I was naked, yet I felt no shame. After emerging from a HOT hot tub, I cooled off by jumping into a tub of cold water – it’s great for the circulation. Quick! Jump back into the hot tub to really get your blood moving. Put some clothes on, then head into a dry sauna guaranteed to make you sweat. Welcome to the jimjilbang – a bathing experience unlike any other.
Not all public baths are created equal. Enter a 목욕탕 (mok-yok-tang) and you’ll find little more than bathing areas. A 사우나 (sa-u-na) will offer saunas / steam rooms as well as the bathing experience. A 찜진방 (jjim-jil-bang) earns top marks for offering bathing areas, saunas, as well as common areas for snacking, watching TV, napping, or any number of other things. Some are open 24 hours (look for the 24 시 on the sign), which enables overnight stays and a cheap place to rest your head.
A step-by-step list to help you get the most for your time and money:
Step 1: pay the entrance fee at the front desk, then receive a key fob on a bracelet and some clothes to wear while in the common areas. In some jimjilbang, the fob part allows you to charge almost any expense throughout the building (you’ll pay your bill when you leave). Make your way to the shoe lockers to lock your shoes up, then to the bathing area for your gender. Open your locker and put all your stuff in there. Keep your bag handy (see sidebar), as you’ll be using that stuff first.
What should I bring with me?
Technically speaking, you don’t have to bring anything with you at all. A jimjilbang will provide the generic-brand necessities, but will charge a nominal fee for anything extra. If you have a favorite brand of razor or skin lotion, you’re better off bringing that with you. My personal jimjilbang kit (kept in a small, waterproof bag) has the following:
- Shaving cream
A number of things are provided by the jimjilbang, but of course you’re free to use your own – aftershave, combs, hair gel and lotion fall into this category. The supplies proffered by the jimjilbang are usually a generic brand, so if you have a favorite, bring it with you.
Step 2: Strip to your birthday suit. This is probably the hardest part for the majority of foreigners. Relax, and be comfortable in your own skin. Look around – you’ll probably see a number of nude Koreans walking around or watching TV. Put your clothes in your locker, then lock it. Bring your key and bag, and walk to the bathing area. Grab one of the long washcloths before entering the bathing area.
Step 3: Take a shower before hopping in a bath! While there may or may not be signs posted, it’s one custom that everyone seems to know. Whether you choose to stand or sit, the showers are there for cleaning – the baths are there for relaxing for soaking. Shave and brush your teeth while showering, or save it for later if you like.
Step 4: Once you’re clean, choose a bathtub to try – there’s usually several of various temperatures. Try jumping out of the hot tub for a quick dip in the cold tub! Going from hot to cold and back again is considered good for your circulation.
Is a ‘body scrub’ what I think it is?
If you’ve heard about a body scrub, most jimjilbang offer them in the bathing area. Offered by an same-gendered attendant, they’ll take an abrasive washcloth and literally scrub your body – the way you might scrub a stubborn pot or pan. They take pride in removing every last dead skin cell, although it will be somewhat abrasive. While you will be naked, the attendants don’t handle any private areas; in the end, you leave feeling a kilogram lighter with the smoothest skin you’ve ever had. The cost is cheap – around 15,000 won – and can be combined with a massage for some more relaxation.
Step 5: Once you’ve had enough of the water, change into the t-shirt and shorts provided, grab a towel or two, and venture into the common area. If you came with someone of the opposite gender, planning to meet in the common area is a good idea. Enjoy any of the dry saunas, sometimes scented or promoted as ‘well-being’, or get a massage. Some jimjilbang have restaurants, elaborate massage chairs, PC bang, and nail salons available for extra fees. In some cases your key fob will serve as a payment device – just pay your tab when you leave for the day – but bring some cash with you just in case.
How do the Koreans get their towels into that Princess Leia look?
Often used for drying their hair, the bun or ‘Princess Leia’ look is easier than you think. Fold your towel into thirds lengthwise, then roll up each end about 3-4 times towards the center – the same way you might roll up jeans. Leave a head-sized space in the middle for your cranium. It takes a little practice to get it right, but you’ll get it after a few tries. This look is almost always seen on ladies only – men might tie a towel around their head karate-kid style.
Step 6: When you’re ready to check out, change back into your street clothes and head for the exit. Locate your shoes, then pay your tab (if you accrued one). Walk away feeling clean and perhaps a little healthier.
One of my favorites – and one of the first found by many expats and tourists in Korea – is the Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan:
Dragon Hill Spa – one of, if not the, most well known spas in Korea. Look in the stairwells for dozens of autographed pictures from Korean celebrities enjoying their stay. A five minute walk from Yongsan’s subway and train station, Dragon Hill offers multiple floors of their large building for each gender’s private use. Check out the massage area – sports, Thai, and stone massage are just a few offerings. Don’t forget about the heated outdoor pool and the Korean restaurant. Open 24 hours. (02) 797-0002, www.dragonhillspa.co.kr (limited English)
In Seoul, Yongsan Station, line 1, exit 1. Go down the escalator, then turn right and walk for about 250 meters, then cross the street. Look for the big clock – it should be right in front of you. Walk along the board-and-stone floor until you arrive. Admission: 10,000 won during weekdays, 12,000 won during weekends, overnight stays, and holidays.
Don’t knock a place like Wolgok Land (월곡건강랜드) just because it’s far off the tourist track. With modern facilities, plenty of room, and some English signage, this place wins the ‘most variety’ award. In addition to the plentiful saunas and multiple ice rooms, there’s a salt room to lay down in, a phytoncide room (산림욕방, or a slightly humid room) and a Loess oxygen room to breathe deeply in.
If you prefer just laying on the floor to relax, there’s ample room for that. Get started with a cold bath, a warm hinoki-style bath, a warm massage bath, and three ‘wet’ saunas. Since it’s off the beaten path, you’re unlikely to see other foreigners — except the ones you came with, of course.
If you’re looking to take the heat, this room rocks. It’s actually a salt room (소금찜질방), with bag of salt crystals for ‘pillows’. Head up to the fourth floor for this and some good massage chairs.
Go up to the fifth floor for cave-like sleeping rooms (separated for men and women) and a large fitness center (extra fee). One of the ice rooms is also up here. Put simply, there’s enough here to keep you busy an entire afternoon or evening. Open 24 hours, 7,000 won standard admission.
Wolgok station, line 6, exit 2. Walk about 50 meters, then turn right down the first alley you see. Walk another 100 meters then bear left. Follow the parking lot on your right until you see an opening to the front entrance. If coming at night, you’ll see the building’s neon from the alley.
Seoul Leisure Town
Seoul Leisure Town is proof that a jimjilbang can be beautiful without being opulent. A 50 degree C. sauna looks like you’re inside a mine, while a hotter 60 degree C. looks like you’re in an Egyptian pyramid and features an echo — something fairly rare in my experience.
The naked men’s side offers a nice hinoki bath with wooden benches; elsewhere are three tubs with fairly standard hot, warm, and cold water.
The 2nd floor area is a fine sleeping area — some logs separate the large area into smaller ones, although it seemed there was still a bit too much light to really sleep. The three saunas available are nice, offering some variety in temperatures.
The 3rd floor offers a warm pyramid sauna, along with another hot sauna — it could easily take a couple hours to try them all out. This will also be the place to get a sports massage, take a jazz, aerobics, or yoga class, and the gym. There’s no English around, so brush up on your Korean requests and hangeul reading skills.
The biggest disadvantage is the relative location — inside a dark food market. Once you’re inside, you’ll forget about the awkward location. That there are no views outside will focus your attention on the facilities themselves. Overall, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of jimjilbang, but I can’t recommended it for tourists or first-timers, as there’s no English to be found across the four floors.
Gireum station, line 4, exit 7. Walk 150 meters to a side road. You’ll see the old neon sign saying 24 시 불가마 (pictured above) right above an entrance to a traditional Korean market. Walk inside, go 25 meters, and look right for the more modern entrance. For more information, check out sltown.co.kr (Korean only) or call 02–909–9000 (Korean only)
To be sure, there are plenty of other jimjilbang / public bathhouses throughout South Korea. They are as Korean as kimchi, and as relaxing as you want them to be. Don’t miss them.