I was told about these saunas that are like bathhouses and apparently they are everywhere in Korea. [I was told] HOT guys shower together, and rub each other in the shower. Is this true? How far EXACTLY do they go?
What's the type of legality on this, and as a foreigner with a large carriage, can I participate?
I remember reading about these places before coming to Korea and in my handbook, it referred to them as "bathhouses". Of course, bathhouses in the West are known for their popularity among gay/bi/curious cruisers, so I was a bit confused. In fact, if you type "bathhouses" into Google, the first result is a Wikipedia article on Gay Bathhouses. For the most part, the bathhouses, saunas or Jjimjilbang in Korea are, for the most part NOT cruising sites and certainly wouldn't be friendly to someone who tried to make them that way. I recommend reading Galbijims write-up on these saunas. It'll help you get a good feel for what's actually going on in these widely popular establishments.
I am not the biggest fan of the saunas in Korea. First of all, I don't like being hot for any period of time and throw that in with the high level of interest that foreign men (I can't speak for women) get when they enter these facilities, it makes for more stress than relief. However, I have a lot of friends who really enjoy it. In my experience, an overwhelming majority of the men in the saunas are older. Maybe it was the location I chose, but I didn't see many "hot guys" in there. Even if there were, it wouldn't make a difference. Cleanliness and relaxation are the goals, not sex or rubbernecking.
In fact, these places are viewed in such a non-sexual light that there was a recent television commercial innocently showing toddlers washing each other in what was supposed to be a public shower. I was shocked when I first saw it, but my Korean wife didn't think there was anything odd about it. She thought it was cute. There's also a popular Korean comedy show which takes place in a sauna. They sing, dance and play games.
There are some things that happen in Korea (just like any country) that simply don't make sense to me, but makes perfect sense to Koreans. A couple years ago, a few Korean friends and I were at a park and we saw two teenage boys massaging and rubbing each other. I assumed that they were gay and made a comment about it. My friends rejected my interpretation and claimed that the boys were helping each other relieve stress because high-school life in Korea can be very demanding. It doesn't matter why they were doing it though. The point was that many Koreans, unlike myself -an American, don't automatically assume that something is sexual or related to sexuality.
Take this for instance: I know many Koreans who semi-regularly visit the saunas with their parents and/or children and all of them routinely wash each others backs. When I first heard of people doing this, I was a little grossed out. I mean, imagining myself in such a situation with my father is almost enough to cause nausea, but it is viewed as a perfectly normal and perhaps even a bonding experience among our Korean brethren.
So, by all means go and enjoy the many saunas of the nation, but understand that nearly all of them have zero tolerance for sexual activity. If you start rubbing another man for any reason other than cleaning, I imagine a fist might be coming your way. I do think it would be a funny dare though.
Still, there are some places where you can go if you're looking for a place to cruise or find a little action. The highest concentration of LGBT bars and clubs reside in Jongno, Hongdae and Itaewon, so the gay saunas tend to be in and around those districts. Utopia Asia has a lot of information on gay culture and hotspots in Korea and they have an interesting page on gay saunas as well. Make sure to take a look at what it has to offer, but I want to use a couple comments from the site.
"Went to Mun Hwa last Sat nite around 1:30am...Man, it was full. It's a good place for people who are into older men of 30+...I had a good time. Just lie down and guys will be on you in no time. They don't play safe, so carry lube and condoms...The sauna was filthy and so were the toilets."
"If you enter Bosuk, you will feel like you are in a regular straight sauna, and it probably is...until you go to the sleeping area. You will get to see some action, although quite discreet. Normally at the 1/F sleeping area or in the hidden corner on 2/F. Just lay down and pretty soon someone will lay next to you, although I don't see how things can go far here as there are many straight people sleeping as well! BTW, no foreigners here, so you can get very spotlighted."
Two totally different takes on the scene. I'm sure after visiting a few places, one would understand the system a little bit more, but what it sounds like is that very few of the places are advertised as "Gay Saunas". As the other posters on that site mentioned, you must be discreet since there is a mix of straight men sleeping and gay/bi men cruising. You might be able to find a place with private rooms, but I think most places are going to offer public sleeping rooms which are frequently checked by staff. Again, South Korea does not have any laws against homosexuality (aside from military service), so the staff is not looking for criminals. They're just trying to keep their sauna from becoming a hotspot for such activity.
I also found it interesting that so many people claimed that Korean men didn't carry or use protection. For a nation that spends a lot of time telling its people that foreigners have AIDS, I would think that having unprotected sex in bathhouses with foreigners would be unheard of. Then again, contraception in Korea is an interesting topic unto itself.
So, ultimately, you are not going to be walking into a shower or sauna full of young, "hot guys". From what most of the comments over at Utopia said, you'll most likely be walking into a dark, quiet sleeping room full of older men that may or may not be willing to give a big foreigner a chance. Now, I'm sure there are some hidden places in Itaewon that will work just fine for you, but I think it's better to paint the sauna scene is Korea as a very non-sexual one that is for cleaning and relaxing, rather than romance and cruising.
Like my last post on gay behavior in Korea, I hope that some readers might be able to add their thoughts. They were quite valuable last time.