The Korean Sauna Experience: Friendship, Friendship

You know that dream where you’re suddenly naked in public?  I lived it.


In his final season on NBC,  Conan O’ Brien is filmed a segment where we visited a Korean sauna. After hearing his guest Eva Mendes tell him about the unusual and ancient process, he decided it would be weird enough to try out. It brought back memories for me. Below is my writing on the experience, originally posted on November 14, 2005:

Ten days after I returned from spending my second summer teaching in Thailand (August 2004), my sister and I left to go spend two weeks teaching English in a boys’ high school English camp at Meyongji University in South Korea. The city where we stayed was a place where foreigners almost never came. Many of the people I saw throughout the city had never seen a “white person” in person before.

We had two weeks of camp with one weekend in between. During that weekend my sister and I stayed with one of her student’s (Dan) family. One of the activities he planned for us was to go to a sauna. This is a very exciting and trendy thing for the youth of Korea to do. We were told that Saturday evening we would go to the sauna, and would spend the night there. That was our first clue…

We get there. It’s a really classy place. My sister goes one way with some of the girls that came with us and I went the other way with Dan and his 10 guy friends that met us there. We were all given a key and a pair of scrubs and were directed downstairs to the locker room. We then removed the clothes we were wearing and placed them in our assigned locker along with the thin baggy pants and shirt. Next we proceeded to the shower room…

There were so many different kinds of bathing taking place. A gigantic room full of naked Korean men (ages 5 to 85), and me. I was the only foreigner. The only American in the room of at least 150 men who were all Korean.

They were all curious. They had to look at me. Everyone stared at me. Old men. Little boys. Guys my age. I was like an alien stepping onboard a spaceship; I was being inspected by the entire crew.

Being that none of the students I was with really spoke decent English, I just did whatever they did and didn’t ask questions. First we all got into a large hot tub. The water was extremely hot and we couldn’t fully emerge into it at first. We slowly sank down. First, we were all just sitting along the edges of the hot tub (all eleven of us with several strangers) letting our feet get used to the water. That was pretty awkward. Everywhere I looked: to my left, to my right, 8 feet across from me is a naked stranger or new friend.

A total stranger sat down right next to me. He smiled at me, then he looked at me- all the way down. Then he looked me in the eyes, still smiling, and said to me, “Mmm…handsome.” Not just in Korea, but in many Asian countries people are extremely friendly and physical with members of the same sex. In Korea, it is not really socially acceptable to be homosexual. Therefore, there is basically no such thing as being a “homophobe”. It is completely normal for a native Korean man to compliment how another man looks, naked or not.

Eventually our bodies had adjusted to the boiling water and it was time to move over to the next tub, which was actually a cold tub. Very cold. Same process- we had to start with our feet and slowly sink down all the way into the water. The idea is that by extremely shocking the body with hot and then cold water, toxins came out of the body which is very healthy. After the cold tub was the pressure water tub.

It was about 4 feet deep and was in the shape of a rectangle. About 15 guys could fit in it at one time standing up. All along the wall were shower heads that shot out water with extremely fast current. The water came out so fast that it was supposed to remove dead skin from the body and massage sore muscles as well. So I stand with my back turned to the power-pressure shower head trying to do this thing the right way.

Right beside me were two 10 year-old boys, wrestling. In fact, many of the guys were wrestling in this tub as they tried to dunk each other underneath the water. But the two boys beside me were picking each other up from behind, in order to dunk each other. They were both laughing the whole time, having so much fun. And of course, they’re still naked.

Now that we had all detoxed our bodies in the different types of tubs, it was time to actually take showers and get clean. As we headed over to the showers I saw some massage tables where a person could pay for a massage. Yes, one man (clothed) giving another (naked) man a massage. The man getting the massage laid face-down on the table while the masseuse oiled him down. To be clear, this was not an erotic act at all.

My group and I had arrived at the showers. There were plastic stools for us to sit on while we showered. In front of each one of us was a bar of soap, a sponge, and a hybrid between a sink and a shower.

I sat down, turned on the water, and soaped up the sponge. As I started to wash myself, minding my own business, all of the sudden I felt the presence of others all around me. All of the guys I was with had gathered around me. Then I looked up at them only to hear them say to me, “friendship, friendship”. They began doing the washing for me with their own sponges. They washed my arms, my legs, my neck, down to my back, down my lower back, down as far as they could go before their sponges hit the plastic seat.

All in the name of friendship. I was relieved when that awkward event had ended. But it wasn’t over there. It was my turn to return the act of friendship. Indeed, I was given the privilege of helping to scrub down my peers. So I did.

Sure enough, after that we headed back to the locker room and put on the scrub pants and shirt we were given earlier. Ah, finally I was wearing clothes. Drafty clothes, might I add. Now that we were all clean and clothed, we met back upstairs with the girls who had just had the same experience in the female side of the building. We had finally come to the “sauna” part of the experience.

There were at least 5 different sauna rooms to go lay down in, each of a different temperature to help “sweat out” more poisons from the body. There was even a huge theatre/sauna room showing a Stephen Segal movie and a sauna/sleeping room complete with mats on the floor to take a nap on.

Most of the night reminded me of the church “lock-ins” I went to in junior high school. Pretty much, everyone was just hanging out all night. There was a restaurant, karaoke bar, and big screen TV. At one point in the night, the Korean version of “Friends” came on so my entire group gathered around the TV. There was no furniture so we were all just lying down on the floor.

The guys got really comfy. With each other. They used one other for a place to rest their heads. On each other’s laps. Some were in “spooning” positions. They were happy, comfortable, and completely platonic friends. It was hard to believe what I was seeing.

Definitely an experience I’ll never forget. It was awkward, adventurous, hilarious, strange, and dream-like. Korea is not the only country in the world with this kind of mindset. The unimaginable irony- Maybe we, the Americans, are the ones with the strange culture, not the other way around. Maybe we have unusual behavior for not reclining on each other during casual social events.

That’s why they call it “culture shock”. It’s funny how a few thousand miles and a few thousand years between the developments of two different countries can end up making them so different. Our languages are nothing alike, so it makes sense that our customs whouldn’t be remotely similar either.

The Korean hot tub experience was weird, but that was their way of showing that they cared about me and wanted me to have a good (innocent) time with them. All in the name of friendship, friendship. There’s that sporadic recurring dream most people have of being naked in public. I lived it. That dream just isn’t as weird to me anymore.

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25 thoughts on “The Korean Sauna Experience: Friendship, Friendship”

  1. Being an ” American” with an absent, Korean mother, your words brought healthy reminders from my childhood. Thank you.

  2. My version of this is going to a night club in Korea and staring at the segregated dance floor– girls to the left, lads to the right, and a few drunken teachers in the no-person’s land between. The last group fled in confusion when the slow dance started and the kids on either side paired up– one of our Korean minders explained that this was when friends discussed who on the other side of the floor they fancied.

  3. Your experience reminds me of mine in Japan. I love and miss onsen. Being the only Black woman in my prefecture for miles was a trip. Going to onsen was even more odd. I got the staring crowds. Little kids stopping in their tracks to gawk at the foreigner. Yeeeah! Thanks for posting this! Brought back great memories and it is cool to know that the South Koreans are so friendly even in what would be culturally challenging times for us Westerners!

  4. Great Story! Compared to South Korea, our saunas leave a lot to be desired. Thank you for relating this wonderful experience. It’s nice to hear a positive story about Korea, its people and customs.

  5. Great story! In Dallas, the King Spa is an authentic Korean experience that is not to be missed. Not quite the same “friendship” as you found in Asia, but similar and authentic rooms, saunas, whirlpools, showers, etc. – and an authentic Korean restaurant. It’s a lot less – make that a whole lot less – awkward than the place you describe (but it’s great that you had that connection & a very cool experience!). The place is open 24 hours a day and is generally packed with local Asian families on the weekend. If you ever find yourself in Big D, highly recommended! http://www.dallaskingsauna.com/

  6. This is awesome!
    Love it.
    Culture is just culture different for everyone.
    I love your openmindedness. I would think most Americans would leave at “friendship,friendship” you are too cool!

  7. I had a similar experience of being the only Caucasian in a small, local Japanese bathhouse in Amagasaki. I spoke no Japanese, and the attendants spoke no English, but I was shown what to do and everyone was quite gracious about the presence of a Westerner in their midst. It is one of my best memories.

    Best wishes,

    Nick

  8. First, congrats on being chosen for Freshly Pressed!
    Secondly, while your post was obviously written with good intentions, I always find it weird that people make fun of different cultures, where what they are making fun of is obviously very normal in that context, and they are the ‘weird one’ for not getting it:
    “The unimaginable irony- maybe we are the weird ones?…”

  9. Being of Scandinavian origin I am very familiar with saunas, however have never seen sauna rooms like these! They look more like some lobbies to me…lol.

  10. I experienced the Korean sauna during my first visit to Korea a few years ago. I was traveling with another middle-aged woman from my church in Connecticut, visiting our partner church just outside of Seoul. Our Korean minister insisted on taking us to a co-ed sauna, though we politely tried (and tried and tried) to get out of it. Fortunately, for our sakes, people were clothed in t-shirts and gym shorts. Unfortunately, we acted like little kids, succumbing to giggling fit after fit brought on by our minister piling burning hot rocks on our stomachs as we laid stretched out, drenched in sweat (picture a wet t-shirt contest with a minister – AWKWARD) on more burning hot rocks. When we finally gained our composure and ditched our prudishness, we were able to enjoy a wonderfully relaxing experience. Thanks for your post! It was great to read about your experience and start my morning with one of those giggling fits.

  11. Haha…great post. I’ve had Korean friends tell me about Korean saunas and how great they are but I always thought I would find them uncomfortable. Anyways the curiosity is still there but I think I’d find the experience terrifying.

  12. I first experienced a Korean Sauna when I first came to Korea in Jan 2011. I taught for Samsung Corp from 1988-1993 and lived in the company dorm on the compound.

    The only bathroom with hot water was at the sauna they had on site. At first I freaked out when some of the students, all men, said let’s go take a bath “bass”

    I was like ok. I wore my swim suit, and I went in there with my bathing suit. The guys were all naked and I freaked out! Oh my gosh! What is this?

    So I did, felt totally awkward. However, I got used to it.

    Now, I am back in Korea again and go to one in my city every Friday afternoon. It is my favorite Sauna.
    It is no longer strange or odd. It is a part of Korean culture, which I am used to.

    Some teachers here have never been and don’t want to go . It is great sweating, getting the toxins out of your body, and relaxing..

    I also like getting the scrub down. I’m amazed how much “dead skin” comes off.

    For me it is a great relaxing experience and relieves so much stress from teaching kids all week.

    Rob

    Robhlud@gmail.com

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