number of practices I consider unsavoury in Korea, some examples being how individuals might dump garbage at collection points which isn’t bagged, or dipping odeng (오댕 -fish cake snacks) into communal soy sauce bowls, a habit which I think might actually have almost phased out. Then there is the habit many kids have of coughing in your face without covering their mouth with a hand.
Some restaurants, especially small ones, have dubious cooking areas but once again I’ve seen just as bad in the UK where kitchens are usually hidden from public view. Several years ago I attended a course which was hosted in a prestigious yacht club. When the caterer didn’t turn up, we took it upon ourselves to use the kitchen to make tea and coffee and what we found was alarming; filthy fridges containing curdled milk and atrophied onions, meat placed above vegetables and shelves tacky with sugary residue on which cups were stored upside down. I made a complaint to the local authorities which resulted in the restaurant being fined several thousand pounds. The head chef, who was subsequently sacked, had previously owned a swanky sea food restaurant in the same village. Though lots of westerners will bemoan the state of many public toilets, I’ve seen far worse examples in the UK. I taught in one school where kids would deliberately urinate on the toilet floor, and even, on occasion, defecate beside the toilet rather than in it. There’s good and bad in all cultures but I will admit to being more lenient in terms of standards when I am eating something that costs next to nothing than I am when confronted with bad practices in an expensive, pretentious eatery. When eating out is expensive and an exception rather than the rule, as it is in the UK, I don’t expect Faecal Fingers or dirty anything.
Generally, I do not think standards differ too much between Britain and Korea except in terms of personal hygiene, which unfortunately is one of the most important criteria. It’s great having no rubbish lying in your streets or chlorine in public bathing water but it makes little odds if the community around you are filthy fuckers. Several years ago, research by a British University revealed that between 6 and 53% of city commuters had faecal matter on their hands. (BBC News 2008) Apparently, the further north you go in Britain, the higher the rates of contamination. This is especially alarming when you consider British people will usually fully unwrap a burger before eating it and are much more likely to put things like fingers and pens in their mouths. I’m the first to admit I unwrap my burger fully in order to consume it and find comfort in fingering the bun but Koreans always eat it from the wrapper even after washing their hands.
A person’s hands are the prime tools of first contact, they touch people, open doors, activate buttons and knobs, finger and prepare food and much more; they are the tools which, with an opposing thumb, not only define us as primates, but facilitate and make possible our interaction with the physical world. You can have all the brains in the world but without thumbs – you’re screwed! At the other end of the scale, your bum-hole does very little and generally spends a large proportion of the day sitting on its arse. If a person fails to sanitize their hands after a dump , if they can’t even be bothered to keep clean such an important tools, what horrendous microscopic offenses are lurking in that dark and humid crevice. And then there are the peanuts in bars which in the UK are usually contaminated with multiple traces of urine. My Koreans students often call me ‘dirty’ if I stir my coffee with a pen or put a pen end in my mouth and they are unaware that so many Brits have faecal fingers. Now I know why a number of British confections focus on ‘fingers.’ I have rarely met a dirty Korean student and the pissy urine smell that I’ve noted in numerous infant schools in Britain certainly never existed in the Korean kindergartens in which I taught.
I suspect much of the animosity towards bathhouses is simply the result of nudity; some westerners clearly perceive bathhouses physically ‘dirty’ because they consider nudity morally dirty. As one commentator wrote: I’ve also been here since 2001 and have never gone to a bathhouse. I’m not into sausage fests. I work out every day and shower at home. The room of soapy Koreans just doesn’t appeal to me. For some westerners, all it takes for a clean environment is a piece of cloth over a cock and buttock and suddenly the environment is clean; splash a bit of chlorine around and we will happily swim in each other’s neutralized dirt. In 2008, when I first read how widespread faecal matter was on the hands a large chunk of its population, I made a resolution to be extra vigilant in terms of personal hygiene and not only do I wash my hands after using the toilet, but I sanitize them with a spray or anti-bacterial hand cream. I have not once broken this resolution!
It’s pointless getting defensive about our lack of hygiene, for years the British have been the butt of jokes about bad teeth. I once meet an Australian who told me he’d been taught Brits changed their trousers once every few weeks and I’ve seen the skid marks in changing rooms and smelt the effects of using underwear as blotting paper, in British schools. If you’re British at least, observing how fastidious Koreans are about personal hygiene should prompt you to realise your own cultural failings. What’s important is that you learn from such observations and of course, the process goes both ways. Koreans are also fastidious about dental hygiene and I recently read that brushing teeth three times a day over decades can lead to receding gums. A number of sources now suggest only cleaning teeth with a brush, twice a day. As I said, there are good and bad practices in all cultures.
Okay, so now you’re going to be forced to stick your nose up someones butt. It’s time to choose. What nationality are you going to pick?
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
The an-ma-tang (안마탕 – massage pool) appears in various guises. In some bathhouses this can be a large pool with a wide variety of hydrotherapy ‘stations.’ In such bathhouses large massage-baths will provide water massage to every part of the body including the soles of your feet. Usually they consist of some form of cubicle in which you stand or lay and after activating a button, are subject to powerful jets of water which will massage a particular area. Smaller pools produce massage jets at a lower intensity and over which you have to maneuver whatever part of your body is in need of treatment. Sometimes the pool has only one activation button and so the experience is shared while other pools have a number of individual births in which you lay and your own activation button.
These pools are great for treating muscular problems though for spinal related aches and pains, cold pools often have a very powerful shower that once activated you can move under to allow your spine and back to be thoroughly pummeled. There is a great variety in the nature of massage pools ranging from ones that are little other than jacuzzi, to ones that seem to vibrate intensely and rumble you internal organs producing an effect that feels like your are about to produce an enormous fart, to others which are powerful enough to give you an enema should you inadvertently put your backside in the line of fire.
In Song-So, West Daegu, Migwang (미광) has a small massage pool but an excellent power shower in the cold pool. Hwang-So (황소) has a small ‘rumble’ type pool with 4 individual ‘berths.’ Meanwhile, the new jjimjilbang in Dasa (다사), Hyu-Rim-Won (휴림원), which is a short taxi or subway ride from Song-So Industrial Complex, has a very large and complex massage pool.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Salt saunas can be found in both bathhouse and jjimjilbang and they are one of my favourite destinations. They tend to be a slightly specialist facility which means you won’t find them in every establishment. You will find the salt experience differs between that offered in a bathhouse and that in a jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbang salt saunas often have walls and or ceilings made from rock salt or they have a large area filled with coarse rock salt in which you can submerse your limbs and body and enjoy the radiant warmth. In a bathhouse, a salt sauna usually has large pot of salt which you rub over your body allowing the salt to both scrub and purge you skin clean. The bathhouse salt room is often combined with other properties as it may, for example, have jade or bamboo charcoal walls walls.
The bathhouse salt sauna is one of my favourite places and you really do feel clean after rubbing your body with salt and then allowing it to dissolve as you sweat. I usually take a small bowl of water in with me as this helps to make the salt cling to your body and don’t forget to take a towel or large scrubbing cloth in with you as often the seats are wooden and they can burn your backside.
As a point of interest, salt is very useful at removing smells and in a Korean market you can buy fresh mackerel which has been sprinkled in salt which you then wash off before cooking – it reduces the smell of the fish as it cooks. I’m not sure however, how well this works on body odours!
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
I’m working through some ideas here and not only have another part to follow this post, but will make amendments here. If you want to add your views, more educated and sociological ones welcomed, please do so however, I won’t bother publishing the usual offensive crap that this kind of post sometimes generates. (Hence the pumpkin logo) Part one can be accessed here: Bathhouse Zen (Part 1)
Once you have recognised your own cultural inhibitions and prejudices that prevent you entering bathhouse complexes or get in the way of your fully enjoying the experience, it is time to look at how bathhouse culture can be seen in a broader context.
The bathhouse is an environment where social rank and hierarchy either cease operating or do so at a minimal level. In an environment divested of the clothes which we use to mask and manipulate our personalities, communication is both more direct and honest. Mutual nudity brings participants into a closer relationship where friendships and ties are strengthened. The Korean phenomena of ‘testicle friends’ (불알 친구) or ‘penis friends’ (고추 친구) clearly demonstrate that a relationship enters a deeper level through familiarity with the naked body. This is further consolidated through ‘skinship’ ‘rituals’ such as scrubbing each others backs or bodies. Skinship is an important bonding process in all human interaction though it needn’t be restricted exclusively to mother-child or sexual relationships. In the Korean context ‘skinship’ has an important function in wide range of platonic relationships and even serve to form a bridge between relationships that are normally unequal. Unlike western culture, in which physical contact might be substantially altered in a naked or semi-naked state, in the bathhouse ‘skinship’ practices do not alter.
Additionally, bathhouse nudity also rekindles our relationship to nature and it is not unusual to see individuals sat in pools or quiet corners meditating or simply contemplating. Most bathhouses reinforce the connection with nature and rock, wood, salt, soil, sea water, wood chippings, charcoal, bamboo, herbs, jade etc, are all common features incorporated into bathhouse design. The artificial worlds we inhabit in our regular lives, often fast paced and technologically dependent, all evaporate in the presence of a bathhouse’s watery symphony of splashing, pulsing, lapping, dripping and hissings. Water as water, ice, spray or steam, incorporated with suitable lighting and other elements rich in association with nature combine to create and ambience that can lure us into psychological states conducive to meditation or reflection. A state of nudity fully exposes the body to various transitions in temperature, textures, aroma and humidity.
Most bathhouses have something unique to offer and an awareness of the ambience of bathhouses at differing times of the day or week mean that it is possible to bathe in a manner that suits not just differing emotions but physical states. Some establishments are better suited for taking a sleep, others for relaxing in various types of pool or experiencing various types of hydro-therapy and some more suited for those times of year when the weather is hot, humid or cold. And if one finishes a session properly they should leave the bathhouse feeling both mentally and physically revitalised.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence
Only the Bats were Missing
First visited September 10th 2010. You might very well walk past without giving it a second glance; save for the fact a Lotteria is nestled in one corner. From the somewhat clumsy building amidst a sprawling melee of hotchpotch architecture, reminiscent of pre-1988 Korea, you might not expect to be impressed. However, Goong-Jeon Lavender Jjimjilbang, close to Dong Daegu railway station, is not only one of the largest bathhouse I have visited but one of the richest in character and interest.
When leaving the elevator and entering the changing rooms, Goong-Cheon Lavender certainly spoils the visitor with space and the reception area, with a snack bar fronted by cute, if not bizarre pink, white and gold baroque imitation tables and chairs, occupies an area the equivalent to that of many other changing rooms. An atmosphere of spaciousness and intrigue is imparted before one has even collected their locker key.
Access between the bathhouse and changing area is via large ramps and on entering the bathing complex you are confronted with a very large showering facility with stand-up showers organised in a multitude of partitions around the periphery, and an army of seated showers relegated to the centre. I usually count shower units but on this occasion there were simply too many and besides, the blue glow emanating from pools beyond the shower area, were demanding my exploration.
In the distance, at the far end of the complex, I was attracted to the large ‘cave bath’ (동굴), the water of which was shimmering on the cave roof. On the partitions between the sit-down showers, between which you walk to reach the pools, large crystalline ‘stones,’ appear to be lit from beneath, added to the subterranean atmosphere. Three pools occupy the area before the ‘cave feature’ with various smaller pools on one side and four saunas on the other. The largest pool is a round warm-water pool but my favourite, located almost in one corner and portioned by glass, is a Dead Sea salt bath (사해소금방). The water is dark blue and the high salt content certainly made my body more buoyant.
Among the four saunas were, a steam sauna, and a salt sauna all constructed from either jade or some other ‘well-being’ material. There is also an ice room. However, the central feature of Goong-Cheon Lavender, are the two pools at the head of the pool complex which are designed like caves. Small windows provided enough light for real ivy to grow from the ‘rock formation’ walls and from the ceiling hang impressive, realistic stalactites. Both pools are cold, more suited for hot weather and one has a number of power showers useful for massaging an aching back.
Non-invasive lighting, various scents from the saunas such as rose, pine and mugwort plus beautifully soft and fresh smelling towels all enhance the atmosphere and though there is a television in one sauna, which is piped into other rooms, levels of noise are low. Numerous pools also use silver ionised water which is subsequently microbe-free.
Goong-Cheon Lavender also boasts sporting facilities, including general fitness, weight training, yoga and golf as well as a jjimjilbang equipped with various ‘jewellery’ rooms. Similar to the bathhouse saunas, these are rooms constructed out of stone or metal with ‘well-being’ qualities. A roof garden is also accessible from the jjimjilbang. This is an impeccably clean and exciting complex to which I was welcomed in English. There is much to explore and the size, atmosphere and unique bathing experiences make this a great venue to relax. My only criticism… there were no bats!
Times – 24 hour jjimjilbang (찜질방) and bathhouse.
Facilities – women’s ‘bathhouse, jjimjilbang, men’s bathhouse, coffee shop, shoe shine, barbers, sports complex, belly dancing, aerobics, screen golf, massage, children’s play room, pc room, roof garden, yoga, etc
Jjimjilbang – (pending)
Bathhouse (men) – an extremely large stand-up and sit-down shower area. Cold pool cave, Dead Sea salt bath, Black Sea bath, silver ionised water, steam room, salt room, and various ‘jewelery rooms.’
Cost – bathhouse 5000 Won.
Others – hairdressers, massage and rub downs, parking, cafe..
Ambiance – very relaxing and friendly.
Waygukin – None.
Address – Goong-Cheon is located a very short taxi ride from Dong Daegu Station (KTX). (Wikimap)
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
This is simply a sauna in which the air is misted by what resembles a very fine, warm rain. The temperature in this sauna is less severe than in a steam room.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
I’m working through some ideas here and not only have another three parts to follow this post, but will make amendments here. If you want to add your views, more educated and sociological ones welcomed, please do so however, I won’t bother publishing the usual offensive crap that this kind of post sometimes generates. (Hence the pumpkin logo)
Not too long ago, I joined the social networking site, Skinbook, a site for nudists. I had never considered myself a nudist and of course, in Korea I’m not. But once you head back home on a vacation you realise that bathing, even in a same-sex environment, is a form of nudism. So,while in Korea I regard myself completely normal and healthy but once I step off the plane in the UK , or even talk to some westerners here in Korea, I have to re-configure one of my pleasures and label it ‘partial nudism’ and of course, this then includes the slurs and innuendos associated with any form of nudity. What is a completely normal pursuit in one country is almost perversified in another. It is ironic that my home country, like the USA, has not just one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the world, but one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, children as young as 12 and 13 engage in sex and if they go to the doctor are granted anonymity and, child abuse in one form or another, is clearly a national pastime. Being judged by my own culture, and those who bring its attitudes to Korea is rather like being judged by the town’s most prolific pox spreading, pimp.
For a waygukin to really enjoy Korean bathhouses one has to divest themselves of the cultural baggage that prohibits or hinders one from fully capitalizing on what the experience has to offer. Though our cultural baggage may be similar, as between that of a Canadian and Scotsman, there are naturally differences that shape and inform the reception we have to going-naked in a same-sex, public environment. Some cultures are more relaxed than others and within and across cultures there are differing attitudes towards nudity and proxemics; some may be constrained by religious views, some may have very strong associations between nudity and sex, some may be more liberated due to upbringing. So, the point at which we each stand in relation to nudity and the various forms it appears in, differ. Despite the reference to ‘zen,’ (선), there is nothing deep or mystical in the Korean practice of public bathing any more than there is swimming in a public bathhouse in the UK and my use of the term is based on the loosest meaning and simply suggests the ability to enjoy the experience without being hindered by cultural baggage.
For many, myself included, taking the first step into a bathhouse was a traumatic experience and certainly one I’ll never forget it! For others, nudity in the company of others is no different to being nude in isolation; many people are quite used to showering in a same-sex environment and if you play rugby in the UK, bathing in a large bathtub with your team, all naked, is a long-standing ritual. However, showering or bathing naked is quite different from other experiences a bathhouse will eventually confront you with, experiences which will test your levels of comfort and possibly expose the cultural baggage you still carry, but which you thought you’d ditched.
Let me give you a very recent example; I use bathhouses on a regular basis and my first introduction to them was almost ten years ago. However, while bathing less than three hours ago, I had two interesting reflections. I still do not feel comfortable with a close friend scrubbing my back and after a little analysis decided it was because in my culture such intimacy is more likely to occur as a prelude to sex and also because I am over weight and self-conscious. The second one occurred while we were in a sauna. The room is fairly large and is occupied by only my friend and I, yet when two new men enter the room, independent of each other, they sit on seats on either side of me. Meanwhile, my friend is laying on the floor, taking a nap. I am sat facing the television but they sit each looking directly at one side of my face, and to compound matters, their heads are less than three feet from mine and they sit with knees wide apart in a position that in western body language can convey a sexual meaning. Within the parameters of my culture, no only do their body positions establish a hostile or sexual tension between us, but a corresponding tension between themselves, as they are sat facing each other. And remember, they could have sat in any of three corners but instead chose to sit directly next to me. Even after years of bathing, little alarm bells jangled! Of course, neither are making aggressive or sexual suggestions and probably sat down without any conscious deliberation at all.
While you might feel very ‘at-home’ naked in the bathhouse shower, or sat on your own in a corner of a pool, if you frequent bathhouses on a regular basis, the day will eventually arrive when:
♦You’re just steeping into a pool when you notice the person at the far end is a co-worker.
♦You drop the soap and need to bed over
♦You’re sitting on a bucket seat when a Korean friend begins a conversation, their dick dangling in your face
♦You end up talking to a friend who is sat on a bucket seat, while you are standing, your dick in their face
♦You’re asked to either scrub someone’s back or they offer to scrub yours
♦You enter a pool only to discover a couple of your students are staring at you
♦Your school or work decide to organise a trip to the bathhouse
♦You somehow end up having a full body scrub-down
If any of these scenarios are liable to make you feel uncomfortable, then you have not yet reached the state of ‘zen’ required to ensure your enjoyment is the ultimate possible and in which your reception of the experience is similar to that of a Korean. The cited examples, and there are others, highlight the point at which east and west differ and yet it is for this reason many people decide to live in Korea. (Surely it wasn’t just for the money!) The manner in which we approach this point of separation, or stay cocooned in our safety zone, is dependent the ability to suspend our own cultural mores and subsequently embrace those of Korean society. The fewer of these scenarios which trouble you, the closer you are in approximation to the manner in which a Korean perceives a bathhouse experience. If you can bend over in full view of bathers, poke your backside clean with soaped fingers, use the hair dryer on your pubic hair or do a series of exercises, naked and in front of an audience, you can award yourself a red-belt (the rank prior to a taekwon-do black belt) in bathhouse familiarity. And not only will you be better able to understand the Korean psyche, but you may also have a deeper understanding of the nature of your own society. Personally, I still have a long way to go but I’m getting there!
A Korean’s behaviour in a bathhouse has nothing to do with zen and with no barriers to overcome such a ‘state’ isn’t necessary. They simply behave in a manner which conforms to their social mores. Being outside this point of references, ‘zen’ is the mental ‘state’, or ‘attitude ‘we have to aspire to if we want to truly enjoy the experience and step closer to understanding the Korean psyche. In a ‘state ‘of ‘zen,’ a state of statelessness, you will have abandoned all cultural shackles and have no problem with your bum hole pontificating the heavens should you drop the soap. And when you can rationalize bathhouse culture without suggesting it is perverse, homo-erotic or ‘gay,’ as many westerners do, you will truly be in a state of enlightenment.
There are two parts involved in learning to enjoy the Korean bathhouse experience. The first involves ditching or suspending your own cultural baggage and all the assumptions it makes and judgments it levies. The second lies in embracing Korean attitudes towards same-sex nudity and bathing. Suspending the outrage of your own values is not always easy considering the British, for example, have a very long history of demonizing anything sexual. We have been imbued to perceive genitals as solely sexual and invested with the powers to pervert those who gaze upon them or even talk about them. Even the genitals of a baby are now perceived as sexual and that you cannot photograph or draw a naked baby, even your own, without the overwhelming realization that you are doing something terribly wrong, is alarming. And because nudity exposes what is deemed sexual, it has the potential to pervert and hence needs close control. As for ‘skinship,‘ a problematic enough concept for many westerners when clothed, when nude, it can only be rationalised as sexually motivated. Many young and liberal westerners like to think they are ‘progressive’ in their attitudes to sex and the body, but many, the moment confronted with the opportunity to be naked, it is revealed that they are not only terrified by it, but conflate it with sex. For many men, the idea of being naked with other men is repugnant. Ditching such silly attitudes, even if temporarily, is wonderfully liberating and frees you from centuries of oppression.
Disengaging your cultural shackles:
Over-coming the fear of your own body – in modern capitalism the body is a battle ground used to manipulate our dreams, aspirations, inadequacies and fears in the attempt, planned and unplanned, to spur us onto the treadmill that sees us seeking remedy in an array of consumer products. Products articulated around diet and exercise are lucrative and a nation riddled with guilt at being overweight or unhealthy, even if you’re not, is a nation ready to chuck money away in pursuing the latest fad. It’s a Machiavellian philosophy of ‘give ’em dreams and sell them shit.’ All too often, the first barrier to getting naked in public is the fear of being seen by others, of being exposed and then judged by the criteria of market forces. Obesity and being overweight are obvious but even our attitude to dick size is influenced by market forces; my spam box is constantly bombarded with adverts claiming to enhance the male appendage. When did you ever see an advert offering to reduce penile proportions? Porn actors are often rumoured to have dicks of Herculean proportions and any actor or celebrity who is discovered to have a little wiener, an average wiener, can expect ridicule. Societies have not all valued a big dick and at the height of Classical Athens, being well hung, and worse, well hung and circumcised, was considered very un-sexy. Among the classical statues and red pottery of the period – not a big cock among them unless it’s owned by a grotesque satyr. If you can find a penis poking from the loin of a Praxiteles, it probably fits the modern-day parameters of ‘average’ and this is often a euphemism for ‘small.’
I have frequently heard or read comments by westerner visitors to bathhouses, berating the bodies of everyone who is not minus 20, slim and sexy. Such people are ‘shocked’ or ‘appalled’ by the ugliness of others and see only attractiveness in the same way it is seen by Hollywood. Such attitudes are rooted in the assumption that if nudity is to be tolerated, it should at least be practiced by those who are sexually attractive because, as we all know, sex among fatties and oldies is a turn-off. It there’s one thing you learn in a bathhouse, it’s that we are more alike than unlike, regardless of age, size and condition. Overcoming a fear of exposing our bodies in a public forum is for many people a big step because of our own negative self images induced in us by our own culture. As a result, to overcome the fear is empowering.
Separating the conflation of sex and nudity – Western social mores conflate sex and nudity and this tradition, one with a long history, is always an obstacle faced by nudists in the west because public sentiment demonize or peversifies nudity on the grounds it is sexual. If you enjoy nudity it implies you do so for sexually motivated reasons and is likely to classify you with terms such as ‘kinky’ or ‘pervert.’ Male same-sex nudity bears the greatest brunt of this conflation especially when it suggests those involved are homosexual. And it is this conflation which informs the opinions of many a westerner opposed or fearful of bathhouse culture. If you start a conversation with many British men about Japanese bathhouses, which often do not segregate the sexes, the tone of the conversation becomes sexually orientated, many western men would love peep through a chink in a wall of a Japanese bathhouse and indeed, you can even download videos of such scenarios. It is therefore predictable that their assumptions about same-sex bathing is going to be articulated around sex and homosexuality. It is the intense conflation of sex and nudity in the western tradition that has given rise to the phenomena of gay bathhouses and in the minds of many people bathhouses are strongly associated with a homosexuality, hedonism and promiscuity. Unfortunately, in the west nudity is often invaded by those assuming it must be sexual and in pursuit of a quick thrill. My local hometown in the UK had to close male only, nude bathing sessions because the tone of the place slipped into seediness.
Overcoming the fear of nude children – On occasion when I have witnessed something interesting in a bathhouse involving non-adults and have dared to write about it, and especially if I have written about it without expressing anything but disgust and loathing, it has provided an opportunity for those with a pumpkin mentality to accuse me of perversion. Many people now recoil in horror at the thought of adults and non-adults sharing the same space especially when semi nudity or nudity is involved. In Britain, public changing rooms, those open planned types where everyone undressed in view of each other, have now disappeared. There are a number of individuals who will fear a bathhouse experience because Korean children use bathhouses and I have met and spoken with individuals who will not go to a bathhouse or jjimjilbang on trips organised by their schools. I once had to console a western teacher who cried uncontrollably because Korean Kindergarten teachers took kids to the toilet alone and without a second person in tow to ‘Big Brother’ the procedure. Once again, we are back to the conflation of sex and nudity and of the western obsession of seeking perversion wherever possible. Shouldn’t we be highly suspicious of societies that are obsessed with categorising non-adult nudity, solely by the label ’sexual’ and which cannot compel us only to do likewise.
I very often talk to Korean friends, male and female about cute kids I’ve seen in the bathhouse. Last week I was amused by a baby boy who could only just walk and who wore a pair of socks to prevent him slipping on the slippy floor. I can share this observation with Koreans without the need to add interjections to the effect I’m no pervert or that I’m not interested in baby boys. But to raise such issue to a western audience, especially as a man, and you invite the most vitriolic reprisals. I’m here reminded of the comments I saw posted on various sites in response to a Korean advert where baby boys appeared scrubbing each other’s backs in a bathhouse. Most did not see it as cute or amusing imagery but as sexual, perverse and exploitative. And neither were any genitals flashed for them to arrive at such twisted conclusions.
Redefining your proximity zone – Britain is often cited as one of the least tactile cultures. In Germany, for example, people shake hands on every meeting and not simply when meeting someone for the first time. The French of course, kiss each other on both cheeks. Many other cultures are much more tolerant in allowing males physical contact without the slur of them being ‘homosexual’ and in such societies body proxemics are much closer than they are in the UK or USA where between close friends, 1.5-4 feet define comfortable parameters. Intimate relationships operate between 0-15 inches. Many Koreans friends are quite comfortable operating at a distance of much closer than 15 inches and indeed of operating within a zone that many British people could only tolerate in a sexual relationship. In addition physical contact, ‘skinship,’ occurs not just more often, but for longer periods of time and much closer to the ‘parts’ we have been taught to avoid. It is not in the least unusual to see Korean friends lay down and put their head in their friends lap and I have even seen this in a bathhouse.
Fully acknowledging nudity – many westerners are quite happy nude bathing because they manage to blank out the bits they find difficult to deal with or find offensive or repugnant. As long as it’s not in your face, or better still, as long as it’s in the zone of peripheral vision and can be ignored rather than acknowledged, many people can live with same-sex nudity. If you ask most men about the things they see in a changing room, even in locker room showers, and they will aggressively tell you they don’t look and I believe most of them don’t. And if they do the images are purged from their minds. As I have mentioned before, for a man to see a cock in the UK constitutes such a traumatic experience, unless of course you do happen to be gay, that it can potentially convince a man he is homosexual. It is only when a cock holds the same value as someone’s toes, or their nose, that you are free of this puerile conditioning. Learning to accept what nudism involves, the exposure of those parts you’d rather not acknowledge, is very much about confronting a deep-seated homophobia that assumes the penis is at all times a sexual object, which in western culture usually encompasses any penis whether it be flaccid, erect or even the redundant penis of a baby, and therefore, to consciously acknowledge the penis of another male is to engage in homosexual behaviour. I would further suggest, the fear of acknowledgment is both a means of consolidating a heterosexual identity or facade and avoiding either temptation or the revelation that one’s sexuality may not be what it seems.
When one is able to acknowledge those ‘offensive’ areas dispassionately, in a manner unfettered by emotions and obsessions and which no longer sees them as sexual but as parts with functions such as the nose or ears, and with corresponding qualities and attributes, interesting, quirky, large, etc, one has clearly transcended the myopic conditioning of culture. I would imagine experiencing nude bathing in a non segregated forum, as often practiced in Japan, and to do so with a similar ‘zen’ detachment would be highly enlightening. To achieve this does not mean that no one is appealing or beautiful or sexually attractive, but that this is no longer the primary manner in which you respond to the naked body. Learning to see nudity with ‘zen’ detachment, where the conflation between sex and nudity is separated, and the classification of others in terms of their sexual appeal, minimised, allows you not just to appreciate more fully other human beings, but to feel more human in the process.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
This article was originally published in Daegu Pockets in October 2010
All bathhouses have their own unique ambiances created by a combination of lighting, décor and design. Additionally, they differ in terms of what they offer. Bathhouses all have common features but every bathhouse provides something that differentiates it from other establishments in the vicinity.
Situated in the very heart of Song-So, in the Mega Town Complex, which not only dominates the area physically, but in terms of facilities, boasting a large cinema complex, buffet and pizza restaurant and numerous other amenities, Hwang-so has gradually grown on me. My first visit was on a cold, dark November morning when I arrived to find the premises packed with a class of school boys – not the kind of atmosphere you want at 5 am and on your visit to a bathhouse in a number of years. I found it small, noisy and claustrophobic and didn’t go back.
I have since learnt that if you want peace and tranquility it can be found in the center of this bustling building and that school-boy invasion a blip that can temporarily blight any bathhouse.
The reception to both the male and female bathhouses are on the eighth floor and once you have stripped to your birthday suit it’s only a couple of paces into the bathing complex. Here you will find a very intimate atmosphere with black marble tiling, low lighting and even some slightly darkened areas. Hwang-so is certainly not a large bathhouse. Four central baths, all internally lit, provide a water massage pool, warm and hot pool, and a bubbling Jacuzzi with herb additives. A large cold pool occupies one end and completes the facilities found in every bathhouse. As for the complex’s specialties, you can enjoy a Japanese style cypress bath (히노끼탕) and my favourite, a humidity sauna (습식 사우나) where water sprays from the ceiling like the finest, warm rain and is so fine it hangs, caught in subdued lighting, like heavy mist. A massive rock bowl sits in one corner and is filled with cold water which you can throw over yourself when you get too warm. Additionally, the seats in this sauna are cut from tree trunks and their woody aroma scents the air. Adjacent, is a Swedish style pine sauna with very low lighting. I have come to really enjoy the tasteful complimentary additions such as, water features, rock, and chunks of pine tree, which occupy various nooks and crannies.
The changing area is fairly spacious with central slatted benches and sofas plus the usual television and a resident barber. From this area, the jjimjilbang, the clothed, mixed sex communal area, on the seventh floor, can be accessed.
Unless you simply want to shower, you should never frequent just one bathhouse anymore than you should eat one type of food. Different establishments provide different experiences and to capitalise on this you need to a few alternative which can be matched with your appropriate moods. Hwang-so has no poolside television or piped music and swimming or playing in the cold pool is not allowed. If you find yourself in Song-so with a hangover or simply want to relax, this is a great sanctuary. My only criticism, there is no sleeping area within the pool area.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
First visited October 9th 2010. Most recent visit, 19th May, 2012. This bathhouse and jjimjilbang is an absolute must in terms of a visit. It is situated in the rapidly developing area of Da-sa (다사), Daegu. I got to know Da-sa ten years ago when it was noted for being an up and coming area to live. Since then, it has exploded into a small town on the edge of west Daegu and it is still expanding. Impressive high rises dominate its approach and though it is separated from the main part of the city by the river, giving it a sense of being outside Daegu, the new buildings and their size are very much ‘big town.’ It’s a short ride from Song-so, perhaps 5000 Won (£2.50) in a taxi and on the metro system. Da-sa lies at the back of Keimyung University campus. From the area of Song-So E-Mart, several buses go to Dasa, including the 527. The facility is directly opposite bus stops.
Hyu-lim-won is a very new complex which I need to explore more, so this is a cursory ‘report.’ My first visit was to the bathhouse (목욕탕). Being a ‘play Saturday’ (놀토- when kids have no State school)- at a time when many students have finished their mid-term exams, it was busy. The changing area was very comfortable, though a little small after the spacious Migwang Spolex (미광) in which you can get lost. A large decked seating area occupies the center of this area with numerous facilities, a snack machine, barbers etc, on the periphery.
The Bathhouse pool complex (male ): As you enter you notice the layout is on two levels with the back pools being accessed by a large inclined walk-way. There are about twenty stand up showers directly on your right and beyond these perhaps 30 sit down showers. On the left is the massage and scrub down area and various saunas: a dry sauna, very hot steam room and a salt sauna (소금방). Between the sit down showers and the saunas are three pools: a large warm pool (온탕), which at 42 degrees makes it as warm as many hot pools. Beyond this pool are two smaller pools one of which is the hot pool (열탕) which was 48 degrees. Beyond these and to the right is a large cold pool (냉탕), at 17 degrees. Access to the cold pool is via the inclined walk-way, to the left of which are a few lido deck chairs and a sleeping area (수면실) with floor heating (온돌), and at the head of which are steps into the cold pool, on the right. Standing at the peak of the inclined ramp walk-way, are steps into the furthest pool, a large therapy pool at 33 degrees. The therapy pool was very interesting with lots of facilities I’ve not seen before. On the far side are seven ‘pods,’ slightly sunken and in which you stand using handrails and after pressing the activation button are treated to a hydro massage, on your back. The jets are powerful, and if you maneuver yourself, you can give your butt a deep clean but you should have cleaned this area before entering any pools. On the right side is a glass pod in which you stand and again, after activating the button, a very powerful shower blasts your shoulders or back. Next to this is a similar shower, but not as powerful, and then three ‘pods’ which blasts jets of water onto the soles of your feet. On the left hand side are four sunken stone beds on which you lie for an alternative back and leg hydro therapy.
To the left of the central sleeping area, beyond the salt sauna, is the event pool (이벤트탕), and of all the event pools I’ve used, this was the most eventful. The pool was 36 degrees and had a powerful continual jacuzzi, while the water, scented with lemon, mint, lavender and rose, was bright yellow. Tucked into the corner behind this, and next to the therapy pool, is a sleeping area (수면실) with unheated flooring.
Like the changing area, the ‘powder room’ felt a little small but as mentioned earlier, this is because I use Migwang Spolex, in Song-so, on a regular basis and it’s very spacious.
Location – (Wiki Map link ) Fifteen minutes by taxi or bus from Song-so. As you enter Da-sa, it is on the left and easily seen. Alternatively, you can use the metro underground from Song-so but it is easier to get to from Daeshil Subway rather than Dasa.
Times – 24 hour jjimjilbang (찜질방) and bathhouse.
Facilities – (in process of being researched) 1st floor reception, women’s bathhouse, jjimjilbang, men’s bathhouse, coffee shop, shoe shine, barbers.
Jjimjilbang – (pending)
Bathhouse (men) – around 20 stand up shower facilities and 30-40 seated. Event pool with jacuzzi, (이벤트탕), hot pool (열탕), large warm pool, another unknown pool, large cold pool (냉탕), large therapy pool, steam room, dry sauna, salt sauna, 2 pool room relaxation areas, heated and unheated, changing room.
Cost – bathhouse 5000 Won.
Others – hairdressers, massage and rub downs, parking, cafe. Opposite impressive new development.
Ambiance – not my favourite, I prefer a little more subdued, but impeccably clean, new and bright. I didn’t notice any televisions. Friendly, but I would imagine one of the busier saunas.
Waygukin – None.
Address – Da-sa (다사). Daegu.
© Nick Elwood 2010. Creative Commons Licence.