I didn't know if I could do it. But I did it - twice. That's right, we've tried the public baths.
Let's first define public bath for my North American friends who may not have encountered this. The "sauna" or "bath" is a combination hottubs (plural), YMCA, arcade, and indoor family picnic all for the economical price of about 7 dollars for an adult or 4 dollars for a child. The glitch is that in the "hot tubs" area (which is separated by gender) its "birthday suits" only.
So while most everything about the saunas sounded good, I wasn't too sure I wanted to be the only white, slightly plump, woman running around suit-less. But Anna really wanted to try it out, so we did.
Let's pause here for a more detailed description of the kinds of services available inside the public bath/sauna. On the ladies-only floor there are rows of lockers which open onto a public area where you can hire someone for a manicure or pedicure, buy snacks, or sit around and watch tv (all nude if you like). Then you go through some glass doors into the baths area. Here there are about 4 rows of open showers, then 4 more rows of stools and low faucets with spray nozzles for "scrubbing" (and let me just say that at any given time there are at least 20 ladies and potentially their daughters scrubbing every single part of their bodies), a bit further in another open area are the 4 tables for full body massages given by very hard working women who never get to take a break. Next to all of this is the area of baths. These are huge hot tubs of various temperatures from super hot to super cold, maybe some jets in one or two but mostly not. Perhaps another 20 ladies are taking advantage of the baths to sit and relax or chat a bit. So, essentially, one might spend hours in here washing her hair, scrubbing dead skin off of each body part, rinsing in the shower or with pans of water from the baths, sitting in the baths, getting a massage, more baths or hot sauna, getting a manicure then pedicure, etc.
If desired, you can put on the gym suit they give you and go up (or down) a flight to the shared floor. Here there are more goodies! First, a huge open area with mats on the floor for families to sit and picnic together or watch television. Also, there's an arcade, maybe a weight room, a snack bar, and massage chairs. But also, there are several rooms of various temperatures to lay in to rest or nap. The room could be freezing cold or super hot - your choice. Children are running around everywhere except these rooms which are fairly sound proof and dimly lit. So, bring a laptop, play a game, or take a nap. You can do it all at the sauna - in community - while wearing your gray and white gym suit!
The first time we tried this was a few weeks ago. I have to say I found it very uncomfortable. This is just not something that I'm used to (at least not since ye olde college days in the dorm showers). Anna doesn't mind walking around nude, so that didn't seem to pose a problem. But we both got more of our share of body parts with more than 40 ladies enjoying the saunas that day. In the end, I asked Anna how she liked it. She was torn. "I liked it!" she said. "But it was rather disturbing." That about summed it up.
Here, though, is where my reflection comes in. I have to say that in my mind I kept thinking "Get over yourself. No one cares." Additionally, seeing ever age and body type has its advantages. I mean, you get to see REALISTICALLY where you're headed as you live through each stage of life. (I won't go into the details here.) But it occurred to me that American young women are so hung up about looking perfect and having the perfect bodies, but at the sauna it is quite clear that few have perfect bodies. And, in the end, how can one determine what is perfect and what isn't? We're all the same - but unique!
So, we decided to try it out again this weekend. We tried a new spot called "Sun Superland" near our apartment. This time the boys headed to their floor and we girls headed to our floor for about an hour, then we agreed to hook up in our "gym uniforms" on the family level. This time went a bit easier for me. I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the different baths. Anna seemed to have a good time, too, without being "disturbed." We liked the family time, too.
So if you happen to come to Korea, I suggest stepping out of your comfort zone and giving it a go. You may enjoy it, you never know.