Going to the Sauna

You might think this is a blog post on Finland or maybe the spa. But you’d be wrong. It’s a continuation of my series about my time in Korea.

I’ve written about my journey to Korea and my first few days when I thought I’d made a horrible mistake. In this post, I talk about my first trip to a Korean sauna…fwiw, this does involve nudity.

Sick as a dog

That sense of having made a mistake that I mentioned in the previous post didn’t stick around long. Once I stepped in front of a class of Korean 5-year olds, I was too shell-shocked to feel sorry for myself.

I discovered that Korean students are about as rambunctious as North American kids. At least in the hagwons — the English academies. And I think I mentioned how I’d started my university years thinking I’d become a teacher then having my first practicum and realizing ‘hell no’. Needless to say I felt a little out of my depth.

And sick, because the chill’en had viruses I was not used to. And they would sneeze and then say ‘teacher hold my hand’, but they’d say it in English with an adorable smile — how could I refuse.

I should have refused. I had some horrible green beast leaking from my nose or coming out of my lungs for most of my first month in Seoul.

Two months in

But I stuck it out (otherwise this would be a short story). One reason I could do that is I went to this little shop in the subway. They took one look at me and gave me an elixir. I wish I knew what was in it, because that virus fled. Still, I was a little tired by the time the Christmas break came around.

Seoul at Christmas was pretty quiet, and I spent a lot of time hanging out with other teachers from the school and exploring different neighbourhoods.

Korean saunas (or jjimjilbang) often have a sign that looks like a fire bowl

But what does a sauna have to do with Korea?


I wasn’t a sauna newbie. I come by sauna genes honestly, having some Finns in the family tree. I have great memories of visiting to my grandma’s cottage when I was little and going to the sauna there with its tiered setting and its fire heated rocks that you’d throw water on.

That is not the Korean sauna as it exists today. But I get ahead of myself.

For context, I need to go back a number of years first. Growing up I was not one of the naked people. You know the ones — the people who are in the change room with the towel wrapped around their head but otherwise starkers? The naked people.

At dinner with a few of the teachers, the veteran, who’d been there for four months as opposed to our two, suggested that we head to the sauna, or bathhouse. Now, I knew at this point what a Korean sauna entailed: a room with showers where you scrub off before you get into any number of hot and cold pools or — if you’d like — a more Finnish dry sauna or steam room. After you’ve soaked, you can even get yourself scrubbed by scrubbers.

I was game, but was a little unsure about being the naked foreigner in a room of Korean women. But you know what, I wasn’t stared at because of stretch marks on my thighs or lumpy boobs. I was stared at because I was not Korean. It might seem strange but that put me totally at ease…and I came home from Korea as one the naked people.

A dirty foreigner

This was not my last visit to a Korea sauna. They are wonderful, wonderful things. I wish we had them where I live (apparently there are places in North America that are lucky enough).

On a later visit, I discovered that, yes, indeed I was a dirty foreigner when me and a friend decided to avail ourselves of the scrubbers. Layers of dead skin I didn’t know I had. Like from when I was a baby. Ew.

On that first visit, there was one woman who would move her kids out of every pool got into (I tested my theory). However, there was also an older lady, who didn’t speak a lick of English, but when I tentatively, timidly braved the cold pool, she smiled and splashed her arms to show me how it was really done. I did not splash myself but I did smile back. That woman and her broad welcome is one of the highlights that I remember fondly.

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