Fans of all things Korea will undoubtedly know about the jjimjilbang (찜질방), or public bathhouse. It’s a rite of initiation for foreign residents and tourists setting foot in the Land of Morning Calm. To dip or not to dip? That is the question. I took the plunge and can enthusiastically say that jjimjilbang is my favourite cultural experience in Korea.
Let’s soak up a bit of background info. Jjimjilbang are 24-hour, gender-segregated bathhouses featuring relaxing hot and cold soaking pools, bathing and massage areas, various saunas, entertainment lounges, and communal sleeping rooms. Snazzier jjimjilbang include amenities such as screen golf, noraebang (노래방, singing rooms), PC bang (PC방, internet cafés), exercise centers, hairdressers, and more! Alternately you may see the names mogyoktang (목욕탕) or sauna (사우나, pronounced sa-oo-na). These are very similar to jjimjilbang except that mogyoktang have only baths and sauna while sauna, strangely enough, do not include sauna at all, only baths. Got it? Me neither. Confusing though it may be visiting the more elaborate jjimjilbang is clearly the best choice!
You may be thinking at this point, “What’s not to love? Jjimjilbang sound great!” which is true but I fear I’ve left out one vital piece of information. Once you’ve passed the checkout desk, you wear nothing but your birthday suit! That’s right, Korean bathhouses are nude affairs. While this may sound off-putting (okay, terrifying!), I promise that overcoming your fear is worth every nervous, naked step. If you’re worried about people staring, you needn’t. Most people don’t care what you’re doing and they aren’t looking at you, and even if someone is looking, they’re naked too! Just keep the end goal in mind: ultimate relaxation.
Spa bliss is exceedingly cheap and simple to obtain. After paying your check-in fee (a pittance at only 6,000 to 15,000 won for a 24-hour stay!), you’ll receive a towel or two and a set of lounging pajamas made up of matching shorts and t-shirt. After stowing your footwear in the locker, you can head to the appropriate section of the bathhouse designated by curtained doors labeled either yeoja (여자, women’s) or yeotang (여탕, women’s bath) for the ladies and namja (남자, men’s) or namtang (남탕, men’s bath) for the lads. Once inside you’ll find lockers to store your belongings in before taking your – gulp! – naked plunge. But don’t worry, you won’t be completely nude – you’ll be wearing your locker key bracelet!
Follow the signs into the bathing area (hint: look for the naked people) and clean off in the shower before heading to the pools, which are meant for relaxing in, not bathing. At every bathhouse, you’ll find a dizzying array of pool selection: lukewarm (미온탕, mi-ontang), warm (온탕, ontang), hot (열탕, yeoltang), and even icy-cold (냉탕, naeng tang)! Sometimes there are massage pools (안마탕, anmatang or 마사지 풀, masaji pool) and other specialty baths, like the gold bath (금탕, geumtang), charcoal bath (짬나무, jjamnamu or 목초탕, mokchotang), and the hinoki bath (히노끼탕) where you can soak in a tub fashioned from Asian cypress tree. Talk about luxury! I get giddy just thinking about soaking in those tubs.
I like to alternate going soaking in the tubs and sweating in the sauna, with the misty “wet” sauna (습식 사우나, seupsik sauna) being my favourite. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, you could head outdoors to the nocheon (노천) and have a soak in the outdoor pools whilst enjoying the fresh air, though you may find you have less company in the winter!
After limbering up, you may feel brave enough to try some of the add-on spa treatments, but I have to warn you, it ain’t always pretty. I’ve tried just about every treatment there is and let’s just say I’ve had… mixed results. In Canada we tend to think of facials as a relaxing face treatment but perhaps relaxation takes a back seat to cleansing in Korean face care treatments. I remember having one facial at a spa and the process involved a middle-aged woman scrubbing, scraping, slapping, pinching, and pretty much beating my face for the better part of an hour! Needless to say I was just a bit surprised. After I got over the initial shock (and the shock that accompanied every slap thereafter!) I had to admit it was – in a weird way – kind of relaxing.
The same can be said of the body scrub. Called sesin (세신), it’s aggressive and strangely invigorating. Sesin is carried out by a cranky, scantily-clad older person of your gender known as ttaemiri (때밀이) or scrub master. If you think that is a funny job title, then you haven’t met these scrubbing powerhouses! They soap and scrub the body using a coarse cloth known as an Italy towel (이타리 타월 or 이태리 타올) to remove dead skin, leaving you both horrified at what peels off and eerily satisfied that it’s gone. At once painful and relaxing, the body scrub leaves skin squeaky clean and baby soft, and at an extra cost of only 15,000 to 30,000 won. The ttaemiri recommend soaking for 30 minutes before your scrub and then doing the majority of relaxing in the pools and sauna afterward when your pores are clear and open. If you can’t bear the though of having a total stranger scrub you down, ask a friend. It is quite common to see Koreans giving their friends and family a loving lather, and even children can be seen bathing their parents late into the night.
Once you’re finished soaking and scrubbing it’s time to do some sweating, socializing, and sleeping! After dressing in your sleeping uniform, you can head to the unisex common areas where you’ll find all the entertainment your heart desires – TV, video games, computers, screen golf, comic books (망가, manga), exercise equipment and massage chairs, snack bars, restaurants, and more grooming facilities like nail and barber shops! If you really want to blend in be sure to pick up some of the famous jjimjilbang eggs, slow-baked in the sauna! Delicious. Providing that you don’t get too distracted by all of the wonderful Korean snacks, you should then turn your attention to the dry sauna rooms (건식 사우나, geonsik sauna), occasionally translated into English as “fomentation rooms”. If you’re wondering what “fomentation” is, it’s the process by which impurities are loosened in the body, and yes, I had to look that up.
There are lots of sauna rooms to… foment in. Protect your ears from the heat with that oh-so-adorable “sheep head” look, popularized by Korean dramas. Known as yangmeori (양머리), it’s as easy as it is cute! Lay your towel flat and fold it lengthwise into thirds, meeting in the middle. Roll the outer ends over themselves as though you were rolling up your jeans. Open up the flaps to make a hole in the middle and stuff your head in – voila! Ewe’ve never looked cuter!
Now that you’ve donned the appropriate attire, you can head to the saunas. Try the salt sauna (소금방, sogeumbang), the amethyst and precious gemstone-laden “jewelry sauna” (보석방, boseokbang), the jade sweating room (옥한증막, ok Hanjeungmak), or the stiflingly-hot bulgama (불가마) or bul Hanjeungmak (불한증막) aptly known in English as the “fire sweating room”! Cool down afterward in the arctic ice room (어름방, eorumbang or 어름굴, eorumgul) and channel your inner penguin instead of your inner sheep!
When you’re done, grab a pillow and a mat (and a sleeping towel if you’re lucky!) and get ready to sleep, but don’t expect much privacy. Communal sleeping areas are just that – communal. Families enjoy sleeping together in the common room, while singles may prefer heading off to segregated men’s and women’s sleeping areas, but anywhere you go there’s going to be people. It takes some getting used to sleeping on a hard surface surrounded by shuffling bodies (and the occasional eardrum-shattering snore!), but the heated ondol (온돌) floor definitely makes it easier! In fact, sleeping in these warm rooms has long been touted as being good for your health.
Heated sleeping rooms – effectively the beginnings of the jjimjilbang spas we know today – were first noted during the 15th century in the annual records of the Joseon Dynasty or the Joseon Wang Jo Sillok (조선왕조실록). Originally known as Hanjeungso (한증소) and later as Hanjeungmak (한증막), these early jjimjilbang were actually government-run saunas operated by Buddhist monks. These Hanjeungso contained a high-ceilinged, dome-shaped clay and granite room, heated with a furnace and kept humid with a sprinkling of water. One theory of how jjimjilbang came to be is that people entered kilns after they had finished baking their pottery, enjoying the hot air and what was believed to be medicinal effects of the red clay. Korean bathers have enjoyed hot springs since the Joseon Dynasty and possibly earlier, and so it was only a matter of time before the two were paired. The first public bathhouse was built in 1925, with many more to follow throughout the 1900s. No matter how they started, we can thank the first person who thought to step into a hot spring or hot kiln for the thousands of wonderful, relaxing jjimjilbang spas we have today.
So what do you think? Will you be the first among your friends to try Korean jjimjilbang? You never know, you just might like it!
Article by Jessica Steele for The Korea Blog. Images protected under Creative Commons Attribution license. Content and images may not be reproduced without permission.