By a 3WM contributor
Quite quickly upon arriving in Korea the average foreigner is exposed to a great number of unique cultural pastimes — among the most indulgent of which is the “jimjilbang”. From reading tourist materials and speaking with a local Korean friend, the foreigner can quickly elucidate a mental image of one such place — a large scale spa and sauna that would rival a Roman bath for variety of pools, rooms and relaxation services. Having not visited a jimjilbang myself, I was recently given the opportunity to finally partake in the experience first hand. It was an easy decision to make at the time, owing to the fact that I had just come off a drinking binge that had whisked me into the wee hours of the morning, and the 10,000 won fee was less than what my cab ride home would cost. Decision agreed upon, my (flagrantly) gay friend and I stumbled out of the grateful bar that we had been stewing in for the past several hours, and headed off to the closest and most salient jimjilbang in the Itaewon area: The Hamilton Hotel Jimjilbang.
Upon walking down the flight of stairs and into the reception, one gets the impression of a subdued swimming pool — locker rooms replete with linoleum floors and faux wood accents, complimentary towels, aftershave and showers for rinsing off before getting into the water. Upon entering the actual bathing area the sensory input can only be described as muted – with the exception of the heat of course. If you were to imagine that you were captured by a tribe of soup-loving cannibalistic liberals that believed in free-range meat, this is what it would look like. Some of the pools were so hot that I think some of the (brave) men bathing in them were secretly only in there because there pockets were full of potatoes and they were trying to cut down on their gas bill. My friend and I found a happy medium alternating between the mid-temperature pool and the mid-level sauna (the hottest sauna being so hot that I actually received a minor burn from the metal door frame).
A good 40 minutes or so of relaxing in the pristine waters and complimenting Korean culture for having such enjoyable facilities where two friends can relax in the nude without any social stigma, we were both ready to turn in, and by turn in I mean retire to the communal sleeping quarters in the sauna. So, after showering up, we both stumbled upstairs to the sleeping quarter- what amounted to a loft with 5ft ceilings that was for all but a few cracks of light, pitch black. This loft appeared to be inhabited by snoring drunken old men; so taking a leaf out of their books, I hunkered down on the floor with a small pillow and tried to join them in the chorus of laboured respiration and general unconsciousness. This endeavour would perhaps have been more successful had it not been for the conspiratorial hand that began to touch my penis. My first thought was that my gay friend had flipped his lid and was attempting to persuade me of his point of view of romance, but as my eyes focused on the owner of the wrist I had just slapped, I realized I was looking at a Korean man in his thirties – average build, conservative haircut, and completely and utterly naked, save for the impressive plume of pubic hair that appears to be the “in thing” for Korean males as far as genital fashion goes. I fumbled a few phrases I knew to approximate negation (“no, not, cannot”) and turned over hoping that we could put the small infraction behind us and go back to being amicable slumbering drunks. Appreciate my disappointment when my new acquaintance began nuzzling closer to me. Calling upon my years of waking up with an erection and silently lobbying a reluctant girlfriend for sex, I came to the conclusion that by him slowly trying to spoon me, he was in fact trying to gay seduce me. I once again turned around and fumbled some Korean that I hoped meant “really, no thanks”. Then, a wickedly clever idea struck me. I pointed to the outline of my friend and said “Chingu, neh” – friend yes. The gay gentleman caller seemed to immediately understand my suggestion and moved across the floor to my friend. I lay back rather proud of myself, having managed to divert this stranger’s unwanted advances towards a more receptive vessel for his lust. After a few minutes of peace; however, the amorous man was back again with his cheeky advances. At this point there was no cultural goodwill to be salvaged, nor witty anecdote to glean. Fuck this, I was out of there. Upon discussion of the incident with my friend, he blithely mentioned: “I guess those rumours on the Internet were true after all” — I to this day cannot decide whether he knew what to expect or not, but I do know he enjoyed himself just by looking at the glimmer in his eyes as we left the building.
The whole experience left me with many feelings. First and foremost of which was that I was a very attractive young man (at least to one gay Korean). I was also left with many questions. Was I simply a naive foreigner? Perhaps, but I wonder just how much the Hamilton Hotel management knows of these goings on. Is this a well known cruising spot in the gay community? And I think most importantly: is there a straight equivalent somewhere in this fascinating city? Too many questions really, but what I can say with certainty is that I will never again go into a Korean style spa without a little more suspicion of the friendly local offering to scrub my back in the shower.