True to his kind and diligent approach to introducing me to Korean culture, after learning about my love of heat, Sunny took me to the most traditional of this country’s saunas.  Made from a series of round cob huts, an end hut is the furnace, and the connected sauna huts vary in heat according to their proximity to it. Only oak is burnt, and the heat is said to be endowed with the properties of that tree, fighting illness and giving strength.

These particular huts were situated in a covered courtyard of open fires and benches to rest on. While I was there they began to clear the furnace hut of the burning embers with a very long shovel: a day after it is  cleared completely it provides the brave with an extreme heat experience, while the hut at the other end of the row becomes the new furnace.

Similar to other ‘jimjilbangs’, people often go to this kind of sauna for the day. They take sweet potatoes to roast on the outside fires and a bag of satsumers to keep vitamin C levels high, and offer to strange, ‘high-nosed’ western girls who look bemused when asked simple questions. Around the furnace hut people face towards the opening, sat on small wooden stalls or stood behind those sitting, gazing hypnotically into the golden red world.  Inside the sauna huts people sit close together in a circle, all sporting the compulsory orange pyjamas and looking a little like a gang of Guantamano Bay escapees hiding in a cave.

It was this detail that helped me reach a definition of what a jimjilbang actually is… You see, the word is bandied around rather a lot, and what with bathhouses, various kinds of saunas (including the male-orientated “sex saunas”), and the post-bath relaxation areas, exact definition eluded me for a while.  It also fell under that category of question that evokes only the vaguest of answers from Korean friends.  For now I have reached the conclusion that, in translation, ‘jimjilbang’ means: ‘the location of an enjoyably mellow, pyjama-themed gathering for people of all ages, usually involving heat and food.’

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