Public Baths in South Korea

{ Dear Reader, for this post, there are no images}

Five hundred years of puritan hesitation that affect Westerners in imperceptible ways, fall away in a half an hour.  For two or three weeks I had turned down the invitation by Korean friends to go to a public bath… I wasn’t too articulate in my self-analysis on the matter.  In South Korea, there are few public images of nudity, the opposite of what I recall in Hong Kong.  In Korea, a lady with cleavage would invite little sounds of disapproval.  And yet, there are the public baths…  Why do I feel that in my country, South Africa, such places are part of the pick-up industry?

When I agreed on Friday to go along to the baths, Cho Won-ihl and his wife In-Soo raised their eyebrows high.  But they were understanding. They know the places. This one, said In-Soo, is too big, with too many people and the waters are a little suspect.  But that one, smaller and more intimate, was their haunt, as part of their lives as brushing teeth.

A bath cost R28 ($4-5) and if you wanted to add a massage, rigorous, vigorous and slap-happy, it would set you back R100.  Exfoliation was another option.  There was too, a barber, a shaver, a shoe polisher in attendance with a TV screen where you could watch medieval melodramas.  Everything clean and appetising.

My shyness melted in the lukewarm water, the warm water, the hot bath, the sauna… In the bath of ice water there was no sign of my shyness left.  In Japan, I’m told, men and women share the public baths.  In Korea, not.

The place was almost empty, with steam hanging above the hot water surface, baths of green marble tiles and the changing-rooms with bamboo flooring.  The sauna had walls of mud and thick beams of wood like railway sleepers.

Won-ihl and I moved from extremes of temperature and ended up lying supine on jade slabs, icy and refreshing.  I was a little dizzy, but content:  this is health, the sensation, not the concept.

There were a few other men there, each in his own weather. One image remains – a young man, trim, tanned and wirey, helping his father, sagging, infirm and wrinkled, bent double with age, up the one, two steps, through the steam and into the hot water.

The pô-jji (that is, cherry) on top was the bottle of iced carrot juice as you leave the baths.

I would be back the next Friday.

Will van der Walt ©

March 2008


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