The Kimchi-ite: Relax And Get Lazy In The Nude At A Korean Jjim-Jil-Bang

After a long, six-day workweek, a night of drinking or just a day of walking all over town, the jjim-jil-bang is the perfect place to unravel in South Korea. Literally meaning “heated bath room” (not “heated bathroom” mind you), jjim-jil-bang are relaxation emporiums with a heavy lean towards hot tubs and saunas that are affordable, open 24/7 and a staple of Korean culture. With good reason, they have become increasingly popular, and not just for the overworked Korean office worker or drunk college student.After you pay your 10,000-won entrance fee (less than $9), you will be directed to your gender’s locker room. There you’ll slip into the entirely too comfortable, loose-fitting clothing they provide you with. You have your choice of various forms of relaxation at that point. The main attractions are the hot tubs, with each jjim-jil-bang having a handful to choose from, at differing temperatures and water types, such as green tea hot tubs. These are to be enjoyed in the nude of course, with the hot tub areas segregated by gender. Be sure to thoroughly wash yourself beforehand just outside the baths.

There are traditional Korean stone dome saunas, hanjeungmak, with differing intensities, but they are always very hot and refreshingly dry. Often there will be a “cold room” to cool down that continuously has fresh air pumped into it. Depending on the size, a jjim-jil-bang may also have karaoke, an arcade, exfoliating massages, a barber, a swimming pool, gym facilities or a restaurant.

All of these are linked together by a large common room with a heated floor where patrons of both sexes can gather, watch TV and relax. This area facilitates jjim-jil-bangs popular use as ultra-cheap, last minute accommodation after a late night out when the trains stop running.

It’s required that any visit to a jjim-jil-bang be accompanied by shikeh, a nice mellow rice drink, and making yourself a sheep’s hat out of your towel to absorb sweat. The hat is actually quite terrible at sweat absorption, but extremely efficient at making you feel ridiculous and putting a smile on your face.

One of the largest jjim-jil-bangs, and the most accommodating to foreigners, is the Dragonhill Spa in Yongsan across the street from Yongsan station, with a staff fluent in English.

Continue on with previous Kimchi-ite posts with more on Korean culture, food and eccentricities by clicking here.

[Photo Credits: Flickr User Wootang1, WhiteNight7 via WikiMedia, and Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: A Tour Through Hongdae, The Center Of Korean Youth Culture

Seoul has no shortage of unique neighborhoods worth visiting and it is certainly not at a loss for places to go drinking. However, there is only one true place where the youth of South Korea go en masse for so many of their desires and that place is Hongdae. Taking its name from the Korean abbreviation for the local art university, Hongik University, Hongdae is a great place for restaurants, cafes, art, live music, clubbing, lounge drinking and shopping. There are neighborhoods all over the city dedicated solely to each of those activities, but none have all of them, nor at such great accessibility.

The streets of Hongdae are lined with an unbelievable concentration of great restaurants, cafes and fashion boutiques.

Exiting from Hongik University station‘s exit 9 will give you a face full of Korea’s different subcultures. University students wear trendy American-style varsity jackets. Musicians have their instruments strapped to their backs. Club kids will have their frameless glasses and cut-off jeans. Exit 9 is the launching point for everyone’s night and on Saturdays it can take minutes to walk up the short flight of stairs.

Rillakuma takes a breather on “Meat Street,” a block with over 30 Korean BBQ restaurants.

One block out of the station is the so-called “Meat Street,” a one block corridor with over 30 tabletop, fire wielding, Korean BBQ restaurants. Serving up the standard samgyeopsal, kind of a BBQ-style bacon, as well as most other parts of commonly eaten animals all to be dipped into the all too delicious ssamjang, a sauce of garlic, soybeans and chili paste that is unique to Korea.

Street musicians line the street between Hongdae Station and the main nightlife areas.

Venturing on from Meat Street will take you right past Hongdae’s famous street performers and buskers. Musicians, comedians and magicians all compete for pedestrians’ attention, but everyone knows Hongdae is the musician’s playground. More than just sidewalk space for one-man acoustic cover machines, it is a testing ground for Korea’s indie music scene, with many acts going on to sign major record deals. Bands have their own regular spots with dedicated fans cheering loud enough to be heard for blocks around.

People passed-out and drunk is not an uncommon sight in all corners of Hongdae.

Most people come to Hongdae for the nightlife. Reasonable prices give the area an advantage over Gangnam. Restaurants are packed with laughter as people pour each other shots of soju, Korea’s drink of choice that, despite rarely being consumed outside of the peninsula, is one of the most consumed liquors in the world. Bars become so dense that they stack one on top of another with a speed dating bar on top of a darts bar on top of a cocktail lounge in the same building.

The two versions of Hongdae Playground: on the left, the Free Market during the afternoon and on the right, the late-night hangout spot.

One of the best places to drink after dark, when the weather is good, is in the playground right across the street from Hongik University. Koreans and expats alike grab a beer from a neighboring convenience store or Korean rice wine from the Maookli Man’s push cart, take a seat on the bench or the graffiti covered jungle gym and just hang out, often accompanied by an eclectic mix of street music. Additionally, on Saturday afternoons the area turns into the family friendly Hongdae Free Market, featuring arts and crafts vendors as well as live music.

Afternoon window-shopping is fantastic with the latest in international design and fashion.

There is really so much more to Hongdae than what I’ve mentioned, such as dog cafes, amazing basement comic book shops, narrow streets with over 50 women’s clothing boutiques and a huge concentration of great Japanese restaurants. Hongdae is one of the best places in Seoul to explore, there’s always something new to see or do as it is constantly in flux.

Now is the best time to get to Hongdae and experience it all as the neighborhood is changing on what seems like a monthly basis. As the neighborhood exponentially increases in popularity, rent is raising, pushing out businesses that have been in the area for decades in order to make way for international coffee chain locations. Many of the smaller cafes and music venues that built the area’s reputation have been pushed to adjacent neighborhoods like Hapjeong in order to keep their heads above water. Regardless of corporate takeovers, Hongdae absolutely remains my favorite neighborhood in Korea and is accessible at any hour on any day.

Check out previous “Kimchi-ite” stories on Korean culture, food and eccentricities by clicking here.

[All photos by Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: 10 More Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World

In the U.S., there is the art of tipping. In Finland, there is no such thing as college tuition; it’s almost completely subsidized by tax Euros. And in Ethiopia, food is eaten only with the bare right hand. Given South Korea‘s unique history and culture within Asia, there is no shortage of comparisons that can be made between it and the rest of the world. Even though I already reported on “10 Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World,” more and more unique cultural curiosities are revealed to me everyday – things I couldn’t have possibly conceived of back in Florida.

1. Fan Death
Possibly the most internationally notorious Korean cultural quirk is the belief that if you fall asleep in a closed room with a fan on you will die. Theories include the fans causing hypothermia or even that the fan is removing all the oxygen from the room. Today, the myth is largely dying out with the new generation, none of my Korean friends believe it whatsoever, but they mention that they heard about it all the time when they were younger.

2. Koreans work more
On average, Koreans work 2,057 hours per year, 14% more than Americans, who on average work 1,797 hours per year. That’s an additional six workweeks per year. But that doesn’t really show the whole story and is probably only the officially reported and paid hours. It isn’t entirely uncommon for people to work 6 days a week, clocking in over 10 hours each day for a typical office job, with little or no overtime pay.3. Conscription
All South Korean males between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve in the military for between 21 and 24 months. This two-year commitment is a matter of much pride, controversy and angst amongst Korean men.

4. Don’t whistle after dark
Whistling at night is considered bad luck; it’s thought that it will beckon snakes and spirits.

5. Free and amazing delivery
Delivery is gold is Seoul. You can order virtually anything, at anytime, anywhere you are. Usually there are no delivery fees and you will often get full-blown, non-disposable plates and metal utensils. All you have to do, is leave it all out front of your apartment and the delivery guy will come by and pick it up later. Many restaurants that are not known for delivering in the U.S. have fleets of delivery scooters in Seoul – even McDonald’s.

6. Please eat. Don’t let it get cold
If you eat dinner at a restaurant with others, you will almost definitely not receive your food at the same time as each other. Your food just comes as it is finished in the kitchen.

7. No falling or springing
When my Facebook feed was recently flooded with status updates from my American friends groaning over an hour of lost sleep due to daylight savings time, I just laughed and savored the fact that my sleep schedule was not affected. Like most of the rest of the Eastern world, Korea does not observe daylight savings time. I personally love it. It allows me to get a better feel on the passage of time over each year.

8. Rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Within Korean cuisine, there is no such thing as breakfast food or even specific lunch or dinner food. Most meals can be had during any time of the day, and all meals are accompanied by a helping of kimchi. McDonald’s does serve a typical Western breakfast menu, but the Korean restaurant next door does not.

9. No waiting on hold
Customer service is seen as essential, and business hotline wait times are kept to an extreme minimum, with people getting angry if they are left on hold for more than three or four minutes. When I tell people that it isn’t uncommon in the States for you to be on hold for an hour or more when calling the cable company on the weekend, they simply cannot believe it. One Korean friend who used to live in New York City once called the Metro Transit Authority and hung up after being on hold for 20 minutes, thinking that it was impossible to be left unattended to for so long and so her phone must be broken.

10. Limited travel patience
Earlier today, my Korean girlfriend asked me how far Disney World is from where I grew up in Miami. I replied, “Oh, not that far … less than a four-hour drive.” She simply could not believe that I would call four hours away “not that far.” South Korea is a relatively small country, about the size of Indiana. Driving from one extreme end of the country to the other takes five hours. Even then, there’s still the option of high-speed rail, which will cut down your travel time to just three hours.

Be sure to check out the first list of Korean eccentricities here. As always, you can find more on Korean culture, food and eccentricities from previous Kimchi-ite posts here.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: Gyeongbokgung, Seoul’s Grandest Palace

The largest of the ancient palaces in the South Korean capital, Gyeongbok Palace is one of the best sights to see Seoul. The ornate buildings within the complex have amazing colors and contain poetic murals and carvings. The huge grounds are spectacular with calming ponds and modest pavilions. It is also one of the most historically significant sites in Korea, built in 1395 and destroyed twice by the Japanese. Best of all, it’s located right in the middle of the city in the downtown Jongno district.

Entering through its main gate, Gwanghwamun takes you into a large square where you can see a fantastic view of the beautiful backdrop of Bukhan Mountain. Inside this square, a musical changing of the guard ceremony is held every hour. Once inside the main complex, there are many amazingly restored palace buildings, each with something uniquely beautiful about them.
Gwanghwamun, the main entry gate to the palace and a symbol of Seoul.

The palace served as the seat of the Korean government during a time of prosperity. It’s a bit ridiculous how many different kinds of buildings and gates one king seemed to require: seven gates and 12 separate buildings.

The changing of the guard ceremony is held every hour.

The palace grounds are actually quite huge with a lot to offer. Wandering around can be very relaxing during off-peak times (non-holiday weekdays) and surprisingly informative given that there are two museums on site. Additionally, immediately behind the palace is the Blue House, the presidential residence. But if that’s too much productivity for you, there are plenty of picnic tables on which you can relax and enjoy all the beautiful trees.

The throne hall, seen here on a rare occasion when the palace is open at night.

Gyeongbok Palace is one of the best palaces to visit in Seoul and also one of the easiest to access. Simply take Seoul Subway Line 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station or the nearby Gwanghwamun Station on Line 5. Admission is cheap at 3,000 won (US $2.74), but keep in mind the palace is closed on Tuesdays. Best of all it’s walking distance from a lot of other amazing places, such as Chyeonggye Stream, the Bukchon Hanok Village and Seoul Plaza.

Children play on the palace grounds, a great place to see the trees change in fall.

For more on South Korean culture, food and eccentricities, check out more of “The Kimchi-ite” here!

[All photos by Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: The Korean Folk Village, A Perfect Escape From The City

Seoul and South Korea as a whole are undoubtably modern. But less than a century ago, much of what makes the country so modern today did not exist and people lived much more simply. Farming was by far the most common occupation and people lived in villages, not cities.

Having not left the city limits in months, it’s hard for me to comprehend a world without LTE service and Wi-Fi in the subway. I decided to escape from Seoul, with its omnipotent television screens beaming down on most intersections, to a more traditional location. The Yongin Korean Folk Village was the perfect choice for a quick escape from the city.

A period reenactor making “ppeong twigi,” puffed rice, a traditional Korean street food. “Ppeong” represents the sound of the contraption when making the snack; watch this video to hear for yourself.

Located in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, just an hour south of the city, it is very easily accessible from the center of Seoul. There are numerous folk villages all over Korea but this is one of the most popular and most fully realized.

A rock at the entrance of the village onto which people tie their messages and wishes, a common sight in ancient Korea.

The folk village is a fantastic look into historic Korea, with houses, food, scheduled musical performances and traditional ceremonies, all representing the different eras in Korean history.

A parade of dancing drummers commemorating the coming harvest. Further proof that Korean history has the best headgear.

The townsfolk staff walk around in period clothing and farm animals are on hand to show subsistence farming of the day. It’s a surprisingly large place; walking the perimeter of the village can take about an hour.

A Choga-jib, thatched roof house, representative of peasant houses in southern, warmer regions.

Being able to walk around the different styles of houses is immensely interesting. Different layouts and designs are used for different regions and classes of people. You can even play with some of the farm equipment used to make food such as rice cakes.

A traditionally themed 7-Eleven near the entrance of the Korean Folk Village acts as a suggestion not to take your trip inside too seriously.

It does have a bit of a tourist trap feel; the 7-11 with a traditional, Korean-tiled roof is one of the glaring examples – even though it is by far my favorite convenience store on the peninsula. In many ways a trip to the Korean Folk Village is a trip to a theme park trying to pass as a museum. But it’s a much better way to see Korean history than looking at miniatures and artists’ renditions, as you would do in a museum.

All smiles during a harvest ceremony in the Korean Folk Village.

The best way to get to the Yongin Korean Folk Village is to take Seoul Subway Line 1 to Suwon Station. Then, take exit 5 and once outside of the station you will find a tourist information office. There, you can get a ticket for a free shuttle bus that will take you directly to the Korean Folk Village. The staff is multi-lingual and can guide you to the bus stop in English, Korean, Chinese or Japanese.

Go back into “The Kimchi-ite” archives here for more on Korean culture, food and oddities.

[All photos by Jonathan Kramer]