A visit to a jimjilbang is high on many people’s lists of things to experience whilst in Korea.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, a jimjilbang is a gender segregated Korean spa and bath house – a little like a Turkish hammam, yet on a much, much larger scale.
Jimjilbangs are 24 hour pampering facilities spread across multiple floors. Within these complexes, you can expect to find various baths (featuring a mix of different temperatures and herbal infusions), saunas, massage facilities, rest areas, food services and, in some of the larger jimjilbangs, even entertainment facilities such as cinemas.
I visited Korea twice as a traveler before moving here, and I am ashamed to say that it took me over three months of living in the country before I finally mustered up the courage to venture off to a jimjilbang. What’s that I hear you ask? Why did it take me so long to visit such a delightful-sounding center of pampering and relaxation?
Well, a Korean jimjilbang is a naked affair. That’s right, you have to be absolutely starkers throughout. As a Westerner, I get a lot of stares pottering about in Seoul anyway, without having my tits out for half of Korea to see. As a result, I had been absolutely terrified at the concept for the longest time. In fact, once I arrived, I sat in the adjoining coffee shop mentally preparing myself for about 45 minutes before I finally felt brave enough to go inside (at which point, a lot of my decision was mostly because of the sheer annoyance that I’d feel towards myself if I was to turn away now, having traveled half way across the city to get here!)
This article relates to my experience at Spa Lei Women’s Jimjilbang, however the process within a jimjilbang is pretty much the same wherever you go.
Step One: Collect your towels, gown and wristband
As with many places in Korea, you need to take your shoes off before you go inside. There will be small lockers for you to place them into as soon as you enter so place them inside, take the numbered key and hand it to the receptionist.
Jimjilbangs are extremely reasonably priced – even those that are in the most exclusive locations typically come to around 14,000 Won for the first 12 hours, and then 1,000 won for each subsequent hour after. Many also offer treatment packages that include massages, facials, manicures and body scrubs.
If you enter, and then decide that you do actually want a certain treatment, you can just wander up to the relevant station and they will swipe your spa wrist band, for you to then be billed upon exiting.
You are given a towel, a gown and a wristband with your locker key attached, before being shown to your locker. You can request an extra towel if you like and they are often provided to you at no extra charge. (On this note, if you haven’t yet experienced Korean towels then you’re in for a treat. They’re the equivalent size of a western hand towel so wrapping it around you isn’t an option – you have to just pat dry the essentials and be on your merry way!)
Step Two: Get Naked and Shower
The locker room is where the nudist behavior begins – I awkwardly took off my clothes and dashed to the showers, covering as much of my modesty as possible with my teeny tiny towel.
You have to shower before entering (common courtesy, right?) and you must keep your hair tied back throughout the entirety of your time in the baths and saunas. I took my own toiletries but you can also buy them at the front desk of most jimjilbangs.
The panic and embarrassment kicked in when I dropped my towel and got into the shower. I dared myself to look around to see the dozens of peering eyes that would no doubt be staring at me since I stuck out like a sore thumb here, but as I glanced over my shoulder, I realized that no-one had even looked up from what they were doing.
I got over the self-consciousness of feeling naked and exposed pretty quickly after that – people come in all different shapes and sizes and nobody else gave a damn about how they, or anyone else’s bodies looked so after that, neither did I.
Step Three: Enjoy The Baths and Saunas!
I spent some time trying out the different baths and saunas. Koreans advise that using these in a certain sequence can lead to weight loss, but the jury’s still out on that one as far as I’m concerned!
Step Four: Try A Korean Body Scrub!
When I was sufficiently pruney from all of the baths, I trotted off to get my Korean body scrub. In summary, this is where you lay flat on a table (still naked, of course) and a lady scrubs all of the dead skin off your body using rough exfoliating brushes that are strapped to her hands.
It sounds a little unpleasant (and I will admit, it is somewhat!), but trying this is certainly something that I would place high on my list of recommendations of things you ought to do whilst you are in Korea.
The results were shocking – prepare to shed like a snake! I think that I must have lost about six pounds just in dead skin! I’m talking long, grey, pencil shaped rolls of dead skin with magnificent girth to them. (I’m sorry for the graphic imagery, but I just feel that I need to emphasise the sheer extent of this!).
“This is your first body scrub?” the ajumma asked me, chuckling as skin rolls the size of Azerbaijan came from my arms and legs and dropped onto the floor – what an absolute troll I felt! She was removing dead skin for over an hour, leaving no square centimeter of skin untouched. I never thought that I’d see the day that I would lay face down and naked on a table as an old lady spent ten minutes scrubbing my bottom, but I guess that life is full of surprises!
When she had finished, she abruptly stopped and threw multiple buckets of warm water over me before exclaiming “the end!” (All very relaxing, as you can imagine!)
Before this, I had considered my bath time game pretty strong anyway – I’m constantly using body scrubs and exfoliating products so I was stunned by the results, to say the least!
Step Five: Continue Relaxing At The Jimjilbang
Jimjilbangs have “rest rooms” where you can take a nap, or just sit and unwind. Since they are 24 hour facilities, many people often opt to sleep here. I pulled up a tatami mat, bought an ice tea from the snacks counter and just sat and relaxed for a while.
Step Six: Get Ready & Leave
The facilities at Spa Lei were really lovely, and there was a large dressing room that reminded me of those glamorous dressing rooms that you see models sitting in on fashion week coverage. The walls were lined with mirrors and chairs, and an array of styling tools (hairdryers, hair straighteners and accessories) that you could use, along with complimentary cleansing products. Most jimjilbangs have a similar such room, however I’m not sure if they are of comparable standards.
There will be a bin where you can drop your used towels and gown on your way out. When you arrive back at the reception, hand the lady your wristband and she will return your shoe locker key. If you opted for a treatment package, you would have paid up front, but if you decided to have treatments or buy food or drink within the jimjilbang, now is the time to pay.
You don’t need a reservation to visit a jimjilbang, you can just walk in. Depending on the jimjilbang, if you opt for a treatment package, you may be given a time slot for each treatment. Weekends are generally busier, particularly at Dragon Hill Spa which is arguably the largest, and the most popular among Westerners.
Best Jimjilbangs in Seoul
Spa Lei – Located in Seoul’s fancy Sinsa district, this jimjilbang was an obvious choice for me as a first jimjilbang experience, based on the fact that it is Women’s only and its glamorous location within the city meant that I could tie in my visit with some exploration of this neighbourhood afterwards. Although the staff couldn’t speak a great deal of English, they were extremely friendly and accommodating. The signs within the facility, their treatment list, and their website are also in English.
Website: Click Here
Address: 8-22, Jamwon-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul
Basic Price: 14,000 Won for 12 hours, 1,000 Won for each subsequent hour
Dragon Hill Spa – Dragon Hill have a great reputation within Seoul on the basis that they are used to accommodating foreigners. It is the largest jimjilbang in the city – featuring a high number of different baths and saunas, a cinema complex, a gym and even a horseback riding simulator!
Website: Click Here
Address: 40-712 Hangangno 3(sam)-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Basic Price: 14,000 Won for 12 hours, 1,000 Won for each subsequent hour
Siloam Sauna – From the outside, this place doesn’t look like much but Siloam Sauna is also one of the most highly recommended jimjilbangs in Seoul.
No Website – Click Here For Korean Tourist Board Information
Address: 128-104 Jungnim-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul
Basic Price: 10,000 Won
Smaller Jimjilbangs – Koreans take their bathing very seriously and many people visit jimjilbangs for a soak and a scrub on a weekly basis. As a result, they can be found on virtually every other street – just look for the jimjilbang symbol (a red, illuminated fire icon). If you can speak a basic amount of Korean, you ought to be fine in these and you shouldn’t let being the only westerner put you off – I was the only westerner at Spa Lei, and no one batted an eyelid.
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