Thursday, October 4, 2012

찜질방 - Sauna Overnighter (Daegu pt. 4)

A 찜질방 (jjimjilbang) is a public sauna or bathhouse. This type of establishment is very common in Korea and, as far as I've experienced, in China, Taiwan, and Japan, too (think hot springs). What was new to me about Korean saunas, however, was that many of them operate twenty-four hours a day, which means that people can and do spend the night there. Quite literally, you can check into a sauna in the evening and just sleep on a mat in a warm room, then leave the next morning. It's cheaper than a motel!

Last Saturday night, while I was in Daegu, I gave myself the option of sleeping at a youth hostel or at a public sauna. Pros of the hostel: It would be more comfortable (that is to say, I would have a bed), it would be safer, and I knew for sure that there was one in the downtown area where I was at the time. Cons of the hostel: It would be more expensive, and because it was very late, I wasn't sure if I could even check in. Pros of the sauna: It would be a completely new experience, and as long as I could find one, I could check in at any time. Cons of the sauna: I wasn't sure if I could find one.

But as I wrote before, a new friend I met at the swing dance club drove me to the nearest 24-hour sauna, which was located right next to the Daegu train station. It's called 태평 사우나 (Taepyeong Sauna), and it turned out to be a spacious and simple bathhouse. Exactly what I was looking for! I checked in, the lady handed me my sauna "uniform" (ugly shorts and a large, baggy t-shirt that everyone must wear). In the next room, I put my shoes in a small locker in order to obtain a key for a larger locker for the rest of my stuff. Once I changed into my uniform, I was free to walk barefoot around the entire facility and check it out.

There were many rooms along a long hallway. At one end were the lockers and the baths. People were still bathing at midnight, but I was exhausted, so I decided to brush my teeth and go to bed. The actual baths could wait for the morning. As I made my way down to the other end of the hall, I passed a billiards room, a noraebang, a massage room, arcade games, and a weight room, all closed. At the far end of the hall was the giant sleeping room and a convenience store, still open.
A low-quality photo of the sleeping room I surreptitiously took on my phone.
The sleeping room was such a bizarre sight: in an area about the size of a small school gymnasium, dozens of people were silently sprawled out on red mats with pink blankets while a TV in the far corner quietly played some Bollywood film. To the right were what looked like catacombs... they were small compartments lined with colored stones, each one supplied with a mat and a blanket, presumably for sleeping -- if you aren't claustrophobic.

Not wanting to sleep in a quasi-tomb, I located a (surprisingly comfortable) mat in the large room, but all the blankets were already taken. The floors weren't heated, as I'd heard they might be, but it was warm enough in the room that I didn't need a blanket anyway.

I did not sleep very well. At 1am, I woke up due to discomfort and quickly feel back asleep. At 2am, I woke up when tons of people walked in to the large sleeping area and were being rather loud. At 3am, I woke up again because it was a bit cold. At 4am, I woke up because suddenly, everyone around me had begun to snore very loudly. I took a video.
At 5am, I probably woke up again, but I don't remember. And at 6am, other people started to wake up and walk around and make noise, so I decided to just give myself another hour and then call it quits for the night. I got up at 7:30am. It had been a very fitful seven hours...

On the plus side, it was now morning, and I decided to treat myself to the actual sauna part of the sauna. This required me being absolutely naked in a large room with dozens of other absolutely naked men. Awkward much? Yeah, at first. But you know what? I realized that a Korean public sauna, rampant nudity notwithstanding, is a decidedly unsexy place. It was just about taking a really nice bath, nothing else. All the other men were just minding their own business, chillaxing. And that being the case, being completely naked amongst strangers was actually very liberating. I enjoyed the hot tub, the "medicine" tub with some kinds of perfumes and stuff in it (it reminded me of Spirited Away...), and a few lengths in a cold water swimming pool. Then, I finished off with a super shower, scrubbing away every square inch of dead skin that I could reach. I felt raw and quite refreshed afterward, and much more awake than I would have expected after a not-so-restful night. The last thing I did was grab breakfast, and then I left and walked out into a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning.

All of that for 7,000₩! In hindsight, this was a great experience, one of those things I'll probably never do in another country, so why not here and now? Thus, I will probably do another sauna overnighter while in Korea, though now that I've dipped my toe in the water, so to speak, I'd like to try a fancier one. I will probably also visit Busan's insanely large SpaLand. This small, quaint place by the train station was as simple as you can get, and even then I enjoyed it. Three cheers for public baths!