One night in Beijing, I took off all my clothes and spent an hour bathing with dozens of naked women.

The situation was not nearly as scandalous as it sounds, for I was in a Korean jjimjilbang (찜질방), a public facility where stressed-out customers shower, bathe, and sweat out their cares in a variety of temperature-controlled rooms after payment of a usually inexpensive and inclusive entrance fee. This particular jjimjilbang boasted amenities from hot baths and steam chambers to hot rock beds and even salt rooms (the last of which is exactly what it sounds to be: A room made of salt, a fact that has been personally confirmed by a friend who gave the exposed surfaces of one such feature a brave taste. I imagine, however, that even these data are flimsy evidence for determining whether they were composed of sodium chloride crystals or just covered in the sweat of other customers. Moving on again). In addition to a labyrinth of sweat-inducing facilities, the jjimjilbang also offered small towels for wrapping wet hair into Princess Leia horns, wooden bowls of hard-boiled eggs, and large plastic sippy cups of chilled teas and juices—for a small fee. It would not have been a Korean jjimjilbang without these important details, after all.

Until I moved to South Korea, I mistakenly assumed that the fun with public nudity in high temperatures ended there. But after taking the dive from Beijing to Seoul, I came to the glorious realization that for the enthusiast of pools, saunas, and other things that help you maintain your health (보건/保健/bogeon) and make your body feel nice (and, let’s face it, except for the most mysophobic among us, who isn’t enthused by such prospects?), South Korea abounds with adventure-worthy locations beyond just jjimjilbang, including public baths, massage parlors, and spas.

Bathing in a Crowd

Let’s start with my personal favorite, public baths, which, like salt rooms, are denoted by entirely straightforward names as they are simply roomy multi-person bathtubs open to the public. They’re usually (if not always) separated by sex, so they offer nothing to be too embarrassed about, but the concept does take some getting used to, especially if you hail from a certain Puritanical country in the Western hemisphere that tends to miss out on a lot of the fun things devised by our Afroeurasian cousins. Like jjimjilbang, they tend to be inexpensive—only a few thousand won for endless hours of soaking—but are hardly ever, at least in my experience, of low quality. Although the baths do not seem to be chlorinated (like they tend to be in foreign-run hotels), perhaps in part because of the constant water filtration as well as the intense social backlash against those who do not shower thoroughly before entering (an older friend of mine once told me how the ajummas of her apartment complex spoke disparagingly for months about a misinformed foreigner who dared step foot in their public bath clad in a bikini), they do not at all give an impression of being unhygienic: I have been to several across the geographic and socioeconomic spectrum and have not once caught anything more than a feeling of deep satisfaction. As an update some seven years later, I can again reconfirm that any surprise parasites have yet to emerge from my colon or be caught eating pieces of my cortex in a brain MRI. Not that anecdotal evidence should really count for anything. So here’s a scary news article about diarrhea-inducing microbes, expired food, and contact dermatitis at public baths and jjimjilbang that somewhat balances my glowing review [1]. Don’t read it.

Massage Parlors… and More

Softened up by that hot bath but looking for more relief for your aching muscles? Stop by a massage parlor. Just as, in Korea, the concept of “tea” doesn’t limit itself to bags of homogeneous dried brown stuff floating limply around cups of microwaved water (I’m looking at you, U.S. America), “massage” does not simply mean someone with iron forearms poking your shoulder blades to Kenny G in a nice-smelling room. A range of much more fascinating options are to be found here: From hot stone massages [2] and the skin-eating fish massage [3] you saw in our video to shampoo massage (pro tip from a cheap student: watching these on YouTube can be just as relaxing as getting one) [4] and ji-ap (지압/指壓) acupressure massage accompanied by Oriental medical techniques like acupuncture (침요법/針療法) and moxibustion (뜸질) (also called “cupping”) at traditional medicine clinics [5], South Korea abounds in exotic and novel options for the more adventurous and perhaps dopamine-starved of massage lovers.

And, like in most countries, Korean “massage parlors” also include a range of lower-brow facilities from “anma” (안마/按摩) houses to even certain karaoke parlors for those who are looking for, uh, a little bit more than just relaxing attention to the skeletal muscles. Everyone has a different story about how to distinguish innocent commercial facilities from the more questionable spots—some Seoul residents say that “anma” is always a dead ringer for “brothel,” while others swear that “music rooms” (노래방/noraebang) are for karaoke and “music practice areas” (노래연습장/noraeyeonseupjang) for the things might go on afterward—but they are definitely there, however hidden away into the lesser-known pockets of Seoul’s reportedly lively underground nightlife. Check out [6] for a detailed and fascinating introduction to the apparently thriving (festering?) world of illicit Korean massage.

Spa Time

The last in this list of fine institutions for shameless self-pampering is the spa. A step above most jjimjilbang and public baths, spas in South Korea are generally found nestled inside larger establishments, especially hotels. Like massage parlors, they are characterized by a menu of services offered by individual attendants; unlike massage parlors, however, they feature a wider range of treatments that toe the line between health care and cosmetics, like manicures and facials. Some spas in South Korea even offer relatively major procedures like laser hair removal, plastic surgery, and increasingly popular but often unproven “stem cell treatments” [7][8]—or, rather, some medical clinics offer other services traditionally found in spas. Similarly, the owners of some jjimjilbang attempt to enhance its street cred by calling it a spa (as in the case of Dragon Hill Spa, a thoroughly plebeian jjimjilbang in the Yongsan district of Seoul, which, to its credit, does have a legitimate spa inside). But who really cares what a place is called as long as it gets the good hormones flowing?

Health Benefits… Or Not?

Speaking of hormones, are there any actual health benefits involved in these so-called health maintenance facilities? Traditional Oriental medical theory says yes. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM, 中医/zhōng yī), or at least the post-Cultural Revolution formulation thereof, the body is an ecosystem of interconnected organs for which proper function depends on the orderly exchange and conversion of blood and energy, reified as the now-popularized concept of qi (기/氣). Korean Four Constitution Theory (사상체질이론/四象體質理論) goes one step further to define exactly which organs are most at risk of blood-circulating and qi-converting dysfunctions, and how these problems might manifest as any number of diverse symptoms, according to a person’s distinct body type. In both schools of thought (and, I somewhat ignorantly imagine, its offshoots like Japanese Kampo), both blood and qi are constantly being produced or stored, cooled or heated, elevated or depressed—in essence, circulated along channels called meridians (经络/jīng luò)—by organs like the Heart (心) or Spleen (脾) that do not necessarily correspond with their physical equivalents as understood by modern anatomy. Any slowing or blockage to this system, by the wrong food, poor sleep, insufficient or inappropriate exercise, or—hint, hint—badly maintained body temperature can wreak havoc on the whole system and eventually devolve into otherwise idiopathic illness. It is thought, then, that stimulation of blood and qi along either directly or indirectly important circulatory hubs called acupoints (穴位/xué wèi), either by the application of pressure as in massage, needles as in acupuncture, heat as in moxibustion or steam, or even a hot bath, can be beneficial to one’s long-term health, even (or perhaps especially) in the absence of overt ailments. Bits of these theories translate across to common parlance as “circulatory improvement” from the heat and “toxin release” through sweat. Which is all nice and intuitive, not to mention steeped in appealing ancient mystique, but what does the scientific literature say?

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that nothing corresponding with the purported behavior of “qi” along its supposed meridian channels has ever been verified by researchers in either biomedicine or physics, at least one review article cites evidence that limited exposure to the high temperatures of a jjimjilbang or hot bath might support reductions in hypertension, pulmonary function, and pain relief [9]. However, it also notes that these findings are supported by limited evidence and hence as yet inconclusive. A more recent review released in 2011 less ambiguously touts the benefits of saunas to everyone from heart disease patients to the chronically fatigued [10], but it is perhaps important to note that it was published in Alternative Medicine Reviews, a now-defunct periodical currently in the process of disbanding and refunding its subscriptions. Ignore SCI impact factors at your peril. Also of note, but for a different reason, is a 2006 clinical report detailing the etiology of “hot tub lung,” chronic pulmonary inflammation induced by bathwater-borne mycobacteria [11]. But… qi circulation and endorphins! I think it might be time to move on again.

Dermatitis and exotic bacteria aside, unless you’re like some of my Very American Relatives and refuse to let a stranger touch or see you naked unless s/he possesses either an M.D. or your wedding ring, I encourage you at least take a peek inside the jungle of Korean “health maintenance” facilities (though not, of course, as a substitute for certified health care) because even if it’s not necessarily going to cure your asthma, it still feels nice to soak in a hot bath (and that has to count for something physiological). And even if you do have a shy streak, I still suggest taking a peek within your comfort zone, because there’s something for everyone in this world of wood-powered steam rooms, foot-massaging fish, post-peeling facials, and more.

 

This article was originally written for The Silk Road Project, now I Dig Culture, an international media channel that explores human cultural diversity and exchange. 

 

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