Some Like It Very Hot: Relaxing in Korean Bathhouses

Inside the "Hinoki meditation forest room," built with imported Japanese hinoki cypress known for its rich lemon scent, parents try to calm their hyperactive kids and coax them into meditation.

For Kim Min-Su, 39, and his pregnant wife, the place is a safe haven to spend a whole day with their three children.

"Korean homes are too small. Most of us live in apartments, so kids don't get a chance to run around," said Kim, while hushing the disgruntled kids "Plus, these days, there's so much crime against juveniles and I'm always worried because there are so many car accidents in this city. When we are here, we can just let them go."

The family-oriented concept of the Korean bathhouse features a Jamboree-style kids room with Nintendo rentals available for $1.50 an hour. Teenagers hang out at PC rooms with high-speed Internet access or try out the latest billboard songs in karaoke rooms. Young men and women strut about at the outdoor heated swimming pool.

Free magic shows are performed twice a day, and for ones looking for privacy in the dark, they can walk into a free cinema for the latest movies that they can watch lying down on the heated floor.

Bathhouses Offer Affordable Facials

Women can take special traditional beauty sessions in rooms like the "threading room," where a lady using two forefingers removes barely visible facial hair with a thread.

"It makes me look younger and I can see a difference when I put my makeup on after this," said Hong Eun-Ja, 62, who comes once a month.

With the cheap price and around-the-clock business hours, "jjim-jil-bang" is also a good, cheap dating spot for couples.

"This place feels like home and we don't have to drive around one dating place to another, just to be together," said Yang Doo-Hwan, 27, lying on his stomach reading an adult comic book with his girlfriend. "It's one-stop service for everything."

Next to the couple, giggling girls put facial masks on each other while they lie on the floor in the middle of the communal room.

For foreigners, the whole concept of the bathhouses, most of which have several restaurants and snack bars, might appear odd at first glance.

"People just lie down, lie about in public. We don't do that in Europe," said Sally Robinson, 46, who came for the first time with her friends. "The most amazing thing is the range of ages here, from grandmothers to babies, all enjoying the same place. It's actually nice that whole families can just hang out together all day."

The real cultural shock, though, could be the gender-segregated wet spa area.

"It takes a few trips here to get used to walking around naked," said Linda Leadbitter, 50, of Great Britain. "And you never see your own grandmother naked in my country."

Roaming stripped in the women's only spa is natural to Koreans and scrubbing backs for each other is common.

"We grew up going to public baths like this twice a month, " said Yang In-Soon, 57, who poured a bucket of water onto her 82-year-old mother sitting on a low plastic chair in front of rows of open shower booths. "You bond with your mother, your daughter and your friends by sharing the trip."

She continued scrubbing her mother's buttocks with the traditional green exfoliating mitt.

Budget Scrubs and Massage

For a more thorough beauty scrub, the popular way is to ask a professional scrubber.

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