Let’s Go Exploring! South Korea and Old Man Balls

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Wanderer emerged from the men’s side of the Jjimjilbang in a giant cloud of steam. “Oh God,” he said, shuttering. “So many dongs. Why so many old man dongs?”

Okay, let me back up a bit.

Why so many old man dongs? And what exactly is a Jjimjilbang?

Let me explain. To picture what a Jjimjilbang is, just close your eyes, and picture the most epic spa you can ever think of. Hot tubs galore, super jets, steam rooms, the works. Now, fill this amazing spa…with shrivelled, naked old men.

I realize that’s not exactly the BEST pitch for Jjimjilbang, but that’s how Wanderer described his side of the steam rooms. I, on the other hand, got to share the women’s rooms with a bunch of cute, naked, giggling, and did I mention NAKED Korean girls gossiping about their boyfriends. Regrettably, I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera, but I’m pretty sure I got the better deal.

Jjimjilbang are basically South Korea’s solution for stress-obliteration. With multiple floors of steam rooms, saunas, Jjimjilbang are so well equipped they even come with sleeping rooms, restaurants, and an entire arcade on the first floor! In Korea, spas aren’t places you go to relax for a measly hour or two. Most people spend the whole day there and sometimes even stay overnight. And unlike in the expensive spas we were used to, Jjimjilbang only cost around $10-12 CAD ($8-10 USD) per person for the whole day! You could spend the whole day there, relaxing and hopping from hot tub to hot tub, sauna to sauna until you turn into a blissful steam cloud. The only catch? Men and women have to be separated for the most part and be 100% butt naked.

This is why I found Wanderer all distressed-like over old man dongs when we met in the common sauna area.

“Too bad you’re not allowed on my side,” I said. “It’s like a never-ending wet t-shirt contest…except, you know, without the t-shirt.”

He responded with a long, hard glare at me.

“But your side is good too. It’s like being inside a massive pit of bouncy balls. Except, instead of bouncy balls, you have old man balls, and instead of endless joy, you have endless old man balls.”

“Hey…Shut up!”

And that’s the story of how South Korea simultaneous gave Wanderer the best and worst spa experience of his life.

I feel baaaaad…

As relaxing as the Jjimjilbang were, there were also things in Seoul, South Korea that were NOT so relaxing.

Like this constant reminder of the psychopath dictator living next door.

Gas masks in the subway.

Because South Korea has such a low crime rate and high standard of living, it’s easy to forget that technically, it’s still at war. In fact it’s been in a state of suspended war with North Korea for the past 50 years. No peace treaty has actually been signed. Both side just decided to stop fighting and have been in an uneasy truce ever since.

This is why there’s a strong US military presence in South Korea, and why there’s a an area along the border of North and South Korea called “the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)”.

And if you’re ever in South Korea, you can even take a tour of said zone. South Korean tour guides take you to the small, portable-like house which has South Korean soldiers on one side, and North Korean soldiers on the other. Understandably, you’re supposed to be on your best behaviour because literally the truce can be broken at any second and the soldiers could start shooting each other. You’ll also get to see a blue door across the room, which if you ever walk through it, you’ll be in North Korean territory, never to return.

With that kind of intro, how could I possibly say no? So the first thing we did when we arrived was try to book the DMZ tour, but as luck would have it, military drills were happening and tensions were increasing at the time, so we couldn’t.

You can imagine the slight level of unease I felt about the whole thing while we were there. Or at least that’s my excuse anyway. How else was I going to justify my around-the-clock gluttony as “stress-eating”?

And believe me stress eating in South Korea does have its benefits. Because during our time there, we basically ate everything that wasn’t nailed down:

Korean BBQ. The waiter even cooks and flips the meat for you!
Pork Bone Soup. One of my favourite foods of all time!
Spicy, chilled Korea noodle with radish and sesames.
Mango shaved ice dessert

And of course, no Korean meal would be complete without an obscene amount of Kimchi:

I realize this doesn’t look like much Kimchi at all, let alone an obscene amount, but in my defence, I was SUPPOSED to take this picture when the bowl was full, but somehow 90% of it disappeared into my face before I even got my camera out. Whatever. I regret nothing!

After feeling like I had meat coming out of my pores, I decided to work off some of those mountains of calories by doing some actual mountain climbing:

Plus, we also passed this awesome little coffee shop on our way there. Something about the way they market really speaks to me.

It says “No smoothies, no beer, just shut up and take coffee!”

So after a long, hard day of eating and hiking, I decided it was time to go back to the Jjimjilbang for more relaxing. Also, Wanderer looked like he could use more old man balls…

Here’s how much we spent in Seoul, South Korea:

CategoryCost in CAD/coupleNotes
Accommodations:$45/nightWe stayed in the trendy area of Myeongdong in downtown Seoul, so this was actually a steal for the location. The place was a hostel which offered private rooms with private bathrooms and breakfast was also included. Hotels would've easily cost $80-100 CAD.
Food:$37/day$34 for eating out, $3 for groceries (mostly alcohol). I'm pretty obsessed with Korean food so we didn't do any cooking the whole time we were there. Alcohol was super cheap at only $2 for an entire bottle of Soju (Korean rice wine).  
Transportation:$20/dayThis includes the $109 CAD per person flights to Korea from Japan on Peach airlines. Other than that, the cost to get around the city via subway is only around $3-4 CAD/person a day if you're staying downtown.
Entertainment:$7Just like other parts of Asia, most of our entertainment was eating out
Total:$109 CAD/couple/day ($81 USD/couple/day).

Overall, in terms of cost, Seoul ended up being less expensive than Japan but more expensive than South East Asia. I suspected if we had stayed longer and in a less expensive part of the country, our cost would’ve been much lower. Overall, we really enjoyed South Korea (mostly for the Jjimjilbangs, mountain hiking, and food!) and for the life of me, I can’t find anything remotely Jjimjilbang-like outside of South Korea. Why can’t we have $10 all day spas in Canada? Why? Why?

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49 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! South Korea and Old Man Balls”

  1. “So many dongs. Why so many old man dongs?” – Hahaha. Now you can imagine what a Russian sauna looks like. It’s almost the same as Korean but in addition to steam there are old and sometimes young people who’re lashing you with a “banya broom” (Google it)

    Nice read, always wanted to go to Korea. Thanks a lot FIRECracker.

    1. ha ha…”in Soviet Russia”…

      They actually beat your with a broom?! Hilarious. I never knew beatings and relaxation went so well together. “RELAX! I SAID RELAX DAMN IT! IF YOU NOT RELAX, YOU WILL BE EXECUTE!”

      1. Yep, they actually beat with a wet broom. And by them I mean old naked men, you know… with bouncy balls. But the weirdest part is (that’s gonna be so shameful) it’s actually quite relaxing 🙂

  2. Okay, those were the funniest pics I’ve seen of Wanderer EVER.

    Although old man dongs need steam, too.

    That sounds bad. What I mean is, old and wrinkly people should be able to reap the benefits of Jjimjilbangs. I agree that the cute and naked side sounds more fun, though!
    Guess which side I’m heading for?

    We’ve booked a family trip to Taiwan in November! Keep the Asian posts coming! Love you two.

    1. Yeah, being a girl rocks when you’re in a Jjimjilbang.

      Enjoy your trip to Taiwan! I want to hear all about it when you’re back 🙂

  3. There is a jimjilbang bear my house in Southern California. I need to get out of the rat race so I can live there. I’ve only been able to go once!

      1. Hope you guys had a great time here!
        Hmm.. Myeongdong is just tourist area where shops and restaurants over charges twice as much to foreigners for mediocre food and goods along with Insadong(food and site seeing wise better than Myeongdong though) Not many Koreans go there and hanging around there unless they are teenagers or early 20s who wants to be in crowd shopping area.
        I wouldn’t recommend Myeongdong to anyone who wants visiting Seoul.

        Also JJB is not a popular place in Korea anymore. Maybe 15-17 years ago when I was in Uni. I think since then at least 70% of them were closed due to lack of customer.

  4. Hilarious post. I’ve never considered going to South Korea, but after seeing this it’s on my list!

  5. The flight ticket price between Korea and Japan sounds like a really good deal. It would definitely worth visiting the two countries during a longer trip. I wanna get FIRE-d now!!!

    1. Yea, I was surprised how many good deals we were able to find on Peach Airlines. Once you get FIRE-d, Japan and Korea would definitely be good places to visit.

  6. “So many old man dongs” – thought this was going to be an article on Vietnam with a fun play on the name of the currency. Turns out it was Wanderer getting the short end of the stick.

  7. You visited my motherland!

    Sounds like you guys had a blast. We have Jjimjilbangs here in the US too. I’m not sure about Canada. I frequent my local Jjimjilbang about once a month. We have them here in Los Angeles / Orange County California, because we have a pretty sizeable Korean population. I haven’t been to Korea in a few years. Your post brings me back some fond memories. I should go back and visit again with the wife and kid.

    1. Tim, your motherland rocks!

      How awesome that you guys have Jjimjilbangs in the States! How much do they cost to visit? And can you stay for the whole day?

      1. Once a month I go to a Korean Sauna, in my area it costs me $20 for the whole day. But I live in San Francisco Area where everything is freaking expensive, even the air we are inhaling.

  8. Love this post on South Korea, FIRECracker!

    We did a similar trip to yours in March/April – Japan first, then flew to Seoul on Peach. While our flights were 2X the cost of yours (maybe because it was cherry blossom season?), the rest of our trip was affordable like yours. We stayed in Yongsan and also had the opportunity to visit the DMZ (but not the JSA, unfortunately). While I was waxing poetic about being surrounded by my favourite Korean dramas stars everywhere (Hallyu is next level stuff in Korea), my boyfriend really enjoyed learning more about the Korean war history. Wish I had visited a spa while over there, probably next time.

    You are bang-on about that slight unease you feel as there are subtle hints everywhere that the country is still at war not matter how safe you feel navigating the city. Great recap as always!

    1. Thanks, Christina!

      Yeah, if you were there during cherry blossom season, the flight prices would definitely double. Ditto with hotels. I’m glad the rest of your trip was affordable though.

      Very cool that you guys had a chance to visit DMZ! The uneasiness is real…that’s probably why travel sites refer to it was one of the scariest tourist attractions. Didn’t get to go, but maybe next time.

      1. LOL. I like Asian food, but I have just one rule about it.

        Don’t tell me what is prepared from and I’ll be fine. Last year I was on a business trip in Chengdu, China and ate pretty delicious meat with rice. And only I was done my local colleagues told me it was made from a rat.

        1. Ha, too funny. I’m just the opposite. I want to know exactly what the dish was prepared with. My better half is Asian, so we eat some incredible Asian food fairly regularly. It never ceases to amaze me how willing my wife is to eat Asian dishes without having any idea what the ingredients are.

          Wife: I want to get the Lions head meatball.
          Me: OK, what’s it made with?
          Wife: I don’t know honey, it’s just a meatball (as if somehow that makes it OK regardless)

          I’m pretty adventurous with my food, perhaps even more so than my wife. But I still prefer to know what I’m consuming.

  9. Heh. Going to the hot springs in Taiwan was funny in a similar way, with the added humour that not being Asian and entirely hairless, and not speaking Mandarin, I had a bunch of middle aged to elderly Chinese men watching me closely. 😛

    1. Ha ha, sounds like a fantastic time! My friend (who is African American) went to a Japanese onsen and got giggles and stares the whole time. Ahh, the joys of being butt naked in a foreign spa…

  10. They have one of these spas in Los Angeles! And the bottom floor/basement is a bunch of pools with rave lights/disco balls/a bar/DJ.

    1. Man, if I had known that, I would’ve gone the last time we visited Wanderer’s cousin in LA. Will file that away for next time.

  11. I think Japan has something similar to Jjimjilbang. Both the elementary school and high school I went to offered Japanese programs so I’ve had 5 different teachers who have taught english in Japan when they were younger and then went on to teach Japanese in Canada when they came back. Most of them mentioned the public bath houses in Japan and how people would go nude and it was men in one room and women in another. It was also mentioned a lot in the Japanese text books and I’ve seen them in video games so I guess it’s a pretty big part of Japanese culture or at least used to be. I’ve never been to either country personally so I don’t know how the bath houses/spas compare.

    1. The Japanese ones are called Onsen’s I believe. I went to one in Japan, but it was on the small side and didn’t have the epic 8 floors that the Korean spas had. Was still pretty nice and relaxing though. Especially since one of the Japanese grannies laughed at me, told me that I wasn’t washing myself properly and showed me how it was done.

      Bathhouse culture seems to be way more prevalent in Asia and Eastern Europe than the Americas.

  12. Hilarious as always FireCracker!

    All this talk of old man dongs has reminded me of my bathing experiences in Japan. I still have the mental scars.

    Japan has several levels of “bath experience” as another commenter mentioned. They have a traditional “bathhouse”, which is probably similar to Jjimjilbang. It’s pretty affordable.

    Onsen are a bit more “high class”. The more “natural” the experience the better. Many onsen are even outside. They typically involve a hotel room, and a nice Japanese meal delivered to your room by somebody’s Grandma. You can sometimes purchase time at an onsen without a hotel room, but it’s probably not as cheap as a Jjimjilbang.

    You can even get private onsen if that’s your thing. Fewer old man dongs that way. Wanderer might appreciate this.

    Ryokan-type onsen are the very “upper crust” of the Japanese bathing experience. Usually it’s a very traditional affair, involving yukata, a room for the night (you’ll sleep on tatami), and a very good meal … taken to the extreme. Definitely not a cheap experience, but a very Japanese one.

    1. Good to know! I’ll remember that the next time we’re in Japan. No deal on the private onsen though. I enjoy watching Wanderer squirm too much 🙂

  13. Lol, Wanderer got the jjimjilbang towel bun down, he’s pretty much a local now.

    Such a timely post, on a 2 week vacation in Korea. Great place to hike, eat and drink. I’ll stay away from the jjimjilbang though 🙂

      1. Skipping DMZ, appease the worried parent:) Currently hiking in seoraksan, it’s like the famous national park and then to Pusan for seafood.

        Thanks to your blog, I think I will be FIRE’d in less than 2 years. Love the mix of finance, travel and behavioral economics.

  14. I would totally be down with hanging out in a spa all day… especially at that price. Old man balls be damned. Please tell me they let you bring beer in.

  15. The jjimjilbags sounds like Iceland’s sundlags. They are Iceland’s local less-touristy version of the blue lagoon. You pay about $3 to enter, everyone is required to shower before entering in a communal shower, and you enter the sundlaug. Which is basically multiple natural hot tubs of varying hot temperatures. You can stay for hours and hop from tub to tub, and some sudlaugs also have steam rooms and saunas. When leaving you are again required to shower in the communal area.

    We car-camped across Iceland for 3 weeks for free and this was our daily “shower”. No matter how small the tiny Icelandic village, they will always have a sundlaug. It was amazing!!!

    1. Did not know about Iceland’s sundlags! That’s awesome. I always thought Iceland was hella expensive and had no idea there were ways to get deals. Thanks so much for sharing this. If we end up going to Iceland in the future, we’ll definitely go to a sundlaug.

  16. Thank you for posting this one! I hope you enjoyed my motherland. The having to skip DMZ was a stinky part but at least Wanderer got to experience Korean old men balls so that’ll do lol

    p.s. the sign in front of cafe says “no additives, no impurities, shut up & take coffee 😉

    1. Damn, I totally misread the Korean in the coffee shop sign! Oh well, I still think my imagined version is funnier…

  17. I love your blog. It is very inspirational and I am getting ideas for when we plan to reach FI status in a couple of years. I have been going through the let’s go exploring series and I was wondering if there is a way to get to the next article in the series somewhere at the bottom of the page?

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