When you think of a sauna, the first thing that comes to mind is the sweltering-hot Turkish and Swedish saunas popular among Europeans, or the Japanese hot springs.
However, Koreans have also mastered the art of unwinding and cleaning their bodies. If you are in Korea, visiting the jimjilbang is a must!
Bathhouse Culture in South Korea
Just about everyone goes to Korean bathhouses, or jimjilbangs (찜질방), meaning heated rooms. Businessmen go to unwind after work, couples go here on dates, and friends come to catch up all while relaxing in the hot tubs of water and heated rooms.
Jimjilbangs are gender-segregated bathhouses with both hot and cold pools, as well as dry heated rooms. You can also get deep body scrubs, dinner and, even sleep here overnight!
The most awkward part about jimjilbangs is getting naked. The awkwardness may be even worse if you are a foreigner. However, since everyone is naked, this feeling lasts about thirty seconds.
However, there are plenty of Korean spas in major cities. A quick Naver search (similar to Google maps, but I prefer this in Korea) for spas can show you dozens anywhere you are in Korea.
If you work in Korea, I recommend going Sunday evening before the workweek starts. I find myself leaving relaxed and refreshed, and I also get the best sleep after I visit these bathhouses.
Before Visiting the Jimjilbang
Before you head out, there are a few items you should bring. Should you forget to take them with you, have no fear. Jimjilbangs sell toiletries for a few thousand won.
Here are the things I recommend you bring:
- Face mask (optional)
- Loofah or exfoliating glove
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Soap or body wash*
- Body cream*
- Empty water bottle (for the baths)
**Most jimjilbangs have soaps and creams on site, but if you prefer your own you should bring them. You can also buy them at the jimjilbang.
Entering the jimjilbang
When you enter a jimjilbang, you should go to the reception and pay the entrance fee. Most jimjilbangs cost about 8,000 – 12,000W to get in ($8-$12). This includes two small towels as well as a change of clothes, which we will get to later.
You will be given a key with a number on it. Take off your shoes and find your locker number. Since jimjilbangs are gender-segregated, make sure you go to the male or female side accordingly.
Put only your shoes in this small locker.
Being Naked in the Jimjilbang
Take this same key and go into the locker rooms. Here, you take off all of your clothes and put the rest of your things into the locker.
As I mentioned earlier, getting naked can seem daunting at first, but Koreans won’t give you a second glance.
The first thing you should do before hopping in the baths is taking a quick shower.
Bring one towel with you inside and wrap it around your head.
Now you are ready to go to the baths!
Each bath has a different temperature, anywhere between 10C and 40C. This is usually indicated above the bath. I recommend alternating between the hot and cool ones so that you don’t get too lightheaded.
Make sure to stay hydrated! The locker area just outside the baths has water coolers. You can also bring a water bottle, fill it up and take it with you inside the baths.
If you go with a group of friends, don’t make too much noise. You will get dirty looks or you may be shushed. If you must talk, do so quietly. People come here to relax, so don’t disturb others.
Optional Jimjilbang Extras
If you want your skin to feel truly refreshed, the best thing you can do is get a full-body scrub. Full-body scrubs are provided inside the baths. The scrub itself costs about 20,000 – 30,000W and last about half an hour. The dead skin is scrubbed away and you come out a new person.
As previously mentioned, every jimjibang will have a store either in the locker room area or the public area. Some stores charge cash only while others will charge what you need to your key.
Stores sell snacks such as ice cream and kimbap (Korean sushi). They will also sell necessities such as shampoos, soaps, socks and underwear.
Getting clean is an arduous process, and it’s sure to make you hungry. Bigger jimjibangs will have a restaurant where you can get a decently-priced Korean meals.
Some will charge your key number, but many require cash payments. They will always have tables, but like many Korean traditional restaurants, you will be required to sit on the floor.
Whether you are visiting Korea or need a place to stay after a long night of fun, if you need a cheap place to stay for one night, jimjilbangs are your best option. Paying a few extra thousand won at the entrance allows you to sleep in the sauna overnight.
Every jimjilbang has a large sleeping area with heated floors. If you know you will spend the night here, I recommend bringing earplugs because some people snore.
Once you are done with the baths, head back to the lockers and put on the shirt and shorts that were given to you earlier. There will be a main room, usually with a TV, where both men and women lie on mats and relax while watching TV.
This is also the place where you can go into the dry, heated rooms. Like the baths, each heated room will have the temperature indicated above it. The ice room will be the smallest and the coldest room. This is a great place to go in-between the other rooms.
Some rooms will go up to 40C, 50C or 60C. Depending on the room, the floor will either have hot salt crystals or a wooden floor. You can doze off on the mats or rest your head on a pillow in the cooler rooms.
Each room’s walls are also lined with different stones. Some rooms may have walls lined with salt, jade, quartz, gold or other crystals. This is done so that you can breathe the air emitted from the stones.
Depending on the room you go, they are said to heal different parts of your body. So take deep breaths!
Leaving a Korean Spa
I recommend taking a shower after you have visited the heated rooms and you are ready to leave. This is because you sweat a lot in the heated rooms.
Some jimjilbangs have free hairdryers, but others require you to pay 100W for about 3 minutes of use.
They also have lotions and creams to put on your body after you are done. Jimjilbangs also provide hair brushes which are sterilised, but I recommend you bring your own.
To leave, take your locker key and go back to the shoe lockers. Take your shoes out and hand the keys to the front desk. Assuming you haven’t accumulated extra charges to your key, you are free to go!
Jimjilbangs are a fun place to visit whether you go alone or with friends. You feel relaxed and refreshed, ready to take on a new day. Whether you go once a week or once a month, you are sure to have a good time.
Now that you know the steps, head to your nearest jimjilbang!