Words can offer only a weak description of the physical, mental, and spiritual sensations experienced at the Jjimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse, (some facilities have westernized the name to "Spa"). Relaxation, rejuvenation, restoration, spotlessly clean (both the facilities and your body), renewal, unabashed nudity, connected with one's own body, acceptance, ritual, life, are some of the words that are apt.
There is luxury in utilizing a full 2 hours to make oneself clean and literally, renewed (made new again). For at the end of your visit, you feel as though you have been made again; a freshly formed, revived person. To begin, you sit--yes, sit-- in front of your chosen mirror and shower head/faucet. This is usually alongside several other women in various states of ablutions. A large round mirror allows you to look at your body, and really see it, beyond physical form hopefully, appreciating the gift of life and health you possess (or hope to). Perhaps it is simpler than that, and the reflection is there simply to insure you have rinsed all the soap and day's residue of stress away? Then you sit and wash your body clean in preparation to enter the reviving waters with all the other women partaking of same, usually 30-50 other women, depending on time of day or night. Because everyone is scrubbed so furiously clean, and makeup removed, you can be confident in the cleanliness of the waters and facilities.
My own personal ritual is to wash my body clean, remove my make-up, and then give my scalp and hair a coating of sesame oil infused with essential essences of lavender and jasmine (I make this concoction myself) and massage the nourishment into my scalp and hair, and then face. I find that hours in hot water, followed by cold salt water, and hot again, tend to dry my hair: the oil protects and strengthens. The scalp massage? It just feels so damn good! My personal starting point is the whirlpool bath, beneath the soft glow of kaleidoscopic ceiling lights. This very, very hot water bubbles away any residual thoughts of my day, thereby washing my mind clean and bringing me fully present to the sensations of how my body feels, and how the heat; the wet, eases my body and mind. Next, I move into the hottest sauna, first dowsing myself with torturously ice-cold water in preparation to spend 20-30 minutes inside 100+ degrees. On the floor of the sauna, I find the heat bearable; opening and loosening the remaining knots in my mind. My body is at ease almost immediately. I lie supine and sink into the stone floor in a deep relaxation pose, and focus my mind on affirmations of health and body love, as I feel the longevity and heath of my body increasing with each passing minute. Here, I truly feel eternal, knowing that youth is in my mind, and as long as it is, my body has no choice but to follow. Here, lying on the hot stone floor, the distant hum of the heater my only companion, I undo all the negative messages of the world and my ego. Here, I visualize everything I desire in life, and see my future travels unfolding; my health remaining. Here, I see myself at age 90, running and doing cartwheels. Here I see that my death will be at a time of my choosing, when I lie asleep peacefully and am done with this body and its life. Here, I am in touch with my inner most Being, and feel my eternal nature. Yes, it is a meditation of sorts, though more of a visualization and relaxation exercise.
I leave my metaphysical experiences in the sauna and begrudgingly submerge myself as quickly as possible in the saline polar bear pool for a few laps. At first, it is horrifying to feel icy water on my skin, yet, as I swim my body realizes the invigoration, the warmth inside from the sauna and whirlpool, and I relax into the water, swimming until I am breathless. Thank goddess I can get out and return to the sauna or the lukewarm pool with its seriously strong jets that pound my muscles with streams of water, requiring further submission, release, and restoration.
Depending on time and energy, I might enjoy another round of sauna time, laps in the arctic pool, and another session in the hot tub. My time at the bathhouse nears its end as I return to my bathing spot, and lather up and scrub down with a scratchy loofah. At this point, you are supposed to take off all the dead skin that all the soaking time has brought to the surface. The process is the same for other women: bathe, soak, sauna, scrub down, brush teeth, dry, dress, and return to the world. I enjoy watching the women with their children, scrubbing and scrubbing them. Or observing the various rituals other women follow, so that I gain new ideas for myself. One woman brought in freshly crushed cucumber and smeared it all over her face and neck. Another pair are vigorously scrubbing each other's backs. One applies a deep brown coffee-like scrub to her body. Again, it is encouraging to be in the company of so many other women, all of us naked, but without judgement, doing our own thing. It is the opposite experience in America, where we women are competitive enemies of each other, judging who is thinner and prettier. Am I naive? Perhaps, but it still feels different to me here in Korea.
As I leave, I feel relaxed but refreshed. I am not fatigued, but I am tired at the end of the day, and unwound to the point that drowsiness soon follows and sleep is easy and welcomed.
aaaaaaah! For those of you coming to live in Korea, or just visit, this is one experience I laud as time well-spent in life, as well as on a short vaca!
"I have deliberately chosen the uncertain path whenever I had the choice . . . A more important freedom was that which made it possible to travel,"
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