At the end of one year and the beginning of another, there are a few rituals that come to mind for many Koreans. One such seasonal ritual is visiting a public bathhouse for a hot bath and a thorough scrubbing.
Visiting bathhouses was common in the 1970s and ’80s when many Korean households were not well-equipped with bathroom facilities.
Today, people can take a shower anytime they want at home, but many people still visit public bathhouses, especially around this time of the year. At public bathhouses they get their bodies polished from head to toe by scrub masters and mistresses, who usually wear black underwear while they work and remove layers of dead skin using coarse towels.
This service is called sesin and it is available at any public bathhouse and sauna, or jjimjilbang.
Nobody knows when Koreans began scouring away dead skin using so-called Italy towels, but it is estimated that the practice started to catch on in the ’70s when public bathhouses began to pop up all over the nation.
Italy towels have nothing to do with Italy, but it is assumed the towels got their name because the sandpaper-like fabric was originally imported from Italy.
Many occupations from the ’70s and ’80s such as bus attendants, telephone operators and typists have disappeared, but sesinsa, or the people who perform sesin, are still around today.
About 30,000 sesinsa are working in Korea, according to industry sources.
The job used to be not taken seriously. Even those who repaired the boilers at bathhouses or shined shoes in stalls at the front of bathhouses sometimes performed the task of scrubbing customers. But the job gained official recognition by the government in 1993 when it was listed as one of the available types of jobs in Korea.
Private institutes that teach the skills of body massage and exfoliation began to open one after another in the mid-1990s.
It costs about 1.2 million won ($1,025) to complete such a course, but people are willing to pay because the sesin job pays well.
For instance, in the ’70s public bathhouse admission was 500 won and the price for a single session of sesin, which lasts about 40 minutes, was between 1,000 won and 2,000 won.
Today, the price of sesin has gone up to 25,000 won.
“We used to say you could buy a house if you do sesin for two years, and you could buy a small building if you do it for five years. We still earn on average of 3 million won per month,” said a professional sesinsa who wanted to remain anonymous.
Many people in the industry refused to be identified for this story because they think their jobs would embarrass their families.
But they say this is the best job for those who want to start a second chapter in life, because the requirements for becoming a good sesinsa are not diplomas but “physical strength and guts.”
The rental fee for a single scrubbing bed varies depending on the location of the bathhouse, but the deposit at a small public bathhouse located in a residential area starts from 2 million won. The deposit can be as much as 100 million won if the sauna or bathhouse is in a trendy neighborhood with a large floating population, such as Gangnam District, southern Seoul.
And winter is the perfect season to visit a bathhouse and soak in the hot water.
You can simply scrub yourself and give a helping hand to a stranger, then the stranger will scrub your back. Or you could resort to the professionals for a thorough cleaning.
Below is a list of bathhouses and saunas that have the most skillful scrubbers.
BY YANG BO-RA [firstname.lastname@example.org]