Monday, December 31, 2012

Korean Essentials

Jjimjilbang: a large, gender-segregated public bathhouse in Korea, furnished with hot tubs, showers, Finnish-style saunas, and massage tables.
Noraebang: small rooms, rented by the hour, which contain microphones, TVs, tambourines, lighting, alcohol, and songbooks. Think: karaoke (but in Korean) that is only with your friends/coworkers (not in front of an entire restaurant or bar)

This weekend, I had my first experiences with these two Korean institutions. Both jjimjilbangs and noraebangs are very popular and a unique experience for foreigners. Many Americans are hesitant to go to the jjimjilbangs because you have to be naked, and be okay with everyone else being naked. Granted, you're only with others of your same sex, it can still be intimidating for non-Koreans.

Entrance to Dragon Hill Spa
Saturday night, after a boring (yet relaxing) day, Casey, Erin, and I went to Dragon Hill Spa - one of the biggest jjimjilbangs in Seoul. (Click the name to see lots of info about that specific place, and jjimjilbangs in general) Casey and I had not been to a jjimjilbang before, so Erin recommended we get a little drink in us to ease our reservations. It is intimidating and a little nerve-racking to strip down and walk around naked in front of total strangers. We had 2 bottles of makgeolli in the apartment before we headed to the spa. When we got to the station where the spa was, we decided we should rejuvenate our buzz, and got 2 more bottles. The great thing about Korea is that it's okay to sit on the steps outside a subway station and pass around a bottle. And that is exactly what we did. We finished both the bottles in about 10 minutes.

Casey & Erin 
We headed into the building, and got in line to go inside. It is a 7-story building all part of the jjimjilbang. We paid up front, and got wristbands that we could use to charge drinks or additional services we wanted. When we were done we would pay for everything we charged before we left.

Inside, we dumped our shoes in small lockers using our wristbands as keys. Erin couldn't get hers to work until we figured out she was attempting to open the correct locker, but on the men's side! Oops! We had a stack of clothes (to wear in the co-ed areas) and a couple towels for our convenience. We took the "women's only" elevator to the changing room area, and put our things in our lockers, again designated by our wristbands/keys. Then, the time had come: we had to strip down.

It was actually pretty easy, especially since the moment we stepped off the elevator we had been assaulted with visuals of tons of naked Korean women, girls, and kiddos. Granted, we look a little different than most of them, we were all very mature about it. We kept a towel with us (about the size of a hand towel) and used it to cover our fronts until we came to the bath areas.

Erin & I
Before we could get in any baths, we had to shower off. Once rinsed of any dirt, we got into one medium-heat bath first, and it felt amazing! I was surprised at how easy it was to be comfortable. I was of course somewhat self-conscious for a while, and we giggled a little bit, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Once we were warmed up, we went outside.

I know what you're thinking: outside?! I was imagining the same thing you probably are: just a hottub on a deck kind of setup. I guess I knew it couldn't possibly be that open, since we were all naked, but I was a little surprised to see how enclosed it was. It had walls (shoulda known), but it also had partially covered roof slats. It was actually perfect, since once we got into the hot bath, we could look up and see the soft snow falling down, sprinkling us with frozen drops as we steamed in the pool.

There was 3 hot baths (one not running), and 1 medium-temperature pool (more for swimming than soaking). We got in that to cool our bodies down a bit, and it was wonderful. We could float on our backs and just look up at the night sky speckled with white snow flakes swirling through the air.

When we went back inside, we had a brief cold shower to rinse off then went into one of the dry sauna rooms. It was 67 degrees Celsius, and I wasn't sure how long I could handle it. But, we managed to do the recommended 15 minutes. After that, we went in the Traditional Cold Bath, which was a bit of a shock to the system, but after a minute it was refreshing to cool down. There were lots of different hot baths to try around the other side of the big room, and I enjoyed the Herbal Medicinal Bath, the Ginseng Bath, and an excellent Full Body Massage Bath with jets designed to lay back on.

After a couple hours in the baths, we dried off and put on the Spa outfit (horrible one-size shorts and tshirt) and went to the co-ed sauna/community room. The floor was heated from below, so there were loads of people laying all over the floor. Lots of couples snuggled together. We got a drink then went into the Himalayan Salt Room. It was nice and quiet and warm, but after about 10 minutes I was feeling ill. The girls made me go buy a bottle of water and down it, refill it from the water cooler, and drink another. Great advice, since I'm sure I was quite dehydrated. After that soaked in, I felt much better and we enjoyed a few different hot rooms, then a nice stint in the ice-room. Finally, the girls went to the room that was literally called a "Kiln" and I opted for a nap on the heated floor.

After one more trip to the baths room, we decided to leave around 2am. We considered sleeping there in the sleeping area (which is totally kosher), but we all had plans for the next day and figured it would be better to sleep in our own beds.

After showering and changing, we headed out of the jjimjilbang. Overall it was a great experience, and we decided to try one of the small ones near our apartments soon. We caught a cab, but while on the way home decided we really needed some McDonalds (hello, we'd drank a lot of makgeolli and then sweated for 5 hours!), and headed to the 24 hr McDonalds a few miles from our apartments. After the most delicious burger and fries, we finally got back home and I fell into bed around 4:30am.

Erin and I, after our boring day Saturday, decided to make use of our Sunday. We planned to meet at 1:30 to go to the Seoul History Museum. Erin looked up the subway information and we got to the exit around 2:00. Once we walked out of the exit, though, we weren't really sure where to go. We figured it would be straight ahead since there are so many exits, why come out at this one if it wasn't in the immediate vicinity. We walked for about 20 minutes, wandering around. We asked a police officer, and he pointed to the end of the street.

We walked to the median, which was a very large section we could walk down, and came upon a statue of King Sejong, who made the Hangul (Korean) language. We took some pictures, then kept walking, all the while looking around dubiously at the buildings. Ahead, we saw a beautiful Korean gate. It looked awesome, so we took some more pictures there. Since we still couldn't find the museum, and this place looked cool, we went inside the courtyard. When we heard the announcement of the changing of the guard, we decided to stick around.

It ended up being Gyeongbokgung Palace, which claims to be the most beautiful and grandest of the 5 palaces in Seoul. We watched the changing of the guard ceremony, then bought the cheap 3,000W entrance ticket. Even from outside the Palace property, it is gorgeous. We took so many pictures! The architecture was markedly Asian, and incredibly beautiful. The main difference between this and palaces I'd been to in Europe was that this was primarily a property, rather than a building. There were at least 15 separate buildings, but you can only look into some of them from windows, rather than being allowed to tour the inside. But, the grounds were so beautiful and the buildings so fascinating, I didn't mind not going inside any of them. They were all very small, each building individually. But, put together, the property was quite large.

After about an hour of looking around, Erin's toes were numb and my fingers could barely click the shutter on the camera for being so cold and stiff, so we huddled in the gift shop while we defrosted. I texted Sean to let him know we still hadn't made it to the museum, if he wanted to meet up with us. We waited for him in a coffee shop once we figured out how to get to the museum (since that was why we initially stumbled upon the palace).

We got to the museum about an hour and a half before it was to close, but that was plenty of time. We were all very hungry and after checking out the first section of the main exhibit and the model city (which was sooooo awesome), we decided to get some food!

This is my intersection on the model city at the museum!
We walked along the Cheonggyechen stream until we got to a restaurant called Julios. Erin had been before and said it was great Mexican food. We all got margaritas and an extra shot of tequila to warm us up (that was our excuse at least). I ended up getting the least Mexican thing on the menu, which was a Gorgonzola Cheese Quesadilla. It was really good! We enjoyed our food and got another margarita.

The next activity we had planned was screen golf. Apparently there is a big place near our apartments to do this "sport" (more like: drinking activity). We were feeling good from our margaritas and walking down the main road in our neighborhood. Casey joined us as we searched for the place, but between all of us, I don't think we ever found it. There were several golf places, but they all looked like people would go there to legitimately try to get good at golf. We decided to try out a noraebang instead.

Casey and Sean singing!
It was actually a perfect night for noraebang-ing, since there were 4 of us and we were all feeling good! We went to the noraebang that is right near our apartments, and paid for an hour and 4 beers. Casey figured out the system while I ran to the bathroom, then ran back horrified because it was a "squatter" (traditional Korean toilet, not a Western style). I opted to go to my apartment to avoid that. When I returned we got to the singing...

Erin and I singing "I Gotta Feeling"
From all the reading I'd done before coming here, and hearing how everyone "lovvves" noraebangs, I wasn't sure exactly how I would feel about it. But, I must say, it lived up to it's reputation. We belted out Usher, Spice Girls, Abba, Grouplove, Pitbull (my request - I even kept up with the rapping part of International Love!), and loads more. When our hour was up, we paid for another and I was officially tapped out of cash. The guy who was helping us brought us some free beers (heck ya!) and we kept the party going. Around midnight (which actually felt more like 4am, since I'd been drinking since 6pm) I was out of cash and out of energy and out of a voice! We walked home and I sobered up while taking care of Rosie before bed.

It was a perfect weekend: relaxing, entertaining, culturally enriching, and spent with some of my favorite people. I want to note here that I am completely loving the people I work with, primarily Erin. I genuinely feel like we are friends, not just coworkers or friends because we happen to be working at the same school. I am confident that we will stay in touch after she leaves at the end of February, and we will visit each other. We get along so well, and I truly enjoy being with her! And, I think she feels the same! (*Awwww*)

Today, it's New Year's Eve! Unfortunately that means only today and tomorrow left on vacation, but I don't mean to think about that any more than I have to! I have plans to go see Les Miserables with Casey and some girls from church, and then we are all meeting up for beers at our neighborhood bar. It won't be anything crazy, but that's just how I like it. Tomorrow is also Michael and I's first anniversary, so I will be talking to him a lot tonight and tomorrow. :) My Christmas vacation has been a first-rate success! And I still have another 48 hours of it. ;)

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