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A year in the bathhouse

Friday September 29, 2006

Simon Brandon

Ask a Korean man about homosexuality and he will probably reply, unless attitudes have shifted considerably in the past three years, that it does not exist in his country. Nevertheless, Korean men spend a fair amount of time being naked and sweaty in large steamy rooms full of similarly unclothed chaps. There is no connection, obviously, but having one?s head buried firmly in the sand might just be a prerequisite for the sexually conservative bather.

Cultural relativity is all well and good, but South Korea?s public bathhouses are an indisputable advantage over the West. They are also relaxing, invigorating evidence of the rewards that exist for those keen to get under this country?s skin.

Quite a few expats don?t make the effort, however, which is a shame. Many are, as I was, dithering graduates looking to stave off careers and responsibilities for another couple of years. One night you might be stacking pet food shelves in Sainsbury?s and panicking about your future; two weeks later you could be eating chicken gizzards in a fishing village in Jeonnam-do.

Foreign teachers are cash cows for owners of the ubiquitous after-school academies, who will pay for your airfare and accommodation ? all you need is a degree of some sort.

Unfortunately this TEFL-free system also attracts some very strange and ill-equipped candidates. They formed a sizeable and easily defined subset of the expat community, such as there was ? almost all of them were, in my experience, male, middle-aged dipsomaniacs ? and it became clear after talking to many of them that they were often running away from something; alimony payments, redundancy, failed marriages.

One of these Lord Lucans, a goateed bigot called American Dave, would trap me at the bar and detail the revolting sexual liberties he took with his mail order bride, in the same breath as proclaiming his love for the Buddha. He also used to start a lot of fights. Olaf was a lecherous Scandinavian who drank soju for breakfast and who, after two years in Korea, still hadn?t learned a single word of the language; he used to ask waitresses where ?la toilette? was while his groping hands missed their chests entirely and his eyes rolled backwards in his head.

But enough with the nostalgia. The underlying trait these men had in common as expats was a complete unwillingness to engage with the country in which they had decided to live and work ? which is why Dave, Olaf and their ilk missed out on huge amount. In my opinion, however, their biggest loss was never having visited a Korean bathhouse, not least because they are quite simply the finest hangover cure ever invented.

They are everywhere. At their simplest, the small local bathhouses ? called mog-yok-tang ? consist of a hot bath, a cold bath, a sauna and a few showers. You get clean, then you alternate between baths until you feel like passing out. Then rest a while and repeat.

In large towns and cities you can find sa-oo-na (?sauna? Koreanised). These can have several baths at a range of temperatures, from lobster red to arctic blue, a variety of saunas and sometimes a jim-jil-bang, which are large unisex steam rooms (T-shirts and cotton shorts are provided).

For the hungover, many of these larger saunas are also open 24 hours. Korean society attaches even more importance to boozing than we do in the West. The social hierarchy based on age is similar to the pecking order at work ? each is manifested outwardly in language, depth of bow and how drinks are poured.

But alcohol also cuts through these barriers; a worker drinking with his boss has much more licence to say what he really thinks than when he?s in the office. It?s a valued release, so Korean men drink a lot and often. And because they don?t really have that much free time they drink during the week, which is why a visit to the sa-oo-na is so important at 3am on a Tuesday morning. You can sweat it all out of your system for as long as you like, and some even have an area for sleeping it off, too.

Incidentally, one of these cleansing doss-houses is located underneath the express bus terminal in Seoul. For a few thousand won you can use the baths, hire some clean pyjamas, put your bags in a locker and crash. It is by far the cheapest place to stay in the city, and the great bonus is that a session in the baths is wonderfully soporific ? which means the snores around you aren?t a hindrance to a good night?s sleep.

Bathhouses are also a milestone for foreign residents. When you can stand naked in a steamy room filled with gawping Koreans, or do star jumps in a lethally hot sauna as unselfconsciously as a child, then you are ready to be baptised in a freezing plunge pool to emerge anew as a fully acclimatised westerner-in-exile.

Everywhere you go, no matter how tired, sweaty, drunk or dirty you get, there will always be a mog-yok-tang close by. There is a tiny bathhouse in the village at the bottom of Songnisan mountain, and it is an almost transcendent pleasure to relax therein after a hike. Look out for on-dol, too ? these are baths heated and filled by local geothermal springs. Each boasts various health-giving properties, although some of them are fiercely hot.

I cannot recommend these places enough. If the nakedness is a barrier, think of it like eating the fiery Korean staple kimchi for breakfast. It is just a cultural switch that needs to be turned off. There is no finer feeling than to emerge from a bathhouse, as pinkly clean as it is possible to be, drowsy, invigorated and feeling like a native. Koreans have been going to these for centuries. The West has a lot of catching up to do.

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