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“Girl in a Jimjilbang: Acting Natural Au Naturel in a Korean Bathhouse”
Posted on July 14, 2015
By Danielle Levsky
Though my visits to the Turkish bathhouse and Russian bathhouse were memorable, King Spa, a Korean-style spa and bathhouse in Niles, has been permanently seared into my memory. I can still vividly re-account my scarring yet thrilling experience receiving a body scrub. In both the men’s and women’s changing rooms is an entrance to the traditional jimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse. It is a large, steaming room where only nudity is permitted. Towels are available but only cover up one ass cheek. Upon entering the bathing room, you must be ready to let your birthday suit fly free and also get used to other women’s bodies of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Several cold and hot pools fill the area, along with standing showers and sitting showers on each end. If you haven’t had your fill of sauna sweating, a steam room is available on the left side. On the right side, however, is where the scrubbing magic/hell takes places.
King Spa is a 34,000-square foot facility squeezed into a suburban plaza with Home Depot, Korean grocery store Super H Mart, and several, small Korean businesses. I purchased a Groupon for $15 (entrance is originally $30), which allowed me to access to all but one of the saunas and the women’s bathing quarters. Other services, like scrubs, massages, and a vagina cleaning machine (the “V-Steam Herb,” a Wormwood Steam Sitz Bath that “cleansed, refreshed, and purified” your hoo-ha), were extra. The hostess also informed me that if we stayed past 2 a.m. we would have to pay an extra $5, meaning that we could stay the night if we so chose. They gave us each an electronic bracelet and key, which would be used to pay for treatments, food, and spa products.
Back in the jimjilbang, strict faced, middle aged, pot-bellied women in black bras and underwear stand beside plastic slippery tables. They are referred to as ajumma, aunties, or ddemiri, scrub mistresses, and are known for their no-nonsense attitude and authority. A woman called my name just as I was getting accustomed to my own nakedness and led me to her table. I uneasily asked her if she would mind washing it. She looked at me, then at the table, then dumped a giant bucket of soapy water on it. “Clean now,” she said in broken English, slapping the plastic, “You lay down now!”
By now, I was used to the commands in this spa. In the women’s changing room, there were several signs telling patrons what they should and should not do during a spa visit: take off your shoes, walk around either barefoot or in clean socks, don’t dye your hair, don’t wash your face in the bathroom sink, only enter the co-gender area in your two-piece outfit, only enter the women’s jimjilbang/washing area naked. Compared to other bathhouses, there seemed to be far more regulations. To visit the co-gender area, I undressed as instructed and put on a two-piece, pink, cotton uniform. It was so loose that when I looked in the mirror it was no longer apparent that I was a human female. I walked out in the sauna area and saw that men, too, were dressed in the two-piece uniform, except theirs was a sad, grey color. Some men and women walked from sauna to sauna with towels on their heads in the style of Princess Leia’s buns. Others sat on gigantic, faux-Renaissance couches and loveseats while chatting on their phones, reading magazines, or watching TV. Around the main area were even more disorganized oddities: amethyst geodes lined the walls on pedestals next to paintings of caves, perched beside a stuffed deer head. My senses were entirely overwhelmed.
If only I knew what kind of overwhelming experience awaited me in the jimjilbang, I would have shrugged off the cornucopia of decorations. I timidly crawled onto the table and just moments later, I did not feel like I was being massaged or scrubbed but tortured. My ajumma did not scrub my skin with a sheshin, a thin loofah with sandpaper-like texture, but seemed to tear at it. I was in such shock from the pain that I didn’t even scream and instead imagined that she was peeling and ripping layers of my skin off. I managed to catch a sight of my skin and instead of blood I saw chunks of dark, grey skin rolling off my body. What a relief that I wasn’t actually dying.
“To cleanse and purify our bodies,” as their official website advertises, each of King Spa’s nine public saunas had its own unique elements and healing effects. While most rooms felt approximately 90 degrees F, my favorite room was also the hottest one available at 150 degrees F: the Fire Sudatorium, that took four hours to fire up before being open to the public. After we were good and damp in our own sweat, I found a cafeteria at the end of the public saunas. Though it seemed odd to me to eat in my sweaty clothes, I figured it was just all part of the experience. I ordered a classic Korean dish, Bibimbap: a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste), soy sauce, a raw/fried egg, and sliced beef. Along with the Bibimbap came sides of kimchi (pickled, spiced cabbage), white rice, miso soup and some garnishes. I also ordered eggs that had been cooked in the Fire Sudatorium for several hours; I regretted not trying them my first time around and was very curious as to how they could taste differently (The spa claims that after cooking them for this long, all cholesterol had been removed. I’m not sure I believe this.). To be honest, they tasted just like regular hard boiled eggs.
I felt my stomach turn somersaults from the food I’d eaten when my ajumma literally flipped my body over, poured oil over me, and began to give me the most deep tissue massage I ever experienced. She found muscles and knots I didn’t know I had. I gasped for air and finally yelped “Not so hard!” and “Be gentler!” My pleas were ignored or she simply just didn’t understand my English. When it was over, I felt like I had barely escaped a torture chamber. But when I stepped off the plastic table, I felt like I was floating. My skin felt as smooth as a baby’s ass and my entire body felt rejuvenated, renewed. Though I doubt I’ll ever receive a Korean scrub again, I can’t deny that it did wonders for my complexion and removed every old skin cell on my body.
Before I left for the day, I returned to the public saunas and laid in the Amethyst room under the cover of darkness. Though space was limited, I managed to squeeze in between others laying and breathing slowly in the sauna. The amethysts sparkled above us like stars. Despite the rules, regulations, and torture chamber scrubs, I still managed to find peace at this Niles getaway.