Today I am going to walk you through a typical visit to a Korean jjimjilbang (찜질방). Get ready for some serious public nudity!
After two years of teaching English in Busan, I decided to leave Korea and keep exploring the world for places that fit better with me. Even though Korea isn’t a place I want to live, some parts of Korean culture are very, very dear to me.
One of my favorite things about Korea is the jjimjilbang (찜질방). Most of you are probably wondering what the hell a jjimjilbang is. Basically, it is a Korean public bath and sauna. Many, many cultures have public baths. I’ve been lucky enough to try out a few public baths from different cultures. Have you guys ever tried the Russian & Turkish Baths in the East Village? I have to say that Korean jjimjilbangs are my absolute favorite.
Here’s how it works. When you arrive, you pay at the counter. In Korea, you usually pay somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 won (around $5 – 20 USD). The person at the counter will give you a key for your locker and a set of shorts and shirt. Then, you’ll go to the female or male locker room. Here, you’ll find your locker and GET NAKED! Lock up all your belongings in the locker, and head for the hot tubs. The hot tubs will be in an adjoining room, usually connected to the locker room with glass wall/doors. The jjimjilbang provides towels and toiletries, but you are welcome to bring your own.
Jjimjilbangs do not allow you to wear a swimsuit or any kind of clothing in the hot tub area. You must be completely naked! For most Americans, the idea of hanging out in the nude with a bunch of strangers sounds intimidating, scary even. This is such a fun, exotic experience. You really need to experience the thrill of it. Once you go for it, you’ll see that it isn’t as hard or as embarrassing as you imagined.
It is very important to shower before you get into the tubs. The Koreans will get upset if you don’t shower beforehand. The showers are right there beside the tubs. Now it’s time to hang out in the hot tubs with a bunch of naked people! Each jjimjilbang is different, but to generalize, there will be a few different kinds of hot tubs. Big. Small. Hot. Crazy hot. Ice cold. Massaging jets. Many places have baths with special ingredients in the water, like green tea. One of my favorite jjimjilbangs (Spa Land) even has outdoor tubs (with a privacy fence of course). I love the sensation of being nude outdoors in the middle of the city!
Here’s one very important aspect of Korean jjimjilbangs: they take the quality of the water very seriously. This isn’t like the chemical-laden hot tubs I’m used to as an American. The water they use is usually spring water, and in my experience, they keep the water clean without chlorine. Afterwards, your hair and skin are silky and soft, not dry and irritated like after a day at a normal pool.
So, luxuriate in the water. Let it work on your stress and sore muscles. Bring a friend, and have some quality talk time. Now, after I soak, I like to go back to the showers and exfoliate my skin with a special Korean scrubbing mitt. I’ve never found any other kind of exfoliation that compares to this! It is the only thing that ever smoothed out the bumps on my arms (keratosis pilaris). When I was leaving Korea, I was worried that I’d never be able to find any more of these Korean mitts. I went to the outdoor market, and one of the vendors gave me a great deal on a stockpile of mitts! I recently discovered you can buy the mitts through Amazon. Yay! Now I can stop rationing mine!
At the jjimjilbang, you can buy a variety of spa services including a scrub, but I much prefer to scrub myself. The one time I paid for a scrub, the woman scrubbed me so hard that I ended up with scabs on my back!
Outside of the locker room and the public bath area, you do need to wear clothes. Try not to wander into the clothed areas when you’re naked! I’ve never seen this happen, but I’ve almost done it on accident. Now, it’s time to go back to your locker and put on those ugly clothes you were issued. I have a theory that the outfit is designed to be as ugly as possible to make sure that no one wants to steal them! The outfit looks like a set of scrubs (like a nurse wears), except the bottoms are shorts. They are almost always unflattering. It is a rare, rare, gorgeous creature that can manage to look good in this outfit! Now that you’re dressed, you can go to co-ed area of the jjimjilbang. Usually you’ll be following the signs for the saunas.
Again, like with the tubs, each jjimjilbang is different, but usually there are many, many different saunas to try. They range in temperature, and there’s usually even an ice room so that you can cool down from time to time. The sauna rooms usually have a sign outside that tell you the health benefits of that particular sauna. Maybe you’ll see a salt sauna, a charcoal sauna, or even an elevated-oxygen sauna.
Now you might want to head to the restaurant or café area and buy a drink or a bite to eat. Most places let you use your locker key as a sort of tab for your purchases. If that’s the case, you’ll pay at checkout. Jjimjilbangs usually have many areas to lounge around and just relax. You’ll see a lot of people lying around on mats with a cold drink and some sort of tablet or smart phone!
The entrance fee almost always entitles you to a 24-hour stay, and many people spend the night at a jjimjilbang in lieu of an expensive hotel. If you can handle sleeping on a mat in the floor, I highly recommend it. I slept overnight at a jjimjilbang once, and it was surprisingly comfortable. Just bring ear plugs! I’m a deep, deep sleeper, but the noise bothered even me!
In Korea, jjimjilbangs are incredibly common. There were 2 jjimjilbangs on my block alone! Wherever you are in Korea, you’re never far away from a jjimjilbang. Of all the things I love about Korea, I miss jjimjilbangs the most. Fortunately, you don’t have to be in Korea to experience a genuine jjimjilbang. Recently I went to Jeju Sauna in Duluth, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The water has chlorine and the prices are a bit higher, but other than that, I felt like I was back in Korea! Even outside of the jjimjilbang, I felt like I was back in Korea. If you’re looking for a thriving Koreatown in the states, check out the Atlanta area.
What about you guys? Have you ever been to a jjimjilbang or some other sort of public bath?