Mr. Yong Kee Park was waiting 4:00 a.m. at -4° C in Incheon airport. It was a red eye flight, too early to do anything or check into the hotel. Mr. Park suggested trying a Korean Bathhouse called a Jjimjilbang in Seoul. He explained that I could sleep in the lounge area. I live in the tropics and have never been to a bathhouse in any part of the world. This winter concept was new to me. It was very cold and I must have been awake for almost 24 hours now. I couldn’t understand why I would want to stay in a sauna for another five hours.
The Jjimjilbang was a five story building of heated baths, saunas, snack bars, massage rooms, lounges and sleeping quarters. The locker rooms were segregated but some floors were communal to both men and women. I did not speak the language and was instead handed a locker room key, two towels, a pair of red shorts and a yellow T shirt. There were about a thousand lockers and mine was number 275.
I did not want to use the baths and so I explored the place barefooted. It was culture shock to find so many naked women of all shapes and sizes walking around. If not, they were wearing the uniform pair of shorts and T shirt. Apparently using a bathing suit at the wet floors meant hiding an illness.
The Jjimjilbang is a true immersion into Korean culture. This place is a getaway for Koreans. A place to refresh, a place to crash after too much drinking or partying, escape for “me” time, or much needed rest after overtime work. It is open 24 hours and overnight stay is permitted. A popular snack here is baked eggs, similar to hard-boiled eggs but cooked in the sauna. For drinks iced coffee or iced sikhye a Korean rice beverage.
I found the sleeping quarters at the fifth level. It was a dark room with futon mattresses on the heated wooden floors. There were hundreds of tiny bunk beds. I found a spot, it was so nice and warm that I fell asleep.