South Korea is most known for technology, popular culture, the recent Olympics, and delicious (and spicy) food. But have you ever heard of Jimjilbangs?
Jimjilbangs are large public bath houses that are open 24 hours and are extremely popular with both the locals and tourists. They are often a few floors tall, with one floor dedicated to the traditional ideas of what a bathhouse is – containing showers, saunas, and giant hot tubs filled with different kinds of traditional medicines. But the other floors are unisex and have sleeping quarters, norebangs (karaoke), snack bars and restaurants, TV rooms, exercise rooms, video game rooms, and sauna rooms that contain different temperatures for your enjoyment.
Jimjilbangs are everywhere in South Korea but most are centered where there is the highest percentage of local commuters (around Seoul Station) or where there are a good amount of tourists.
The cost of admittance is reasonably cheap, around $7-$18 dollars per person with different prices for children. Once entering and paying you will be given a set of sauna clothes and a key for a locker. Men and women separate to their locker rooms and change into the clothes, putting any backpacks or bags in the lockers.
If you are going downstairs to the washing room, which most people start with, you have to go down completely naked. Everyone does and it isn’t a big deal so try not to feel too self conscious about it because everyone is in the same boat.
You need to use the shower before entering the tubs and usually this is where woman will clean themselves completely and wash their hair. You’ll notice that most will have a colored mitten that they use as a scrubber to get every inch of dirt off their skin before they use the tubs. There is also a service that you can pay to get the famous Korean body scrub, where they rub down your skin within an inch of its life, turning you into a clean, pink lobster.
There are different tubs of a mix of temperatures, some with healing medicine in it and others with jets. The older ladies (ajummas) often gather in the biggest tub, the cold tub and do exercises together.
(I couldn’t get a picture to show because everyone was naked and that would be weird)
A word of warning – if you are a foreigner and look “especially foreign” (if you have red hair, are very tall, have defined muscles, are a person of color, etc), you will most likely be stared at for a while once you enter. This is true if you have tattoos as well, because for a long time tattoos were associated with gang culture in Korea and whereas this is changing now, some older Koreans will stare due to the unfamiliarity of it.
Their stares are not malicious so whereas it might feel uncomfortable at first, most are merely curious about you. For instance, I am 6’0 tall and I have more muscles than a woman in Korea usually has. My sister and mother are similar in that they are a few inches shorter but have a similar build. We got stared at for a while but once you get in the baths with them they will smile and sometimes even include you in the exercises they are doing (the pools are very large).
A word for men – There is a stereotype in Korea that foreign men have very large penises, so if you are a non-Asian looking foreigner, especially of Caucasian or African descent, you will probably get some stares in places you won’t want them.
Leaving the bath room, you put back on your sauna clothes and go upstairs. A sign near the elevator will show you which floor has what. The sleeping chambers are often at the very top floor.
Top tip! – For those on a budget, jimjilbangs are like a 5 star hostel without all the awkward mingling. You can stay for as long as you want for around $7-18 a day and the sleeping rooms are always open, there’s even a room for those who snore!
My favorite floor to go to is one with all the different sauna rooms. They all have different temperatures and most have a different ground material – for instance some have beads you lay on top of or wood, etc. Since most of the rooms are warm rooms, I also recommend using the cold room from time to time to cool off.
A word of warning – drink lots of water. Sweating is good but be careful not to dehydrate yourself.
They all have a different theme, each with a different health target. For instance, charcoal lined rooms for detoxifying (which sounds unhealthy but actually isn’t), the oxygen room for the lungs, a cold room for your pores, etc – there’s many of them.
The jimjilbang I visited, the Siloam Sauna near Seoul Station, had heated floors on this level, with a snack bar and TVs. My sister and I tried to make the famous lamb head towel hat but failed and instead laid about for hours relaxing.
My mother was more interested in visiting the various other floors and all they had to offer. She found the sleeping rooms fascinating, separated in sleeping preference and all comfortable.
(Below, a blurry picture of the beds in the sleeping rooms)
Seoul is a hectic city, with nearly 10 million people living their lives. A jimjilbang is a great way to hang out with your friends and relax. It has proven health benefits and if you don’t want to go for your health, go for the karaoke, library, meetings rooms, video game room, food, or even just a nap.
Jimjilbangs combine some of the best parts of Korean culture in a pretty, hygienic package. It should be a must in any person’s itinerary when visiting South Korea.
Top Tip! – This is a great place to go if you have a long layover and you’re exhausted, if you have a red-eye flight, or if you want somewhere quiet and relaxing to adjust to the time difference.
- Siloam Sauna/Spa – 49 Jungnim-ro, Jungnim-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea