I was sitting at a hotspot in Seoul. Literally.
Glowing fiery red, this hanjeungmak, or traditional Korean kiln sauna, was simmering at 86 deg C - far hotter than the Bikram yoga studio that I had been to.
Also roasting in this low-ceiling chamber with me were four strangers - all dressed in identical orange T-shirts, the standard attire provided at the Siloam Fire Pot Sauna. Sweat gleamed on our foreheads within minutes, threatening to dribble into our eyes. My cotton top - already wet during my earlier bid to acclimatise in a 50 deg C jade sauna and then a 60 deg C salt room, was by then stuck flat to my back.
I was sitting dead still, but my heart was racing so fast in the vapourous heat that it felt like I was struggling with a vigorous workout. The intense heat drove so much blood to the surface of my skin that my mildly-cooked complexion got one of my travel mates worried. She asked: “What happened to your face?” And that was one hour after I had cooled myself down in a sub-zero ice room.
It was my maiden trip to a Korean jjimjilbang, a breed of 24-hour beauty, wellness and recreational complexes that first sprang up in South Korea in the 1990s. Initially frequented by mainly Korean grandmas and homemakers, the jjimjilbang has since caught on among younger women, men and increasingly, international travellers looking for budget lodging as well as K-culture fans fascinated with its depictions on Korean TV.
The jjimjilbangs are most sought after for their impressive array of hanjeungmak - each heated to different temperatures and studded with different minerals that supposedly emit healing rays for a variety of ailments. The biggest jjimjilbangs even boast hair and nail salons, extensive shower and spa facilities, gyms, libraries, karaokes, movie screening rooms, game rooms, sleeping rooms, restaurants and snack bars all under one roof.
Such one-stop-shop lifestyle complexes are not alien to Singapore. There is the sprawling g.Spa Fitness and Recreation Hub at Guillemard Road. The Spa Esprit Group has its beauty and culinary emporium nestled amid the greenery of Dempsey Hill. Then there is the seven-storey Jean Yip Loft in Chinatown, which is topped by a rooftop bar and infinity pool.
But a Korean jjimjilbang - there are now thousands of them in the country - is unlike our kind of relaxation haven. Many jjimjilbangs are run by ajummas and ajeossis (Korean aunties and uncles) who speak no English. The facilities are well-maintained, but the services - from the attire provided to the furnishings available - are utilitarian and unpretentious. And not only is the jjimjilbang a microcosm of modern Korean lifestyle, it is at the same time a bridge to Korea’s Confucian and colonial past.
The hanjeungmak, for instance, could have emerged in Confucian Korea in the 15th century or earlier, a Korea Tourism Organisation staff told me. According to the Sejong Sillok, or the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty - an authoritative record of royal history from 1413 to 1865, such kiln saunas were first run by Buddhist monks and used chiefly for medicinal purposes.
Another defining feature of the jjimjilbang - its vast gender-segregated communal shower area - would seem like a remnant of Korea’s colonial days. According to a New York Times report, Korea’s first public bathhouses were built in the 1920s for Japanese colonialists. They became popular with Korean natives too, although they started going out of fashion in the 1970s with more families moving into apartments installed with shower heaters. But just like the hanjeungmak, communal baths have come back in style thanks to the rise of jjimjilbang.
So just when I thought I had overcome a baptism of fire of sorts in the scorching sauna, it was time to rise to another challenge. With my body glistening with sweat, I could not escape a shower. That was when I discovered that the standard orange towel provided was no bigger than the size of my face.
Feeling exposed, I quickly headed for a waist-high wall mounted with a row of faucets. That seemed to me the best possible spot to duck for cover until a friend - sitting hunched on a small plastic stool behind the wall - called out my name just before my bottom got too close to her face. I swiftly walked away and parked myself at another corner.
After stealing a few glances at the naked women around me, I started lathering and rinsing like they did, and surprisingly, it was not too difficult to ease into the flow. After some hesitation, I even started sampling a few herbal hot tubs and was enjoying myself, although I just could not bring myself to lie on what looked like an autopsy table to be scrubbed down by an ahjumma - the jjimjilbang’s no-nonsense body care therapist.
A fully immersive jjimjilbang experience is not complete without spending a night there, sleeping on the common floor space - communal style. There were gender-segregated sleeping rooms, furnished with hundreds of bunk beds. But some of us could not take claustrophobic spaces. Others were put off by the stuffiness. I myself felt like I was walking among the dead seeing rows and rows of pale white human soles resting on the edges of the beds. So we ventured out and settled with the dimmest area we could find in the building, spread out our UV-sterilised mats and towels, and conked out within minutes.
The fact that we were sleeping amid a sea of men did not bother me until the unmistakable warmth of a human foot roused me from my dream. I lifted my head when that foot was pressing against mine, and I saw a man - lying diagonally across - pulling his leg back immediately. Too tired to confront anyone, I quickly fell asleep again.
It turned out that my friends had similar encounters. One felt a hand on her calf in the middle of the night. Another was horrified when she awakened to the sight of a stranger’s face lying within inches from her own.
Had we not been overcome by fatigue after a long flight, we could have reported these men to the patrolling security guards. But despite the little naughty incident, the jjimjilbang is still a great place for some good, clean fun. Most importantly, I did walk out of the building feeling a little more Korean. For travellers who are after an authentic cultural experience, this is priceless.