One of the best ways to relax in Korea is to strip down and spend a day at the jjimjilbang, or public bathhouse/spa. If you’ve never been before, it can be a little overwhelming to figure it out. Namely: when should you be naked and when should you not be? (Coincidentally also one of life’s greatest questions.) Here are some guidelines for your first time.
- Arrive and pay the entrance fee.* In exchange, receive a key with a locker number (on a plastic bracelet you can wear in the baths), two little towels, comfy shorts and a t-shirt for the lounge area, and access to the place all day (though some have a time limit).
* At Dragon Hill Spa, it costs about 12000 won ($12). This is on the pricier side, but the facilities are really nice. The price is usually higher if it’s a weekend or if you want to stay overnight.
- Take off your shoes and put them in the locker near the entrance that matches the number on your key. I know you can’t wait to undress, but don’t take your clothes off yet!
- Find the entrance to your changing room.
- If it’s your first time, go into temporary shock as you take in all the naked bodies in the locker room. Politely avert your eyes, but subtly glance sideways, wondering if your bod is adequate enough to bare. The feeling doesn’t last long! You quickly realize that your body, like everyone else’s, falls somewhere along a spectrum of incredibly diverse types.*
* If you have tattoos, check the rules beforehand. They aren’t allowed at all spas.
- Find the locker that matches your key, and get undressed! If you’re nervous, my advice is to just suck it up. Strip down like you’re ripping off a band-aid! Be free!
When I first visited a jjimjilbang, I was really looking forward to the experience. I figured that by putting myself in a situation where nude was the norm (the only option, really), I might begin to feel more confident in my own body. I was right! I felt comfortable quickly, and by the second time I went, I was eagerly peeling off my clothes. (Should I be revealing how much I apparently like taking my clothes off in public? Oh well.)
- Bath time! Spend as long as you like soaking in the tubs. Each one has the temperature and health benefits posted. Some contain medicinal herbs (like ginseng), others are extremely hot or cold, and some have jets. There are saunas as well, and some spas have outdoor baths.
- Get scrubbed down, if you dare! I cannot recommend this enough. The baths have a section with massage beds (plastic-covered doctors tables, to give you a visual) where you can pay a little extra to have a scrub or massage.*
Who will massage me? An ajumma, or feisty, older Korean woman! Wearing lacy black undergarments. Yep, she will be your masseuse!
Will it be relaxing and gentle? Hellzzz no! Are you also expecting frangipani to be floating around in the tubs? She is an ajumma! If you get a massage, she will pull your limbs from their sockets (with your body’s best interests in mind, of course). Your knots will take a (much-needed) beating! She will walk on you! If you get a scrub, she will rub until you feel raw! Your dead skin will roll off of you in spaghetti noodle-sized flakes! She will leave *no* body part un-scrubbed. Be prepared for her to get all up in those cracks, and to have your armpits rubbed relentlessly as you try not to explode in a fit of ticklish laughter.
Will she reassure you, let you know that everyone produces this much dead skin? HAHA what? NO! She will scold you (with a twinkle in her eye, and a little smile). You should be doing this more often!
Umm… then why should I do it? Because your skin will feel like butter. Your knots will be loose. You’ll want to go back every day. Seriously you will never regret a body scrub.
*At Dragon Hill, it’s about 50000 for an oil massage (good when you need a treat), and 25000 for a shampoo scrub (a little pricey but worth it at least seasonally).
- When you’re pruney and scrubbed, shower off and head for the locker rooms. Change into your comfy t-shirt and shorts and head to the mixed-gender lounge area. You can also do the baths and lounge in reverse order. The communal areas vary according to the spa, but there’s usually a combination of arcade games, noraebangs, snack bars and restaurants*, warm floors to sprawl out on, and special rooms. These rooms have medicinal benefits; there are different types, like oxygen, salt, very hot (essentially an oven) and cold rooms.
The rooms at Silloam Fire Pot Sauna are great; there’s tons of variety. Dragon Hill’s have fun themes, but fewer to choose from. Your preference will depend whether you want to prioritize the baths or the rooms. Overall, Busan’s SpaLand is my favourite bathhouse; they had great baths and an awesome lounge area. There are also some women-only jjimjilbangs; Spa Lei in Sinsa is lovely.
*When you buy anything (e.g. food, juice, massage in the baths), you can just scan your key bracelet.
- When you’ve maxed out on relaxing When you absolutely have to go, get dressed; don’t worry if you forgot your hair dryer or moisturizer, they’re both available to use (for free) in the change room, as well as a few other toiletries. Pick up your shoes on the way out, and pay the balance on your key bracelet. Head back into the cold air, and start planning your next jjimjilbang day!
If you feel nervous about the naked part, remember this: the jjimjilbang is a place for friends and families. Communal bathing is an ancient tradition (as it is in many places), and many people frequent the sauna for its health benefits. Everyone’s at their most vulnerable, entirely exposed, and no one’s in a position to be judgemental. So essentially… you’re naked with a bunch of strangers (and probably some of your friends)… in public… but no one cares. It’s a comfortable way to become comfortable with yourself.