Getting Real at Jeju

A newbie spends the day at a traditional Korean bathhouse

Here’s the naked truth: Clothing is not allowed in the single-sex quarters of Jeju Sauna, a traditional Korean bathhouse (called a jjimjilbang) in Duluth. Thank goodness, because had I the option I would have covered my 41-year-old postpartum body with a swimsuit. But I would have missed out on the transcendental relaxation that comes from slipping in and out of the tubs and saunas wearing only the skin you were born in, no straps digging into your shoulder or spandex holding in your tummy. Besides, nudity becomes much less fraught when everyone else is naked, too.

I was lucky to be touring the bathhouse with Sarah Park, a Korean-born woman whose family now lives in Gwinnett. Sarah told me that growing up in Korea, her family would go to the jjimjilbang at least once a week—it was a place to get scrubbed clean and to hang out, watch TV, eat, or nap on mats in the saunas.

You can do all of these things and more at Jeju, including getting a manicure or indulging in foot reflexology. Because the spa is open 24 hours a day and provides pillows and blankets, some people even choose to spend the night. Rumor has it one man bought a yearly membership for $1,600, because he drives a cab and often sleeps at Jeju between shifts.

But I was at Jeju to soak and be scrubbed, something you can do only in the single-sex area. And so with a grin and a shrug Sarah and I pulled off our clothes, placed them in our assigned lockers along with our purses and our uniforms (baggy shorts and a T-shirt, given to us at check-in, where we paid our $25 entry fee), and walked into the large bathing room.

As she sloughed away years of dead skin, not an inch of my body was left untouched. The whole procedure was startling, but ultimately invigorating.

Soaking It In

Visits begin with a shower—you can choose either standing or sitting. Once we were nice and clean, Sarah and I got in the warm tub, preferring it over the other two (one very cold, one very hot.) The water was warm and clean and deep enough that I could immerse my whole body, as if I were being baptized. Indeed, I experienced a deep peace while floating in that tub: Not once did I think of what to cook for dinner that night or what Atlanta traffic might be like when it was time to leave.

After soaking for a few minutes, we decided to enter the sauna. While most of the saunas at Jeju are located in the mixed–gender area, there are two in the women’s section. The dry sauna, lined with wood, had a warm, toasty smell and evoked in me a long-ago memory of coming inside after running around on a snowy day. The thick steam in the wet sauna was infused with herbs, which sat in a basket labeled with a strict warning not to add any extra herbs to it.

“That warning has to be there for a reason,” Sarah laughed. “Someone must have brought her own herbs.”

Scrubbing It Off

Leaving the heat of the saunas, it felt perfect to splash my face with water from the cold tub. Then it was time to soak in the hottest of the tubs to prepare my body for a scrub, which I was combining with a 30-minute massage, shampoo, and cucumber facial mask, all for $80. Sarah encouraged me to call my service provider “Emo,” which means aunt in Korean. Emo was an older woman with beautiful skin who did not speak much English. She led me into a semiprivate room where I lay facedown on a massage table that was covered with a slick, pink waterproof sheet. She doused me with bowls of warm water, and then began scrubbing my legs with her hands, which were covered in exfoliating mitts.

This was no gentle tickle. This was a brisk, tingling, almost painful total-body experience. Emo started scrubbing one leg, continued all the way up to my neck, and then came back down again to the other leg. Then she had me flip onto my back so she could do the same thing on the front side of my body. Then she flipped me onto each side. As she sloughed away years of dead skin, not an inch of my body was left untouched. The whole procedure was startling, but ultimately invigorating.

When she finished the scrub, Emo poured buckets of warm water over me to remove the many curls of dead skin, and then instructed me to wash my face in the American-style shower just outside the scrub room. While I stood under the water, I watched as Emo grated a cucumber into a colander placed over a bowl. She gathered the grated cucumber flesh and brought it back into the scrub room, where I soon joined her.

Here's The Rub

It was now time for my massage. Emo poured oil on my freshly scrubbed body and then massaged me as if I were a particularly tough piece of dough that she intended to knead into pliancy.

“Too hard?” she asked. And while it was a little on the hard side, it was also perfect.

The session ended with her patting cold cucumber over my face and shampooing my hair, then rinsing everything off once more. Sarah came to check on me and encouraged me to feel my skin. It felt new, vulnerable, and very soft, much like the skin of my two-year-old son.

The Aftermath

Afterward I was so ravenous that I wondered if a body scrub burns calories. Sarah and I returned to the locker room to put on our uniforms, then headed to the food court located in the mixed-gender section. Sarah ordered us two traditional dishes—beef bulgogi served over a sweet broth with rice noodles, and doenjangjjigae, a soybean paste stew with zucchini and mushrooms. Both were accompanied by rice and sides, including kimchi.

Sarah and I had just met that day, but our shared Jeju experience had turned us into fast friends. Over lunch we found ourselves talking about both God and politics. Perhaps the act of getting real with our bodies allowed our conversation to wade into deeper waters. In any event, as I slurped up rice noodles and talked to my Korean-born friend about Jesus and American politics, I thought to myself: How cool is Gwinnett?

This article, written by Susan Rebecca White, originally appeared in Volume III of Explore Gwinnett Magazine