Photo: Ki Young/Shutterstock

Visiting a Korean Bathhouse

by Anne Merritt Nov 30, 2010
Anne Merritt takes us inside a women’s communal bathhouse.

A historic soap opera plays out on the small, boxy television in the corner. Two little boys, bare-naked, run past me with water guns in hand, shrieking. They’re barked at by a group of old women, also naked, who are peeling hard-boiled eggs into their laps. Across the room comes the oily slap, slap, slap of an abusive-sounding massage.

This is a Korean bathhouse. There are no serenity fountains here. No soft zen muzak; no soothing, lavender-colored walls. The mogyotang (목욕탕) may be a relaxing place, but it’s hardly the site of pampering.

It’s my first visit in a long while, and I’m a little rusty. Still, after days of teaching noisy classrooms full of shy, grinning teenagers yelling “hel-lo!” in the corridors, I’m looking forward to a bit of languid solitude.

This is “cupping,” an act that pulls toxins from the skin, leaving big alien-looking hickeys as a beauty battle scar.

After stripping down, I find a shower with long mirrors. From here, I can suss out the action in the reflections without, you know, leering at everyone. Beside me, a woman leans lazily against the wall. On her stomach, plastic cups are suctioned to her bare skin like fake udders on a cow Halloween costume. This is “cupping,” an act that pulls toxins from the skin, leaving big alien-looking hickeys as a beauty battle scar.

By the door is a row of low vanities; individual mirrors ringed with big bright light bulbs, like old Hollywood dressing tables. Women sit on short plastic stools; the surfaces indented with two round hollows. In Korea, more often than not, seats are molded this way to make the perfect imprint of a bum. I admit, despite the germophobe’s reminder of the many bare bums who have sat there prior, it’s comfy. I take a seat in the long row.

Here, women shampoo their hair into thick lathers, their fingers twirling strands of hair like chopsticks. I lather up too and decide to pace myself with the woman beside me. She froths her hair, and I follow; I scrub scrub scrub for what feels like ages. She lowers her hands and I think we’re finished, but she’s only resting, shaking out her tired arms before starting the lather again. I’m glad we get to sit down for this.

Next, my seatmates take out thick sponges to wash their bodies, rubbing their bare skin until its red. I see two women take turns washing each others’ backs. One winces and bites her lip as she’s scrubbed. I swear I can hear the skin scraping off.

Down the row, a girl no older than ten rubs a soapy sponge across her grandmother’s shoulders. The older woman murmurs something to the girl, who nods and rubs harder, a frown of concentration on her doll-face. No one is chatting here, no giggles between girlfriends. This part of the bath, the focused scrubbing of the skin, is all business.

I’ve been told that skin is to Korean women what weight is to Western women: the point of obsession in one’s appearance. It’s the constant insecurity that will bring sane savvy women to drop thousands of dollars in “miracle” products and surgeries.

If the ladies around me are burdened with low self-esteem, though, it doesn’t show. After all, most of my bath-mates’ barely look at themselves in the big, over lit mirrors. I can’t tell whether all this merciless exfoliating is for vanity or just better circulation. Whatever the motive, these women take their skin seriously.

I try to follow the herd, using a coarse wiry cloth that was handed to me at the front desk. It looks and feels like a scouring pad for pots and pans. Soon my skin is the screaming pink color of uncooked steak. I rinse off and dip into a hot bath. A ball of green tea leaves the size of a basketball is tethered to the tub, steeping.

The baths are operated by two old women who work in plastic slippers and thick, waist control underpants. They bustle around giving massages, laundering towels, selling crackers and combs from the tiny concession stand. From my green tea soak, I watch them ping-ponging around the busy baths. Of all the undies-only jobs a woman could have, I decide that a bath house matron is probably the best of the lot.

It’s a fairly modern job, for the Korean bathhouse is a fairly modern trend. Brought over by occupying Japanese forces during the 20th century, they became a community staple in postwar years when most households had poor heating and plumbing. Though Korean apartments are all built with showers these days, bathhouses remain a popular communing ritual.

Climbing out of my green tea soak, I notice that I’m the only person flying solo in the bathhouse.

Around me are groups of girlfriends, sisters, two or three generations of the same family, washing each others’ backs. Climbing out of my green tea soak, I notice that I’m the only person flying solo in the bathhouse. Even the mothers who brought in their two-year-old sons timed their visit so the boys could play together.

Three women walk past and stand at a tiled sink. Chatting quietly, they take turns pouring icy water on themselves with red plastic buckets. One sees me watching, and beckons. She filled the bucket to the brim and puts it in my hands with an encouraging nod. I douse myself with the cold water and the three women laugh.

When they turn to go into the steam room, they beckon me again and hand me a wooden pillow for my neck. I’m ready for the ol’ “where are you from? where do you live? why are you in Korea?” chitchat. Instead, everyone is quiet, laying out under the infrared lights. The women, I realize, weren’t trying to make friends with me per se. They were just offering some quiet company.

I haven’t been to many western spas, but I know them to be airy, quiet places; the patrons shuffling into tiny private rooms for some peaceful solitude. In Korea it seems that solitude could never bring the same deep relaxation of the bathhouse: the simple work of washing, or of a loved one scrubbing you clean.

Community Connection

Have you ever gone to a communal bathhouse in another country? Was it similar to Anne’s experience in Korea?

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