My life philosophy is collect experiences not stuff. Yet with just one month left on my teaching contract, I still hadn’t ventured to a jjimjilbang. I love hot tubs and saunas, but I wasn’t sure about relaxing in them naked. Deciding this was my last opportunity, I finally plucked up the fortitude to visit Elybaden Spa near Sangin.
I set out for West Daegu with rising levels of anxiety building. My wholesale ignorance of Korean jjimjilbangs isn’t the only cause for the unease. It’s the daunting challenge of navigating this foreign-concept with zero Korean and doing it in the buff. Before I’m ready, I find myself standing in front of the five-story complex.
I courageously enter and immediately I’m faced with a registration desk. I gingerly walk up to a free attendant. Between a mix of Konglish and gestures, I sputter out ‘Annyeonghaseyo. Jjimjilbang, ne. Waterpark, ayino.’ She miraculously understands that I only want entry to the sauna and not the combined ticket that includes the waterpark. She presents me with a waterproof wristband, which I later learn is both your locker keys and a charge-card allowing you to purchase food, drink and amenities without carrying around cash.
Gaining confidence, I go through the turnstiles and meticulously follow the women in front. I’m directed to the shoe lockers on my right. I locate my designated locker number, remove my ballet pumps, and enter the segregated changing facilities. Inside, I exchange my paper ticket for two minuscule towels and a pile of clothes to an ajumma behind a desk of trial-sized toiletries. I scour the lockers for number 825, which corresponds with my wristband. Found, I strip all my clothing off and put them inside. I feel exposed with nothing but my wristband for protection.
Clutching my mustard-colored hankie to my chest like a child with its comfort blanket, I enter the vast sauna area, mokyongtang, stark naked. I expect the eyes of several hundred Korean women to swivel and stare, but no one seems to mind the lone waygook. I take stock of the facilities: bubbling 43C hot pools in the centre, an ice plunge pool along the back wall, three scorching 70C saunas in the left corner, ondol stone slabs for sleeping on my left, and five rows of bathing stations to my right.
I head for the hot pools and find a chaise lounge-like seat with back jets. I stare intently at the TV projecting news in Hangul to keep me from accidentally starring where I shouldn’t. A curious toddler clambers into the water and stares intently at me instead. A blue straw dangles from his mouth. He notices me noticing him and says ‘Snorkel,’ before dipping his head under. His innocent presence makes me laugh. I begin to relax, so decide to explore.
I head to the ‘Salt Room’ sauna where inside I find a hollowed out tree stump brimming with salt. I start to rub the white granules on my legs when a friendly ajumma gestures that she can scrub my back. Hesitatingly, I let her. I learn later this is common, but feeling mildly traumatized by the experience, I quickly leave for the safety of the ‘Germanium Dry’ sauna next door. After reaching boiling point, I plunge into the cold pool, which is surprisingly refreshing. As I linger there for awhile, I notice two older ladies grabbing their belly fat and comparing their bulges unselfconsciously.
Suitably prune-fingered, I leave to explore jimjilbang. I adorn my faded red shorts and t-shirt set and with bare feet trundle up to the 3rd floor. The lively co-ed space is being enjoyed by couples, families and girlfriends. A survey of the floor reveals a plethora of entertainment options from a food court, coffee shop, mini noraebangs, arcade games, a children’s play area, a large chill-out zone covered in mats, dark coves for sleeping, and to my delight two dozen Bodyfriend chairs, where an indulging 15-minute roller pressure massage costs a mere 2,000W.
I also discover several clothed saunas – one with a heat of 87C – and a cooling ‘Ice Room’. I decide my favorite space is the ‘Salt Room’, which on this floor has mood-enhancing Himalayan rose-colored salt for walls. As I lay on the heated rocks trying to mediate, I chastise myself for not gaining the courage to visit sooner.
How to get there: Sangin Subway (Line 1). Exit #4. Walk straight 100feet. Take the 706 bus two stops. Cross the street and head straight. The spa is on the left hand corner.
Location: 8-6 Sanginseo-ro, Sangin 3(sam)-dong, Dalseo-gu, Daegu
Cost: 12,000W (Sauna Only). 27,000W (Combined Waterpark Ticket)