19 January 2009

The Nude Beaches of South Korea

Boy, that is a good one. I have never come into a more modest group of people in my life. Last week, while doing a unit on travel with my older students (middle school), one of them asked me if it was true that there are places where people swim in the ocean naked. I said yes, I have heard of such places, but that I had never been to one. They screamed and reflexively covered their eyes at the thought. Most Koreans at the beach swim fully clothed.

There is public nudity in Korea, and lots of it. However, it is all gender-segregated and indoors. I am talking about public baths. Koreans love them, and Busan is apparently sitting on top of quite a bit of hot spring water. The baths here are quite famous and one, the Hurshimchung, claims to be the largest facility in all of Asia. It took me a while to muster the nerve, but I finally went to one and I am happy to report that it was awesome.

The place is near my house in the basement of a large hotel. When you arrive you pay at the desk (5000W) and are given a key. You take your key to the first locker room, the shoe lockers, and lock up your shoes there. Then you go into the other locker room and strip down. Now I am not squeamish about being naked. If someone yells "Skinny Dip!" I am usually the first one in the water. Now I am not what you would call model material: I run a little flat on the back and a little not flat on the front so if my exhibition was performance art it would definitely be categorized as comedy. But what made me uncomfortable, as I walked through the locker room in my birthday suit, was that I was apparently the object of a survey in demographic physiology. The Koreans, every one of them, would look at my eyes, look at my package, and then look at my eyes again. I could tell what they were thinking: "Yankee wankee itty bitty." Some of them were polite enough to attempt a look somewhere between pity and disbelief, but I also registered two smirks and one chuckle. Livid with self-loathing, I wanted to tell them that it was unfair to judge my entire race based on my physique and also that I was nervous and that additionally it was a tiny bit cool, but of course this was impossible.

I consoled myself with the thought that I was at the very least anonymous. I am in another country after all. It isn't like I was going to run into anyone I know in this place. Then,as I walked into the huge bath room proper, in which a couple hundred Koreans were washing, soaking, steaming and snoozing contentedly, I heard a small voice scream across the room: "Hello, Joe teacher!" And a couple hundred Koreans simultaneously turned, looked at my eyes, looked at my business, and looked back at my eyes.

After a very brief and uncomfortable conversation with one of my students I repaired to the showers. It is part of the social contract at the baths that you will not enter the pool until you have scrubbed at least one layer of skin off, and I did so with gusto. You are given a long washcloth that runs about 150 on the grit scale and you can get hold of the ends and scour away. It is quite nice on the back. The showers actually had a safety button on them so that you don't blister yourself accidentally. I bypassed this and set the shower to stun (those of you who have showered with me know that I like them hot). I took a nice long soapy shower and declared myself ready for the tubs.

There were five. The largest (30 foot square with a bench build in around the edge) registered about 42 degrees Celsius on the digital thermometer. The other three hot tubs increased in temperature at about 2 degree increments (the temperatures on the thermometers fluctuated at +/- .5 degrees, relative, I believe, to the number of bodies therein). The hottest two were deserted. There was also a steam room, a dry sauna, and a cool tub. There was also a hot floor with tiny hard square pillow. Naps were being taken there.

I graduated up to the second and then the third and then back down to the second hot pool (I tried them all and could stand even the hottest but it was uncomfortable in the sense that my heartbeat and breathing became labored. I lasted about one minute in the dry sauna, which thermometer read 65 Celsius) and gradually formed a rotation of hot tub, steam room, and cold tub. The water was mineral saturated and had a pretty good salinity. On TVs around the room a video loop showed the drilling that accessed the hot water vent below. Signs proudly stated that the mineral rich waters came from a depth of 864 meters, and I believe it.

I don't know if it was the minerals or the heat or the scrubbing or what, but when I left that place I felt like a new person. If one was feeling depressed or puny, I can think of no better way to do a little self-repair. There were other services (barber and masseuse) as well, but I was content with the basic package. It is nice to know that it is there at the very least. And I think that next time I will be less nervous and can do my lineage more justice.