V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Sweating it out

Published in The Toronto Star, December 2004.

I'm squirming and fidgeting both from discomfort and from the heebeegeebees - and it's only been five minutes.

To my left, a man is sweating profusely, his orange shirt drenched in perspiration. I look down and marvel at the fact that even his legs are sweating. His face is flushed and occasionally he sweeps his right hand over his face to wipe off the streams of sweat he's bathing in.

To my right, an old woman is admonishing my mother and my aunt about not wrapping a towel around their heads when detoxing. She tells them the towels trap the heat, incubating the toxins rather than letting them escape the body. This can't be hygienic, I think to myself, as I carefully try to uncross my legs without touching anyone else's sweaty limbs. The dome-shaped hut is packed full of people and we're all sitting here in silence, trying not to stare at each other and concentrate instead on the act of sweating.

"You have to try it," my aunt had told me before coming out. "You'll feel so rejuvenated, like a second birth."

We're in what's called a Korean jjimjilbang - a sweat or steam room. In the last five years or so they've swept through the country, equivalent in popularity to Karaoke rooms when they first emerged on the Asian scene. Everyone does it and every street corner has one or is in the midst of building one.

To presumptuous minds, these jjimjilbangs would be dismissed as just cheap spas and saunas. The price of admission ranges from about $6 to $10 Cdn. But once inside, it's evident these jjimjilbangs are more than a health centre. They're a cultural phenomenon.

These 24-hour spas have in the last few years become havens for a wide assortment of characters and circumstances. It is completely acceptable to sleep there overnight for the nomadic, weary traveller, the pouty wife (or husband) who's just argued with their spouse, the imbibers looking for a cure for their hangovers and the young couple in love.

As Shawn Monaghan, a Canadian teaching English in Korea, points out, because a conservative Korean society dictates that 'respectful' sons and daughters don't move out of the parents' homes until marriage, the jjimjilbang provides an innocuous and acceptable environment for young couples to meet and sleep together - just side by side though, no funny business.

"They can't sleep at each others' homes, so it's a reasonable place to sleep together where they don't have to worry about (ruining) their reputation."

Here's how it works once inside, you slap down the money and in return get your uniform and a towel for the day. At this particular jjimjilbang, the colour of choice is orange, and the two-piece ensemble an oversized, unisex T-shirt and knee-length shorts for everyone.

Once changed, you step out into a large communal area, where the floors are heated and clones dressed in orange roam about lazily from one hut of varying degree to another, which dot the length of the floor.

On a designated platform in the middle of the lounge, Koreans clad in orange are sprawled about. Many are lying down sleeping, undisturbed by running children, teenagers playing a noisy game of cards or gossiping women. Unlike the North American spa, jjimjilbangs are family-oriented, offering a staggering number of activities for both adults and children alike. For adults, there is a wide array of huts or rooms that purport to help different ailments and physical conditions. The huts are beautifully crafted. Charcoal stone rooms are supposed to be good for the skin; germanium stone is meant to improve blood circulation; jade used for detoxification and yellow mud for deep cleansing.

Sleeping rooms are set at 35C to promote a healthy sweat. Amethyst rooms, gold-gilded rooms, pine-steaming rooms and Chinese medicinal rooms are also supposed to help specific maladies like rheumatism, digestion, headaches, insomnia and fatigue.

But not all rooms are stiflingly hot. Though some huts can be as hot as 45C, many rooms are comfortably heated so that children can spend time with their parents as well. In one dome, children, teenagers and parents are lying around watching a variety show on a plasma TV.

In another non-heated room, families watch X-Men on a large movie screen while slurping on Korean Popsicles and chewing on dried squid - Koreans' equivalent of popcorn.

Cafeterias also offer a wide variety of light Korean fare, meant to complement the health experience, like nang myun (spicy, cold buckwheat noodles) dduk bok kee (spicy rice cakes) and ramen. Snack, coffee and tea bars are also available, but many families also bring tubs of their own food from home which is also acceptable.

When in need of a cool down, patrons can enter the giant ice cooler. Computer and games rooms and exercise rooms also distract the little ones while parents catch a quick snooze in the sleeper- friendly rooms or in what I like to call the morgue.

At this particular jjimjilbang, slats or cavities reminiscent of morgues where cadavers are stored are carved into the wall, so that people can sleep undisturbed in warmth. Jill Tonini, a Toronto architect who took a year's hiatus to teach English in Korea, has a poetic take on the importance of jjimjilbangs and bathing houses in general.

"Everyone's equal because everyone's naked and everyone feels vulnerable. Bathing rituals and their methodology speak so much about a culture. There's so much emphasis on the remedial effects, and how the ancestors continued the rituals through time."

She was so inspired by her experience, she imported the jjimjilbang idea back home for her thesis project, proposing a redesign of the Christie subway station, where the city's Korea town begins, to house a jjimjilbang above it that extends into Christie Pitts Park. The neighbourhood has also been settled by Portuguese and Ukrainian communities, making the site a perfect place for cultures to meet, she says.

Which brings us to the finale of the jjimjilbang experience the bathing. Public bathing houses have always been popular among Koreans, but the accoutrements have become more elaborate in recent years.

People spend hours in the herbal baths, hot springs and massage rooms. My mom's particular favourite is the dew room, where bathers stand under a gentle spray of mist while the floor massages your feet. On her first trip to the jjimjilbang, my mom, standing stark naked under the mist and who has lived in Canada for the past 28 years, was recognized by a high school classmate she hadn't seen for 30 years.

They rehashed their high school years together - naked. Because, after all, we all have to bathe ourselves and at a jjimjilbang, there's nothing wrong with looking at our own humanity.

Korean Air and Air Canada offer direct daily flights from Toronto to Seoul via Vancouver. For more information on Korea go to www.tour2korea.com

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