South Koreans sweat it out on steamy dates

The walls are covered in silver leaf. It’s about 42°C, and I’m witnessing a Korean love affair in the making. A 20-something woman and her boyfriend lie together, feet away from me. They’re snuggled up, whispering. I’m doing my best to eavesdrop—my Korean sucks, but perhaps I’ll catch a naughty word or two. Suddenly she sits up and a teardrop runs down her cheek. “Ha!” I think, “he’s asked her to marry him.” Then she laughs.

That’s no teardrop. It’s sweat. So much for marriage proposals. She whisks a towel across her face and eases back onto the hot hardwood floor next to her guy. He whispers more Korean sweet nothings—or is it sweat nothings?

They aren’t the only young lovers in this 200-square-foot sauna. Three other couples cuddle around the room, each dressed in the sauna’s loose-fitting shorts and T-shirts—pink sleeves for the girls, baby blue for the boys. Every face glistens in the heat. So much for “never let ’em see you sweat”.

Korean saunas—called jjimjilbang (pronounced “jim-jill-bong”)—are suddenly the hip place to take your date for an evening’s entertainment and relaxation. For the traveller, saunas are a brilliant place to learn about modern Korean culture, with or without a date.

You’d think South Koreans already have plenty to sweat about. After all, neighbouring North Korea is trying to build the ultimate radiation machine. But South Koreans—like many of their Asian neighbours—are big believers in the power of sweat and public baths to relax both the body and the mind. The difference is that the Koreans have put their public baths on steroids.

Mr. Hyun owns the traditional Korean guesthouse where I’m staying. His eyes nearly pop out of his head when I tell him I’m exploring jjimjilbang. “How do you know about that?” he demands.

I always try local spas when I travel, so before leaving Canada I researched the topic on the Korean government’s tourism Web site, where jjimjilbang is introduced under “Health & Beauty Tours”. A few Google searches later, I found a list of Seoul’s top 10 jjimjilbang from the country’s English-language newspaper, JoongAng Daily.

“I’ve already visited the number one jjimjilbang in Seoul,” I tell a shocked Mr. Hyun. “It’s called Riverside Spa Land in the Gangbyeon neighbourhood. I plan to visit at least three more Korean saunas before returning to Canada.”

“Then you have to visit my favourite jjimjilbang,” Mr. Hyun insists. Off we go via subway to the fascinating area around Dongdaemun Market, and into SpaRex, part of a jjimjilbang chain. It’s Tuesday morning, so I expect the place to be deserted. But the ultramodern facility is filled with housewives and retired men.

Suddenly, my next dose of Korean culture is getting naked with Mr. Hyun. We shower—you must be squeaky-clean before doing anything else—then slide into a ridiculously hot pool filled with water and mysterious, healing herbs. (Koreans are crazy about their health.) Surprisingly, nobody stares at the naked Caucasian.

I tell Mr. Hyun about seeing the young couples at Riverside Spa Land, obviously on dates. He explains that jjimjilbang is the perfect date. It’s silly-cheap—the equivalent of $5 will get you in the door of most places. Unless you’re an idiot, you choose a different jjimjilbang than the one your parents or grandparents visit, so you get a bit of privacy in this overcrowded city (population 10 million). Once inside, you get a few minutes of breathing room away from your date—the showers, myriad hot pools, cold pools, and steam baths are sex-segregated. (Of course if you’re gay, you get to spend that time with your date.) Once you’re bathed, soaked, and dressed in your facility’s shorts/T-shirt combo, you reconnect with your date in the common areas. There you find all sorts of theme saunas, cafeterias, snack bars, video rooms, Internet kiosks, fitness equipment, kids play areas (yes, people take their kids on weekends), foot massage areas, hair salons, nail bars, and dark rooms with cots for sleeping or perhaps a bit of smooching.

By the end of my jjimjilbang visit with Mr. Hyun, I realize I’ve practically taken him on the very date he describes—minus the smooching. In the bathing area he’s explained the Korean belief that you improve your health by moving back and forth between hot and cold pools at five-minute intervals. We’ve enjoyed a delicious, cheap lunch of beer and bibimbap (mix-it-yourself rice, meat, and veggies) in the cafeteria. We’ve roasted ourselves in the salt sauna, charcoal sauna, oxygen sauna, and yellow-mud sauna—all of which claim to provide different health benefits. Inside, you feel like you’re in a pottery kiln, with walls and ceilings covered in the appropriate theme materials (salt, mud, et cetera). I’ve even walked across pebbles to provide a bit of reflexology for the feet.

Mr. Hyun and I have discussed world politics, North Korea, gay marriage in Canada, common family problems, the importance of education, and more. About the only thing we’ve missed is having one of a wide range of massages, which cost about $50. Our jjimjilbang visit ends with reclaiming our shoes at the exit (this is Asia, remember), and a friendly handshake.

My next jjimjilbang, called Hurest Spa, is recommended by officials at the Korea Tourism Organization. They’re terribly worried that I won’t be able to find Hurest and they mark its location for me on a tourist map, but Seoul’s excellent English- language maps, English-everywhere subways, and friendly locals make getting around easy.

Hurest Spa is smaller and quite different from Riverside and SpaRex. It’s on the top floors of a high-rise in the middle of Seoul’s business district. At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, there are several office types in the pools and saunas, which have commanding views of the Seoul skyline. I’m reminded that Koreans don’t only consider jjimjilbang to be a relaxing experience; they’re the modern version of their traditional baths—a perfect way to invigorate and begin the business day.

After my fourth jjimjilbang in nine days (a charming, old-fashioned place called Ha-rim-gak), I wonder why we don’t have these in Canada. Then I realize that 150 men or women wouldn’t comfortably get naked together (the shower/soaking part is sex-segregated), and that we couldn’t do it cheaply in Canada.

But back home in Vancouver jjimjilbang is the first Korean thing I tell my friends about. I say that when they visit Asia, South Korea and its unique saunas must be part of the trip. “You can sweat alone,” I say, “but you’ll have more fun on a sweaty date.”

ACCESS: In Seoul, ask your tour guide or hotel concierge about favourite jjimjilbang—there are many, and each is unique. The Korea Tourism Organization’s Web site can be found at english.tour2korea.com/. For the JoongAng Daily’s recommended jjimjilbang list, go to www.joongangdaily.joins.com/ and and type in “top 10 saunas”. The list includes directions to Gangbyeon (Riverside) Spa Land and others. Further information can be found at: Riverside Spa Land, www.ispaland.co.kr/, (82) 2-455-3737; Hurest Spa, www.hurest.co.kr/, (82) 2-778-7700; SpaRex, (82) 2-763-8888; Ha-rim-gak, www.harimgak .com/, (82) 2-396-2442. (The Web sites are in Korean, with photos.)

I stayed at Mr. Hyun’s Seoul Guest House, which charges rates from 35,000 won ($40) per night; see www.seoul110.com/.

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