2010 Travel Diary #21: The jjimjilbang experience

Wednesday 5 May 2010. It was only a couple of hours ago that we had eaten lunch, but Koreans seem to have dinner early. During the tea festival, our guide Isabelle does well for food: she is usually entertained by the people she is showing around, and this time is no exception. We go to a restaurant which serves a local delicacy: beef bulgogi where the cows have been fed on a diet of pine needles. It’s a subtly different flavour, but when you mix it with the normal bulgogi accompaniments of doenjang, grilled garlic and kimchi some of that subtlety is lost. No matter, it’s a hearty dinner, washed down with soju.

We discover that we have not seen the last of the tea festival. We head back to the main festival area and just catch the end of the closing ceremony. The winners of the best tea competition and the most elegant tea ceremony performance collect their prizes from the local mayor. A video montage of highlights from the festival is projected onto giant screens: an elderly couple had clearly found the mutual green tea foot-bathing a moving experience, as they hug each other, talking to camera with tears in their eyes.

Nightfall in Hwagae
Night falls over the Green Tea Cultural Centre in Hwagae

The light is fading, and the lanterns along the riverside are lit, giving a slightly magical feeling to the proceedings. With some final speeches, and a brief firework display, the festival is over for this year.

We were in the car heading towards our overnight stop when Morgan asked an unexpected question: “Would you like your jjimjilbang warmed up?”

Those who have been to a jjimjilbang swear by them. These public baths are much more than a steam room, sauna, plunge pool and related facilities. They are places where families can meet and socialise with others, and where drunken businessmen can sleep very cheaply after missing the last bus home. Anna Fifield, in one of her many fascinating Financial Times features on Korea, highlighted the jjimjilbang experiences as one of her favourite things about Seoul.

But despite being the product of an all-male boarding school, I remain uncomfortable with the concept of public nudity. With the other public bath experiences I have had – the Turkish bath in London’s Royal Automobile Club and a local Hammam in Sana’a where my brother used to live – towels have been available to wrap around one’s waist to enable one to retain a sense of modesty. I once ventured into the entrance of the jjimjilbang of a posh hotel on Busan’s Haeundai beach, and immediately left again on seeing that the towels were the size of face flannels. I hear that’s pretty much standard for Korean jjimjilbangs, so that’s that.

What about the prospect of a private steam room in your cabin at a lodge? That seemed to be the thrust of Morgan’s question, and the concept was a novel one. But I’ve never really seen the point of roasting yourself to perfection, and I thought the whole point of a sauna was the communal experience. So I turned down the opportunity of the private jjimjilbang experience, though I was still intrigued with what I was going to find at our overnight stop.

The car pulls in at what could be a hobbit village. Little wooden huts with pleasingly domed roofs, clustered around the edge of a gravel driveway. There’s a stillness in the air. We are allocated our huts. Inside, all is very minimalist: a sink and kettle; a low table, an open wood-fired oven, rustic wooden steps leading up to a sleeping area in the roof. And two doors off the ground floor: behind one, a jjimjilbang full of bedding; behind the other, a wooden clad wet-room, complete with wooden bath.

The jjimjilbang has been warming nicely, and I need to open all windows to get the cabin temperature down. There’s still some daylight left, and I sit on the balcony behind a low table, working away at my netbook, imagining myself back in Joseon dynasty times studying the Confucian classics. The compound has an intermittent wi-fi service and I catch up on some emails before the reception gives out, while listening to one of Hwang Byung-gi’s CDs on my iPhone. It’s a beautifully calm evening, and soon the bugs start to bother me, so I get an early night.

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