As a Brit, the idea of stripping off in front of others sounds like a living hellfire pit – both embarrassing and rather unnecessary, what what. Part of the parcel and package of going to a Korean bathhouse is stripping off in the gender segregated areas. No clothes whatsoever. Starkers. So if I tell you I do it on an almost weekly basis nowadays, I’m sure your cheeks are left burning almost as much as mine were the first time I ever went to a Korean bathhouse, or jjimjilbang, as they are called in Korean. Burning from embarrassment, and burning from those scary 80 degree saunas they hold within their fiery depths.
That’s enough with the hellish referencing. Jjimjilbangs are quite the opposite of hell once you brave them. For those of us in more prudish countries (with Brits being awarded the title of No. 1 Least Likely to Ever Get Your Kit Off Even When Hanky Panky Is Involved), getting naked in front of other people simply isn’t done. Perhaps in other European countries it’s okay to get your baps out on the beach, but the general rule is nobody wants to see your private parts.
And that’s the key here – you think nobody wants to see it. You’re right. But it’s more that nobody cares about seeing it. Nobody wants to sit there and stare at your bosoms for hours because they equally don’t want you doing it right back to them. Going to a jjimjilbang was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done. Through using these bathhouses, I have been able to appreciate that there is nothing wrong with me, and I am a perfectly normal human. I have been able to spend time with my naked self (in front of others, and friends too) and come to terms with it – something I never do as I don’t spend time naked. I have huge body hang-ups which stem back to eating disorders and a lot of self-loathing back in my university years. I would say I spend about three quarters of my time worrying about my appearance, which is why self-care, skincare and beauty regimes are so important to me. Perhaps healing beauty issues with beauty is a little paradoxical, but it’s given me control over something and resolves it in a healthy way, so I don’t see the harm in it.
I digress. Many of you are probably wondering what is just so wonderful about a place where you can get your kit off amongst strangers and stew in the same water as they are. Well, if you ever happen to visit this great country, a jjimjilbang is an absolute must. Here’s my guide to the art of the Korean spa – stripping it all down (or off, if you like) one step at a time.
Spa Land, Busan
First off, why go to a jjimjilbang? What purpose does it achieve? Why is it so damn popular?
Well, everyone loves their me time. Especially in Korea, where people work long hours and long days, with high levels of stress – you need the opportunity to unwind. A jjimjilbang is (usually) an incredibly relaxing place. They can be a great place to visit as a family, though, too, so if your idea of chilling out does not involve the under 12s there are also jjimjilbangs you can go to that do not allow anyone under this age group in. So a bathhouse can be good for your mental state, allowing you to be at peace and getting those good vibes only possible from simply treating yo’self.
Secondly, it is good for your skin and body. Not just your mind. The saunas allow you to sweat out toxins, and each sauna or room is designed with different targets in mind: there are oxygen rooms, salt rooms, yellow ochre rooms, ice rooms, the lot. All of them perform different functions such as purifying the skin, improving air quality for your respiratory system, boosting your metabolism, and stimulating the immune system.
Think of when you have a fever. This is part of your body’s natural healing process. Well, a sauna can replicate this sensation in your body and cause (in theory) the antibodies and white blood cells to produce more rapidly. Basically, you’re giving your body a kick up the arse. Each jjimjilbang will have different kids of saunas to deliver the blow, but they will all have your health and purification in mind.
So, each jjimjilbang is different but the premise is the same. You will have two areas: the communal, shared sauna and relaxation area, and the gender segregated bathing area. Pay up at the entrance, which obviously changes in price depending on the type of bathhouse you are going to. The high end, Shinsegae Spa Land, charges around 15,000-18,000 won, whereas your standard day to day sauna will be around 7,000 won upwards. You pay, go in, leave your shoes in a locker – always shoes off in Korea – and are handed your sauna outfits (in some places – some you may have to pay a little extra to rent these). You should by now have a key for a locker, which you will have been given at reception or through using your shoe locker. Find your locker and do it. Get naked.
You can choose to hit up the saunas first, which I usually do, or the baths. I prefer to sweat it all out of me, then after a quick shower, get ready for a good soak. Some places will give you a time limit, others won’t be so bothered. So, once you have changed into your oh-so-attractive sauna gear and maybe made yourself a ‘yangmeori’ (sheep’s head – instructions below!), you’re ready to go.
In the few jjimjilbangs that I’ve been to, there have been a variety of things to do, but there is nearly always a café or restaurant, a massage area, some kind of beauty area, the saunas themselves, a cold room, and a relaxation area. That’s pretty much all you need. Sauna hop for a while and treat yourself to some hard-boiled eggs, or buy a sheet mask and doze off in a comfy lounger. Anything you buy will usually be scanned on your locker key, and you pay later (but check, as some require you to pay on the spot). Read a book while soaking your feet in either hot or cold foot baths, or dare to try the stone walk, where stones are set out with varying degrees of sharpness or roundness for you to walk over and give yourself some serious foot loving.
Some of the saunas I’ve experienced have been:
- a flat stone vibration room, where you can meditate listening to music while the heated floor underneath you hums under your back
- a room full of heated tiny balls which you can lie on, which is very texturally pleasing and almost feels like a ball pool for adults
- a room full of large salt crystals that you lie on or spread over your body (but exercise this one with caution as those things burn)
- an 80 degree sauna where you will start to feel that death is a possible option, and sweat from every pore in your body
It is 86 degrees in here. That is one flipping hot sauna!
Doesn’t it sound wondrous? Some jjimjilbangs have game areas, a table tennis room, a karaoke room, and even places to sleep. A popular place for Koreans who have had one too many or simply need a place to kip, it’s cheaper than checking yourself into a hotel, and you get a pretty comfy bed for the night, sometimes in themed sleeping rooms such as a ‘Clay Sleeping Bunk’ which I’ve found before. There might even be special rooms for snorers, so you can worry not about skipping sleep!
Sleeping Cabins in Siloam Sauna
Once you’ve had your fill of co-ed saunas, which are great fun to do with your friends or family, head back to the changing rooms to get rid of your sweaty sauna clothes. Strip off, which with a friend can initially be awkward (but after a while you’ll wonder what you were ever worried about), and then head to the communal baths! Make sure you shower before getting in, and you may want to take some shampoo and other beauty products with you as not all jjimjilbangs supply them. After you are showered, put your hair up as it is considered bad etiquette to put your hair in the water. You can keep it out the water by wrapping a towel around your hair, or tying one of the skin scrub cloths around it.
Skin scrubs, by the way, are wonderful. They hurt like hell and you feel you would like to do nothing more than scream at the lady, in nothing other than pants and a bra, scraping the skin off you, but it’s so worth it. You will have baby soft skin and possibly become mentally stronger. If you can’t face being scrubbed within an inch of your life, then you can do a ‘lite’ version on yourself with a scrub cloth. It helps to bring a friend for back scrubbing purposes.
The baths also have it all. Further saunas, hot baths, cold baths, mugwort baths, jade baths, massage baths, waterfall baths…I could go on. Each bath has a different purpose, and if you want to see how it’s done, watch the Koreans (but not too intently). Hot saunas are followed by a cold dip, and you often should jump up and down or exercise/stretch in certain pools. Get massaged to death from the cascading waterfalls, where the pressure can help tight spots in your shoulders and back. In some bathhouses, go outside and take a nice dip in the heated outdoor pools. You’ll never want to leave.
Then when you’re all finished up, go and dry yourself off, while making the most of the free toiletries. The better the jjimjilbang, the better the goods. Spa Land in Busan’s Shinsegae boasts Mamonde toner and lotion, while others tend to use brands I’ve often not heard of but do the trick. Body lotion is nearly always supplied. Dry yourself off, pat lotions into your skin, do your hair, and get changed. You’ve just experienced a jjimjilbang! Head out the door, radiant and glowing, with a grin from ear to ear.
Some snaps from the Siloam Sauna in Seoul