Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Parts is Parts: A 찜질방 Experience

This is not a jjimjilbang. It is a
mountain with me doing a half-lotus.
I have a new favorite part of Korea. It used to be the movie posters I can get for free at every movie theatre closely followed by hotteok 호떡[1]. But now, it is the jjimjilbang 찜질방, or Korean spa. The veteran readers among you will recognize the character which designates “room.” The 찜질 denotes “heated baths.” The Japanese nerds among you will recognize these as the Korean version of the Japanese hot springs, called onsen 温泉.

Now, a little 찜질방 101: there’s a naked part and a not naked part and a corresponding sex-segregated part and a co-ed part. The naked part includes the natural spring spas and the actual bathhouse part of it. Awesome. The co-ed part—in which you wear baggy shorts and tunic[2]--includes everything else: saunas, footbaths, tv rooms and, though you have to pay a little extra, massages, nail treatment, and restaurants. The basic fee is only 12,000 won (roughly $12) for four hours of complete relaxation.

This is also not a jjimjilbbang but a
cracked-out notebook I found.
First were the footbaths which are shallow pools of water at about 40 C for people wading. Not that cool, except it’s outside on a patio and it almost—almost!—feels like you’re completely out of the city and your feet are warm enough that you can sit comfortably in the night air. Next were the saunas. Spaland (the 찜질방 I went to) has 13 saunas, all set at varying temperatures with varying themes. One is an Egyptian pyramid, another a Roman bathhouse, another has bamboo walls and vibrations running through the floor. Very neat and very sweaty. 

Then there’s the naked part.

“Parts is parts,” my dad used to say, I can only assume quoting some ancient Schnabel Family Proverb. Other famous Schnabel Proverbs include “There’s always room for dessert” and “Sing at the table, and you’ll marry a crazy man.” Both of those are used around the kitchen table, obviously and are used with some ubiquity, but “parts is parts” is a rarely heard and much more difficult Schnabel Proverb to use in an appropriate context.

Excerpt from my incredibly helpful Korean
textbook. Delicious.
And the naked part of 찜질방s is a most appropriate context I think I’ve ever found. It’s also the best part of SpaLand (as long as you’re okay with naked and obviously, with a family adage of “parts is parts,” I am). Pools range from 19 degrees Celsius (that’s cold for those of you of a Fahrenheit persuasion) up to 40 C. The pool outside—with a waterfall, trees, and walls high enough that you really can believe you’re not in the city anymore—was like something from a resort magazine.[3]

Back inside, you can sit in the 70 degree C sauna and watch Korean sports news with naked old ladies and then dip back into the freezing 19 degree pool before soaping up, rinsing off, and calling it the most relaxing night of your life.

Thanks, Korea.

p.s. I don't have any idea what's with this random white hilighting, so I hope you'll excuse it. It's driving me up the wall.

[1] Fried donuts with goop and seeds in them. I don’t want you to know how good they are because the line in Napo at the best street vendor’s is always too long anyway.
[2] Growing up on fantasy books, I’ve always wanted to be able to use this word in a legitimate context. Yet another reason to love the 찜질방.
[3] I wanted to say “something out of a Korean drama” but I realize I still haven’t written about them much and you will have no idea what I’m talking about. Soon and very soon.

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