Entering an eastern bathhouse for the first time is an experience I’ll take with me into old age. Large, sunken square baths; scattered pouring bowls of various sizes; glass doors leading into heat and steam-filled rooms; flat showers the size of drink trays; a corner screened off for massage and rows and rows of low stools in front of mirrors.  Everywhere is wet.  Everywhere is allowed to be wet, covered in non–slip tiles with rivets in between them running into drains.  Imagine this setting if you can, then fill it with hundreds of naked Korean women, sitting in baths or on the floor, scrubbing at their feet or at small garments in a plastic tub, scooping and pouring water purposefully over their bodies.  Everybody absorbed in her own cleaning ritual.

I headed firstly to the giant showers to scope it out.  Is there a special washing technique? Was I really allowed in all the baths?   Following the proverbial advice ‘when in Rome’, I began my foray into water world with the timeless survival method of imitation.  Experimentation led to the discovery that the baths vary in temperature – the smallest are the very hot, and the very cold, respectively painted green and gold on the inside. The hottest was bloody hot even for me: following the instructions of a hand waving old lady I sank down into the water to find that, once there, it was best to stay very still.

This particular bathhouse is built around hot springs, and the water is believed to have special healing properties. I was told that older Korean houses don’t have showers attached to the sink (the normal washing means in modern houses) and generally public bathhouses are still the place to go to get properly clean.

I also hear rumours of ‘jimjilbangs’, a land not only comprising of baths but of numerous aromatherapy-esque steamings, spa treatments and giant TV screens to watch movies in post-bath ‘relaxation rooms’. In both bathhouse and jimjilbang there are sleeping areas, with heated floors and small pillows.  My neighbour told me that when she was at Busan university, she used to sometimes go to the baths to sleep at night time.  I think that sounds wonderful.

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