I can’t believe I’ve been in Korea for a total of 18 months and I haven’t been to a Jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbangs (pronounced jim-jill-baang) are part of the Korean experience, and dare I say one of the most essential parts, at that. They are half sauna, half spa, half sleeping room, and half entertainment facility. That’s right, theres four halves, because some of these places are huge. Since I’m about to leave Korea, I decided it was finally time to indulge. My coworker told me about one she’d been to near Seoul Station. Perfect. I’d go during the week so I could wake up early in the morning and explore the city, and that way it would also be less crowded. So, after work on Thursday, I hopped on a bus to spend the night in Seoul. More perfection: Thursday brought the first real snow of the year, exactly the kind of day and night to escape in a warm sauna.
I arrived at 11pm at Seoul Station in the freezing cold. Sometimes I loathe my camera, because if I have it around, I just have to take pictures.
Silloam Firepot Sauna is just a ten minute walk from Seoul Station, around the back, where I had never been. A few dark streets later, I was greeted by the bright lights of the jjimjilbang.
It’s strange to walk into buildings and have absolutely no idea what to expect. There was a tiny lobby where I paid my $13 and got a set of jjimjilbang clothes. The man behind the desk pointed me to a door to the side: the men’s locker room. I went in, put my shoes in lockers, gave my key and ticket to another guy behind another desk, and he gave me another key to my clothes locker: #745. I changed into my jjimjilbang outfit and set off to explore the place. Another strange door (only because there was no English signage) lead me to a staircase to the second floor. There I found a cafe, a restaurant, and a few places to sleep, including a “jade room” an “oxygen room” and “the floor”. The third floor had specialized enclosed rooms, including an ice room, a fomentation room at a balmy 86 degrees Celcius, a charcoal room, and various others. There were also mats for sleeping set up on the wonderful Korean heated floors (ondol).
The fourth and fifth floors had real sleeping rooms, just rows of tiny bunks, and a designated snorer’s room. That concept didn’t work as well as I had hoped, or maybe it did, and I was spared a jet engine in favor of a freight train. There was also a fitness room and a ping pong room. After exploring, I went back to the lockers, stripped down (as that’s what everyone else was doing) and headed to the basement. In the basement was the sauna. Five or six hot tubs and several showers, some seated and some standing, occupied a central common area, ringed with sweating rooms. I dipped into the yellow earth and jade hot tubs before boldly trying the “low temperature” sauna. Low temperature, my ass. Actually, I almost burned my ass sitting on the benches in there. Every breath burned my mouth and nose. Hourglasses hung on the walls, and I flipped one over, not wanting to stay in there too long. I couldn’t even make it halfway. I know I’m weak when it comes to heat, but geez, I can’t imagine what the “high temperature” room was like. Back into the hot tubs to normalize, then shower off, then head upstairs to find a place to sleep.
I found a little corner in the oxygen room on the second floor with about 20 other people, where I was barraged with snoring. No sleep for me. After a few hours I moved to the common room with better heated floors. There, I managed to doze for a bit, and then, finally, it was 5am. Time to wake up and explore Seoul in the dark. Definitely the most relaxing night of no sleep I’ve ever had.
Do you know how much I love markets? I love them so much that I’ll wake up at 5am and brave -10 degree Celcius weather with thin, hole-ridden gloves, just to walk around while they’re empty. Silloam Sauna was about a 15 minute walk from one of Seoul’s famous markets, Namdaemun Market, a place I have visited several times, though never this early. I headed in that direction and arrived in time to see the setup. The normally hectic and crowded streets were quiet. A few cars and motorbikes made their way through the empty pedestrian walkways, bringing goods to and fro. A few stores were open. A few lights were on.
After strolling through the market and nearly freezing to death, I found a place to have a hot cup of coffee and regroup before heading to the second market of the day: Gyeongdong Market.
Gyeongdong Market is on the other side of downtown Seoul, about a 15 minute bus ride at 7am, when the streets are fairly empty. I didn’t know exactly where the market was, so I got off at the nearest station and walked around the neighborhood. It was a lovely neighborhood, with small buildings and small, car-lined streets. It felt a little bit like some of the quieter areas of Brooklyn.
The shops that were open were selling what this market was known for: medicinal herbs. I don’t know what they were, exactly, but I recognize herbal medicine when I see it.
Eventually I found the real market. This thing was quite possibly the biggest market I’ve seen in Korea, stretching for what seemed like miles in every direction, though I could never see more than fifty feet in front of me. Produce, meat, and fish were everywhere, but none of that compared to the amount of tea and herbs being sold. Every other vendor was selling tea and herbs, and every shop looked almost exactly the same: tiny holes in the wall with tea spilling out into the aisles, but beautifully arranged. I wish I knew what this stuff was.
I walked around for about two hours, nearly freezing to death yet again, before warming up in a nearby coffee shop… yet again. I didn’t buy anything this time. After that, I headed back to my favorite place, Insadong, for some actual brewed tea. I tried a couple new tea houses, but one said they were closed, one was way too expensive, and one didn’t have a comfortable place to sit – not ideal for extended reading. So after searching a bit, I went back to the tea house from last time. Again, I was the only one there. I got pomegranate tea this time, along with pat juk. Oh, how delicious that was. I can’t describe it, except to say that it was more delicious than it looks, and it looks quite delicious.
Time to head back to Jeongja and back to work. It will be the weekend in a few hours… my second to last weekend in Korea.