Jjimjilbang; Donghae, South Korea

Tonight was my first true travel test. As I neared the train station in Donghae, after a three-hour ferry ride this morning from Japan to Korea, followed by seven hours on the train to Donghae, it was 10pm and I had no idea where I would sleep.

Approaching the train station, the outskirts of Donghae appeared to be totally lifeless. Rural Korea is interesting: many poor communities and small farms, probably rice or gingseng, with rickety wooden buildings and every once in a while a city worthy of a small black dot on the map. Nearing the station in Donghae, the farms were replaced with dark, empty roads.

I had heard of public bathhouses in Korea that also offer extremely affordable sleeping quarters, but unlike hostels that cater to travelers, these bathhouses are popular destinations for Korean families (and presumably friends). Spoiler alert: I found one, and they are called Jjimjilbang (sounds kind of like Jim-Jill-Bon, spoken quickly with no syllable stressed; it is important that you pronounce things correctly when speaking Korean, because each symbol has only one correct pronounciation, meaning unlike English and other languages, its native speakers are less inclined to understand when words are mispronounced, even if only slightly).

For 8,000 KRW ($7.17) I have unlimited access for tonight and tomorrow morning to spas, saunas, showers, sleeping quarters that include a sleeping pad and Korean-style pillow, a free toothbrush if I want one, toothpaste, other hygiene products, and clean sleeping clothes that are basically just baggy shorts and a baggy t-shirt. It is against the rules to wear your own clothes here. There are no blankets but the sleeping area is kept at what feels like about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I had to pay a whopping 2,000 KRW extra for 90 minutes of Internet, which is surprisingly slow considering that South Korea, reportedly, on average, has by far the fastest Internet speeds in the world. Zoom zoom.

None of the signs are in English, and there is no English spoken here. I am the only Westerner in the building, as far as I can tell. The Koreans here are either sleeping, bathing, or watching one of the communal TVs. One or two of them are keeping a curious and watchful eye on me.

The TV programs here are not as immediately entertaining as the insanely weird programming I saw in Japan last night (think dog tricks and hard hats, pornography so strange it is no longer sexual, cooking-slash-science shows with cartoon graphics and childish sound effects, and monotone overdubbed-in-English news reports on the Sumo wrestling match-fixing scandal currently threatening the integrity of a national pastime rooted not only in sport but also religion and culture.

Somehow I doubt the Koreans will be watching the Super Bowl when I wake up in the morning. Kickoff is about 7am local time. Right now it is a few minutes after midnight here in Donghae. Tomorrow afternoon I will take another ferry, only this time instead of three hours it'll be closer to 24, and I'll be docking in Vladivostok, Russia, where it is currently negative five degrees Celsius.