Define jimjilbang: A Korean day spa / sauna / public bathhouse, often open 24 hours a day with separate places to sleep, relax, soak in hot water, sit in a sauna, and so on.
Visiting a jimjilbang has become one of my favorite ways to relax, especially after having dealt with kids or the insanity of living in a country far from home. A jimjilbang is essentially an all-you-can-use bathhouse / sauna / day spa, with a base admission fee and plenty of extra services to pamper yourself for the whole day. Your goal, of course, is simply to relax and enjoy the amenities you’ve paid for.
The jimjilbang I visited was the Dragon Hill Spa (website in Korean) in Yongsan – just a couple hundred meters away from the Yongsan Station, and convenient to almost anywhere in Seoul. I’m sure I’ll visit other jimjilbang in the future, but this one is close enough for the occasional visit I’ll make. Before leaving, I packed a small bag with the essentials: toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, razor, deoderant, and body wash. If planning to stay overnight, a change of clothes is nice as well =)
I’ll note that most jimjilbangs operate pretty similiarly – what differs is the fun stuff inside. They should all have hot tubs / jacuzzis, lockers, and so on. They may not all have the fun toys or a huge amount of space, but read on anyway.
At the front desk you pay the admission fee (10,000 won if you arrive before 8pm, 12,000 after 8pm), then receive a set of gray shirts and shorts (like bowling shoes, you’re expected to use them for the day / night, not keep them!) and a key / fob bracelet. The key unlocks a small locker for your shoes and a larger locker (later on) for the rest of the stuff. The fob part of your bracelet allows you to charge almost any expense throughout the building (you’ll pay your bill when you leave). The bracelet is waterproof / heatproof, and is really the only thing you’ll need to carry around while exploring the jimjilbang.
This particular jimjilbang has a seperate floor for men and women, although the first floor has more than enough stuff to do later on. We’ll get to that in a second. For right now, I headed up to the fifth floor and began to relax. From here, I suppose I discovered a little step-by-step action helped me get the most out of my trip:
Step 1: Make your way to the floor for your gender. Open your locker and put all your stuff in there. Keep your razor and other stuff handy, as you’ll be using that stuff first.
Step 2: Strip to your birthday suit. This is probably the hardest part for the majority of foreigners. Relax – you can do it! Be comfortable in your own skin. Look around – you’ll probably see a number of nude Koreans walking around or watching TV. If that’s just a little too uncomfortable at this point, change into your shorts and shirt while you get ready to shower. Lock locker.
Step 3: Find the sink and counter near the showers and jacuzzis. Shave, brush your teeth, wash your face, and so on.
Step 4: If you’re still wearing clothes, now is the time to shed them to take a shower in the shower area. This is not an option – there’s no signs anywhere that say you must, but it’s one part of the culture that no one breaks. Grab one of the long white washcloth-looking towels to really scrub yourself down with soap or body wash. Your goal is to be as clean as possible before entering the hot tubs .
Step 5: Choose between the many different types of baths. On the men’s side of things there are 5 hot baths of various temperatures and a cold bath for helping with circulation. Try jumping out of the hot tub for a quick dip in the cold tub! Observe your fellow Koreans – and try not to stare. If you’ve been in Korea for any length of time, you know how to handle people staring at you or noticing the fact that you’re different. You’ll probably observe a few Koreans noticing what they can’t see in public. Try not to be offended – it’s merely a curious thing.
Step 6: Get out of one tub and into another. Lather, rinse, repeat (OK, don’t actually lather, but you get the idea). In other words, you’re at liberty to go from one tub of water to another as many times as you’d like. If you’re meeting your opposite-gendered friend downstairs, an hour or so is usually a decent amount of time to put your stuff away, shower, and enjoy the hot tubs before meeting in a unisex area. If you’re in no hurry, enjoy the scenery and differences between each room with a jacuzzi in it – they’re all different. If you’ve heard about a body scrub, you can likely get one in the same area. Offered by a Korean of the same gender as you, they’ll take a long towel and literally scrub your body – the way you might scrub a stubborn pot or pan. It’s abrasive and (if it’s done right) hurts like hell – but you leave feeling a kilogram lighter with the smoothest skin you’ve ever had. The cost here was 15,000 won.
Step 7: When you get tired or bored of hot water, dry off and get dressed in your shorts and shirt. Grab an extra towel for later, and don’t forget your key / fob bracelet before heading down the elevator to the first floor (the unisex floor). From here, the world is your oyster. Pick a sauna to sweat in, check out the Orchid Spa to get pampered (Sports Massage, Thai Massage, Stone Massage, Nail Art, and much more), get a very good back rub from the massage chairs against the wall (10 minutes for 2,000 won, about $1.37 at posting time) or just sit and watch TV. You’ll notice more than a few couples about – it’s pretty popular for the cute couples to visit the saunas together and so on.
Step 8: With at least 8 different saunas (and one cold room!), you’ll be missing out if you don’t give at least one or two a try. Explore, compare, and contrast. Three of the saunas (low, medium, and high temperatures) are built out of bricks in a dome – it almost feels like you’re a pizza being cooked if you look up while laying down. A couple others look like Egyptian pyramids – and they smell great too. Allow yourself to sweat a little – it’s good for you – but be safe about it!
Step 9: Go back to the jacuzzis for some more hot water and back again to the sauna to sweat some more. Lather, rinse, repeat (but again, don’t lather!) until you get tired or bored. If you’re staying overnight, at some point you’ll want to grab a yellow foam pad / pillow and lay down. That’s right, you sleep on the floor. Wait, this isn’t the Hilton?! Nope – sleeping accommodations are literally a spot on the floor with a pad for a pillow. Tip: if you’re not used to sleeping on the floor or a very hard unforgiving surface, put a second pad under the small of your back. Experiment a little to find something that will work. Step 10: When it’s time to leave, gather your things from your locker, throw your shorts and shirt in a hamper, and make your way back down to the first floor. Give the Korean your key / fob bracelet, and they’ll tell you how much extra (if anything) you owe. If you bought anything using that fun wireless fob thing, now’s the time to pay up.A jimjilbang is simply a wonderful experience to pamper yourself, without spending too much money in the process. I’ll probably go back around once a month as my schedule allows – to really enjoy and explore you need at least a few hours. Fellow readers, if you’ve gone to another jimjilbang, how did you like it? Good / bad / ugly? I’d love to hear recommendations for other jimjilbang.To get to Dragon Spa, take Seoul subway line 1 to the Yongsan Station. Walk out exit 1, then go straight and down the escalator. Turn right and walk for about 250 meters, then cross a side street that leads into the parking garage for the station. Look for the big ’24’, the big clock, and virtually the only English you can see – it should be right in front of you. Bear left and walk along the board-and-stone floor until you arrive.