Korea's Jjimjilbangs: A Man’s Perspective

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

After reading Lois’ post on her Jjimjilbang experience I wanted to lend a man’s perspective on this delightful part of Korean Culture. Jjimjilbang’s holds a very special place in my heart, quite possibly because it’s provided an emotional roller coaster of experiences. I’d like to indulge you with my personal journey from Jjimjilbang virgin to self-proclaimed know-it-all.

First Things First

Your first time in a Jjimjilbang is much like your first time in the sack- you’re naked, you have no idea what you’re doing and you’re hoping that the other person will tell you what to do so you don’t make a complete fool of yourself.

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My first experience with the infamous Jjimjilbang was during my first trip to Korea. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of Korean friends take me with them and show me how it’s all done. In retrospect I’m extremely grateful that they did because god knows how many etiquette rules I would have broken had I attempted to go solo my first time. Being an Australian male, I’ve been brought up in a culture that sadly suppresses any display of friendship between men that could be considered “girly”. So as an example, it was quite a culture shock for me to witness grown men of all ages holding each other’s hand and walking arm in arm down the streets of Seoul

But my sense of reality was truly smashed into a million tiny pieces when I first witnessed naked men scrubbing each other’s backs in the shower room of a Jjimjilbang.

I can’t say I’d had many prior opportunities for full frontal nudity in the presence of other men. This was unfortunate as I had a grand total of 30 seconds to “get used to it” as I walked into the locker room with my friends. Before you could say “that guy badly needs a tan” they’d stripped down to their birthday suits and were waiting for me.

After stripping down, the next phase of this endeavor was to clean myself thoroughly. Now it’s important to remember that in a Jjimjilbang no matter how much you’ve scrubbed yourself, you haven’t scrubbed enough, and will be greeted accordingly with shameful glances that make you re-consider your right to be called a human being.

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Liberating Experience

As you can imagine, there is quite the temptation to stare at another guy’s junk when you’re walking around the shower rooms. This temptation however was met with an equal desire to not draw attention to myself. But being the only westerner in the showers the reality of the situation was that every man in there was going to stare at my private parts for the sheer novelty factor. Not being content however with standing out because of my ethnicity, in my stupefying foresight I’d taken to grooming my manhood on a regular basis and as such had left nothing to the imagination of onlookers. In stark contrast I was greeted with a proud display of Korean man plumage as far as the eye could see. 

It was at this point that any lingering feelings of shame or embarrassment were swiftly put to rest and I was at last able to embrace my nakedness in all its natural splendor. It’s truly liberating, feeling comfortable whilst being naked around complete strangers, you feel like you’ve achieved a new level of freedom in your life.

Wrong Turn and Hot Seat

After cleaning yourself and sizing up the competition as it were, you then make your way to the sauna and spa area for some relaxing soaking. But having not been to this particular Jjimjilbang before I managed to confuse the entrance to the “be as naked as the day as you were born” spa area with the entrance to the “if you walk in here naked you’re going to jail” lobby area. Luckily I was hastily pursued by one of the staff who grabbed me just before I was going to part the curtains and send a room full of young women and children into therapy for many years to come.

Having corrected course and rejoined my friends we then proceeded to laze around in the various sauna’s and spas, which ranged in temperature from “ah that’s nice and relaxing” to “HOLY SH*T I THINK I’VE JUST SUFFERED 3 DEGREE BURNS TO MY BEHIND BUT I’M TOO PROUD TO JUMP OUT AND INSTEAD I’M GOING TO SIT HERE AND BOIL IN ORDER TO APPEAR MORE MANLY”. The sensation of going from one of these sweltering spas and then plunging your body into an ice bath is rather invigorating,

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I’m yet to experience anything that makes you feel quite as alive as this.

It was time for us to rejoin the rest of our friends in the unisex clothed portion of the Jjimjibang, so we put on the rather comfortable clothes that were provided for us and went about getting some much needed food in our stomachs. All that relaxing can work up quite an appetite. My friends proceeded to teach me a few Korean children’s games, some of which involved intense hand eye coordination by throwing up stones and catching them on the back of your hand, others which involved mind games and predicting how many fingers people would hold up. 

But the one thing that all of them had in common is they would end in some kind of violent punishment for the losers, typically involving slapping the inside of someone’s wrist as hard as you can with your fingers. After about half an hour of this torture we decided to take a break as our forearms were starting to look like tenderized meat. 

We then tried our luck at the various saunas strewn around the unisex area, they are all constructed from different materials which they claim have unique medicinal properties. I don’t know if I healed myself at all from trying out those saunas but I do know that my pride sure as hell took a beating. Climbing into one of the hottest saunas, we laid there trying to cope with the intense heat and humidity. Having noticed a bunch of old ladies (clearly in their 70’s) laying on the floor of this sauna I naively thought that I could handle the heat.


I was however quickly faced with the harsh reality that I couldn’t match the stamina of these resolute women. This left me feeling quite emasculated and questioning my manhood. I came to the conclusion that the saunas are an intense battle between relaxation and dehydration, where only the strong will survive.

But it’s experiences like these that make visiting the Jjimjilbangs so much fun. I know that’s why I’ve gone back numerous times now. Alone and with friends, to not just relax but relive the awkwardness of my first encounter. Who knows if you’re a bit more switched on than I am perhaps your experience can be less embarrassing. But then again if you ignore everything I just said you’ll definitely have a great story to tell all you friends.

Nigel is no stranger to travel, over the last few years he’s made his way to more than 12 countries on 5 different continents. Preferring to see a country as the locals see it, he’d choose street food and a spontaneous adventure with a local over luxurious restaurants and hotels any day. When he’s not exploring the world he’s busy running Adventure Underwear, a business that provides comfort & safety to travelers worldwide.

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1 sole trails

  1. awesome perspective for first timer. I would not even dare to try without having a guide from a korean


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