It’s been a long time since I’ve hung out with dozens of naked women; I’d forgotten how relaxing and how utterly civilized public baths could be.
I lived down the street from a gorgeous public bath in Japan, and I used to go several times a week. I haven’t really been to many public baths since coming to Korea, in spite of the fact that there is one right next to my apartment building. I expect it’s partly due to a reluctance to get naked in front of my students and their extended families. (Isn’t that illegal in most countries?)
My friend Ellen discovered a public bath near her apartment, and as the likelihood of me being spotted au naturel by my students was extremely slim, I decided to join her on her bathing adventure.
We made our way to the Best Sauna (or beh-suh-tuh saw-oo-na in Korean). We paid the entrance fee and in return received two tiny brown towels. We stood for a moment by the elevator, trying to figure out which floor was the women’s sauna. Imagine the scandal had we blithely waltzed into the men’s sauna? The woman behind the counter looked worried as she directed us to the right floor.
As we entered the changing rooms, 2 things became apparent:
1) This bathhouse catered to locals. There were baskets and tubs of people’s toiletries stashed everywhere, and everyone seemed to know each other.
2) Clientele under 75 were few and far between.
The changing room was large, warm and bright. There was a grouping of chairs near a TV, where several older women sat watching the news. Along a wide bench in the middle of the room, several other elderly women sat chatting and putting on face masks. A few other women were talking with the lady running the small shop in the corner. There wasn’t a stitch of clothing in sight.
I headed for the bathroom and was amused to find both doors clearly labelled – woman and woman. Why bother?
We stripped off and headed for the baths. The air was thick with steam, and the combined voices of 50-60 women. Several large baths ran down the middle of the room. To the right were saunas and steam baths, and to the left were showers where dozens of women busily chatted and scrubbed themselves, and each other. I wondered about bathhouse etiquette; did you have to know someone for a certain amount of time before you could ask them to scrub your back, or could you ask a total stranger?
In the far corner, several large lingerie-clad women offered an exfoliation service. (Incredible but definitely an experience to be saved for another blog post. 😀 )
We scrubbed down and headed for the baths. There were several to choose from, and we decided to try them all. I felt like one of the 3 bears- which bath would be just right?
In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision – one was icy cold, and two were the temperature of magma. Thankfully, the last one was just right. We settled in for some serious bathing and people watching.
The bath of choice was clearly the green tea tub. It smelled like green tea and had jets on the bottom, making the bath bubble and froth like old lady soup. I don’t know how they all sat in that tub; I couldn’t even get my toe in, it was so hot!
The bath was fascinating. Koreans tend to be quite conservative in mixed company but in the bath, there wasn’t an ounce of shyness to be seen. Everyone wore their modesty towels on their heads.
Ellen and I came out of the bathhouse, squeaky clean, wrinkled as prunes and wishing we had discovered the Best Sauna in October.