Hint: it’s not as scary as you think
I’ve noticed people that come to Korea fall into two categories: those who want to experience everything and those who want to experience the familiar. The former is always down to go to the jjimjilbang(찜질방) and the later wants to avoid it at all costs. Now that’s okay, but they are really missing out on a relaxing and cheap way to spend the day.
Bathhouses are essential part of life in Korea. Friends, family, and couples with spend hours (or overnight) sweating and soaking through the multi-level jjimjilbang’s scattered throughout Korea. For about ₩6,000 – 15,000 (~4.50 – 13 USD) you can spend as long as you’d like. Most locations will just have some simple hot rooms and baths, but there are also locations with nail salons, hair salons, restaurants and karaoke rooms.
Worried? It’s okay I’ll take you through the steps of what to expect so you can fake it like a pro, and yes, people will look at your body but you can look too.
Step 1: Enter the building
Once you find a spa you want to visit, you’ll likely see a wall of small lockers as you enter the location. These are for your shoes! Put your shoes in the locker, grab the key and head to the desk. From there you can choose to pay for just the baths or the baths and sauna rooms. Keep in mind the sauna rooms are for both sexes but the baths are separated. When you make your decision you will be handed some towels , a change of clothes (if doing the saunas) and another key. This key is for your changing room locker. If it isn’t obvious which is the correct changing room, 남 is men’s and 여 is women’s.
Step 2: Changing room
The number on your key is the number of your locker. This is where you’ll store your clothes, bag, etc. You can choose to do the sauna first, in which you should change into the given clothes, or you can choose the baths, in which you just get naked and grab your towels (and toiletries). Either way, any shyness should be stripped away as soon as possible. Note: do not wear any underwear under the clothing given, you are just going to be sweating in them.
Step 3: The Saunas
Most jjimjilbangs will have easy signage in English, Chinese and Japanese. Follow the signs for the sauna rooms. Now, the sauna rooms are not the typical steam rooms you might expect. Traditional Korean saunas are dry clay rooms with varying temperatures listed outside in Celcius. There are a few varieties of heated rooms; common ones being salt, jade, charcoal, and clay balls. I will usually go back and forth between the hotter and cooler rooms (mostly because I can’t handle heat too well).
The proper protocol is to grab a wooden block ‘pillow’ and find a spot to sit or lay down. From there you can relax as long as you like. If you are with friends, soft chatting is okay. Sometimes there are mats, sometimes there are ice rooms, and most of the time there is an ultra hot 80+ Celcius room. In between the rooms there are common areas where groups with chit chat, eating steam room eggs (맥반석계란) and drinking shikye (식혜), a sweet vinegary fermented rice drink.
Step 4: The Baths
After a good sweat, it’s time to wash off. If it’s your first time this is going to be the most nerving moment; try to keep in mind that the worst case is you’ll get a few stares. The main rule before going into the baths is to wash off before your first dip. When you enter there will be plenty of shower stalls with soap provided (bring you own if you don’t like the thought of using shared soap). Don’t wash your hair yet, it will just drip into the baths, but make sure to tie it up properly.
Now you start soaking in the tubs. There will be a mix of temperatures and some special infusions (mugwort, salt). If you are hardcore, be like the older folks and dip between the hot and ice cold pools to invigorate your heart. Try to only spend 20 minutes max in each hot pool. This is the area where you can get a famous Korean scrub. Look for a side room with some tables and ajummas in black lacy underwear. The prices will be listed nearby so either pay in cash or they will scan your key and you pay as you leave. Be prepared for massive amounts of gray dead skin to fall off and a fresh lobster red layer to appear.
Once you are finished, wash your hair and body at the shower stalls or grab a plastic seat and cleanse with a slow care. Now’s a good time to do a quick mask and deep clean.
Step 5: Go sleep or go home
There is the option to stay the night for a cheap sleep. Rooms are separated for women, men, and snorers. Be careful with your personal items (I’ve known a few people who got their phones stolen). The sleeping spaces are usually wide open rooms with heated floors (ondol), thin plastic mattress and harder foam block pillows. If you like a firm mattress it’ll be no problem.
If you are heading out make sure to take advantage of the provided hair dryers, moisturizers, and lotions. Change back into to your streetwear and go to the front desk. Fancy places with scannable keys will check if you have anything extra to pay for before giving you your shoe locker key. Congratulations, you’ve successfully spent an afternoon in public being sweaty and naked!
Need some recommendations?
Silloam spa (실로암불가마사우나) Seoul station exit 5
A good variety of sauna rooms (including an ice room!) easy to find and clear signs.
Spa Lei (스파레이) Sinsa station exit 5
Ladies only. You get to bundle up in nice robes and there is a seawater bath (great for floating).