Korean bathhouses, or jjimjilbangs, are at the forefront of our minds these days as the winter weather starts to slowly set in and freeze us all for the next few months. These bathhouses have been popular in Korea and are an essential part of tradition and culture here. Jjimjilbangs are a good place to go for a weekend getaway for some rest and relaxation for both families and couples alike. So, just what can you except from a jjimjilbang?
For most foreigners traveling or living in South Korea, the word “jjimjilbang” elicits thoughts of nakedness and extreme discomfort. Hanging out for hours on end with a bunch of naked strangers is not exactly our idea of a good time. In Korea, we are generally stared at for being different, but at least in public we are fully clothed when that kind of thing happens. However, there is more to these Korean bathhouses than what you may think. So, here you go! Our “Beyond Nudity” guide to Korean jjimjilbangs!
목욕탕 (Mokyoktang) – Bathing Areas
Mokyoktang: This is the part that everyone fears the most – Being naked with a room full of strangers. In all reality, this wasn’t that bad for me once I finally just bit the bullet. Take a deep breath and realize that no one knows you and everyone else is just as naked as you. Everyone has the same parts and they are all shamelessly baring it all too. For me, the baths are actually the best part! Soaking in hot water with dozens of different jets is quite relaxing! I didn’t feel like I was stared which was probably because my hair was up in a towel and no one paid me any mind until I took the towel off my head after going back to change, then I definitely got a few double takes!
There are numerous tubs with varying temperatures and minerals. To the sides of the room are showers and stalls for scrubbing. Hunt down a scrubbing sheet and go to town removing the dead skin cells that have built up on your body. If you are still hesitant, simply throw your belongings into your locker, put on your spa clothes, and then head to the coed saunas and lounge areas (찜질방/jjimjilbang) first. You can relax for a while before building up the courage to try out the baths.
찜질방 (Jjimjilbang) – Coed Saunas and Lounging
The outdoor stone foot bath at Busan’s Spa Land
A little known fact, jjimjilbang is actually just a sauna and lounge area where you are fully clothed! So, if public nudity isn’t your thing, head to the jjimjilbang, get your sauna on, and commence relaxation! You can find saunas, food and drink, and massage chairs in these areas. You can pay for entrance for a jjimjilbang, mokyoktang, or both at some places. However, in the case of Busan’s Spa Land (pictured above), you pay one fee for access to the entire spa.
The saunas can be quite hot and they all vary in temperature and in type. The dry saunas will have the heaters that slowly warm up a stack of rocks and radiate heat into the rooms. You can usually pour water over the rocks to make it more humid in the room. These rooms will help you relax, loosen muscles, and open your pores. Ice saunas are also popular in Korea and are thought to help the nervous and circulatory systems.
Feeling cold in the ice sauna
Foot stones are also common in Korea and in traditional Chinese medicine, walking on them is considered to stimulate different pressure points in your feet which correspond to different organs of the body. When you walk on them, you not only improve your balance and relieve stress, but you can also self diagnose which organs of the body are suffering based on where you feel pain in your foot. There are loads of foot reflexology charts available online for those of you interested in finding more information!
Food and Drink
– HOW TO FOLD THE LAMB’S EAR TOWEL –
The spas also typically offer a small café or cafeteria selling snacks, beverages, and sometimes even full meals. Basically, you can spend days inside a Korean sauna and never leave if your heart so desired! It is easy to simply lose track of time and just relax, eat, and repeat. Don’t forget to bring your locker key as they will charge everything you buy to your key for you to conveniently pay for upon leaving the spa.
Traditional Korean Sauna Foods
구운계란 – SAUNA EGGS
Sauna eggs are similar to boiled eggs, but they are cooked slowly for a long period of time with steam, hence the “sauna egg” name! You can make them in a rice cooker fairly easily by adding water and a bit of salt. The color of the egg will change to brown and the texture will also be a bit more rubbery.
식초 – SIKCHO VINEGAR DRINKS
These vinegar drinks are some of my personal favorite, and for good reason, too! I have a ton of stomach issues and Korean vinegar drinks are some of the only things that truly provide me with relief. The vinegar is good for your digestion and intestinal tract, and they have worked wonders for me. They are highly diluted mixtures with varying fruit flavors such as persimmon, pomegranate, and blackberry and you mix them in with a good amount of hot or cold water.
식혀- SIKHYE SWEET RICE DRINK
Sikhye is also believed to aid in digestion, cure your cold, and help your hangover. It is made by pouring malt water over cooked rice and then boiled until the rice eventually sweetens naturally. This is served after meals as a dessert drink to help you digest your food.
Korean massages. Take everything you thought you knew about relaxation and technique and throw it out the window. These massages are unlike anything you ever felt before, and if you are even slightly sensitive to pain, I suggest you give it a miss. Typically the massage starts with some relaxing and soothing hot towels placed all over your body. What follows after is a series of punches, pinches, and squeezes by a woman who seems to have supernatural strength. I have heard that is it believed to get rid of the toxins in your body, and if you bruise, then that is your proof of said toxins.
For an alternative, try out the massage chairs that are offered in the lounging area. You will be charged a small fee, but the chair will not bruise you or cause any pain. It’s a good way to get tense muscles to relax without paying an ajumma or ajushi to beat the hell out of you.
세신 (Seshin) – Full Body Scrub
What’s better than a full body naked scrub down by an old man or woman?! These strong men and women have one job and one job only: to scrub the living hell out of you until you are as pink as the day you entered this world. You will know them on site as they wander around the baths in black underwear asking if anyone would like a scrub. They use coarse exfoliating towels to rub every inch of your body until balls of dead skin start peeling away. Painful? Let’s just say this treatment isn’t for the sensitive people out there, but if you dare to try it, you will certainly no longer suffer from dead skin for weeks!
It is an strangely gratifying thing to see your skin fall away knowing that you will soon be exfoliated to a level your body hasn’t known in years. Be sure to soak for at least 30 minutes in the hot tubs to loosen your skin before you attempt this! You can also do this more gently on your own or with a friend. Scrub yourself and then hand your exfoliating towel to your friend to get your back as this is considered a good way to bond! Also, don’t use soap when you scrub as it will be too slippery and your dead skin cannot come off as easily!
Budget travelers rejoice because most Korean Spas also double as accommodation! Just head to the coed lounging areas and find a place to grab a few Zs. The spas are usually very quiet, so as long as you have no qualms with snoozing on a floor, you can have a full spa experience plus accommodation for around $6 USD!
For those of you worrying about getting your belongings stolen, just keep your things in your locker! You can sleep worry free if you don’t have anything of value out with you. It is also a safe place for women traveling alone. Korea is a fairly safe place in regards to traveling and we have never felt in danger. If anyone bothers you, just tell them to bug off, but we highly doubt this will happen as many Korean men are a bit shy and at times awkward around foreign girls.
1. BUSAN – SPA LAND
For a luxury spa experience at an amazing price, check out Busan’s Spa Land in the Shensegae Mall near Haeundae Beach. The spa itself is beautiful and offers a wide variety of bathing tubs and themed saunas. While the spa boasts of their “no kids under 13” policy, we certainly saw a few kids of questionable age. Even so, this spa is one of our favorites we have visited and we wished we could have spent the entire day there. There is a four hour time limit, but you can stay for up to two hours more if you spend 10,000 won on drinks and snacks. We did that and stayed a full six hours, wishing for still more time.
Some highlights for us were the amazing outdoor women’s bath, the coed outdoor foot bath (pictured near the top), and the pyramid themed sauna which added a fun vibe to our time spent relaxing in the steamy air. The water was also special as it is pumped from a hot spring that lies deep underground and is sterilized constantly throughout the day. The sodium bicarbonate water left everyone’s skin and hair feeling softer than it had in quite a long time.
Spa Land is open from 6AM – 12AM and has discounted prices for early morning and late night guests.
2. SEOUL – ITAEWON LAND
Another Jjimjilbang, Itaewon Land, located in Seoul’s foreigner district, Itaewon is one of our favorites. Cheap and conveniently located, this is our go to place to stay when visiting the capital in the cooler months. Spa Land has an additional option of separate rooms to stay in if you do not wish to sleep on the floor. The room is a mere 25,000 won and is a steal of a deal as you and a one other person get spa access as well!
Itaewon Land is not the newest and nicest, but the spa amenities are still a great deal for the price. There are various sauna rooms including a pine room, a salt and gravel room, an ice room, and a room that averages over 100º C! There is also a cafeteria, so if you don’t feel like going out and exploring the night life of Itaewon, you don’t have to worry about where to find food.
Itaewon Land is open 24 hours a day.
3. JINAN – THE RED GINSENG SPA
Jinan is a small city that lies just to the east of Jeonju and is well worth a side trip for those looking for a little R&R. The city is famous for its incredible Maisan Mountain Peaks that look like two horse ears popping up over the horizon. However, the red ginseng that is grown in the area has become famous at the Red Ginseng Spa.
A bit pricier, the Red Ginseng Spa is a unique experience that is unlike any other Korean Spa we have been to. The waters are infused with the locally grown red ginseng, as well as everything else in the spa for that matter, and you will certainly be leaving smelling the red ginseng for days afterwards! What makes the spa truly unique, however, are the themed rooms that are beyond unusual and a rooftop hot tub with a view of the Maisan Mountains that is to die for. What more could you want out of a Korean Spa experience?!
Would you try a Korean Jjimjilbang, or if you have, did you like it? Any other suggestions for amazing jjimjilbangs for us to try out? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you!