Traditional Korean bathhouses remain among the most popular recreational places here, but they rarely attract foreign visitors who may be confused by the etiquette of communal bathing.
But now Jodi Kantor, a former editor of New York Times' culture and travel section, has written up her experiences in the jjimjilbang as a way of gaining a more intimate glimpse of the country.
Under the headline "Korea Unmasked," Kantor writes, "Spas, bathhouses, saunas and cosmetics stores can be some of the best places to truly see [Korea], a country that is still figuring out how to share itself with foreigners."
For Kantor, the experience was an eye-opener. Getting her first Korean-style exfoliation treatment from a middle-aged women, Kantor recalls , "At one point my ajumma [auntie] shook me to open my eyes and pointed with apparent pride to gray lumps, bigger than rice grains, clinging to my arms. I wondered if they were one of the cutting-edge Korean skin care products I had heard so much about. No, they were clusters of my own dead skin cells."
She adds, "I was completely and passively in the care of an older woman, my skin was soft and new, and I was surrounded by a world I was only beginning to understand."
The sight of young women gently washing their mothers reflects "generational respect" rarely seen in the west, she says, while the cotton uniforms patrons must wear seem redolent of "Confucian conformity."
The public nature of the setup did not win her unqualified support, making washing in a jjimjilbang like "a bath at a mall." And sleeping patrons struck her as evidence of a society "so overworked that it switched from a six- to a five-day workweek only a decade ago."
The beauty salons of the affluent Gangnam area of southern Seoul also impressed her. "You can buy hand cream that warms your skin when you apply it... 'air cushion' compacts that apply foundation in the thinnest possible layers and face masks that contain ingredients from snake venom to ground-up bits of animal placenta," she wrote. She also got some eyelash extensions.
"The same service was available in New York, but it was far cheaper in Korea," she said. "I woke up endowed with a gift nature had never given me, amazed at what a little money and time could do."
No wonder she took some of these lotions and potions home for her friends, "some just for laughs."