Koreans are especially skilled at several very important things. Incorporating chili paste into just about every dish, impeccable study skills, technological innovation, advertising plastic surgery…the list goes on. Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of discovering yet another Korean practice, the 찜질방 or jimjilbang – the Korea bathhouse or spa. There are tons of jimjilbangs all over Seoul and Korea, and people use them regularly to relax and rejuvenate. Spa culture is an important Korean tradition, and I’m definitely into traditions like this.
Jimjilbangs have overnight sleeping facilities, which only cost between 8,000 and 12,000 won ($8-$12), so lots of tourists and foreigners like me use them as a means of cheaply spending the night in Seoul. And by “sleeping facilities,” I don’t exactly mean 5-star hotel accommodations. Basically, there is a large room and everyone simply finds a spot on the floor to sleep. If you’re lucky, you might score a mat. But, these rooms vary from spa to spa: some have separate quieter rooms or scented rooms, it really depends on where you go. Some jimjilbangs even offer human-sized cubby holes with adjustable heaters—quite cozy indeed—but patrons are still left sleeping on hard surfaces. Koreans don’t seem to value sleep the way that westerners do. One jimjilbang I stayed at, the lights in the room were on, a TV blaring, and people sat around playing cards – all in the same room of about 75 sleeping people. Upon arrival, each person is given a key, shorts, and a t-shirt. After dropping off your shoes in a locker, you will head up to the locker room (men and women are segregated, naturally). We changed, left our clothing and bags in lockers, and found spots in the sleeping room. Because the floors are heated, it was actually not too difficult to fall pass out for a few hours. (Maybe also because it was 5am and we had been out dancing for the last 7 hours.)
After waking up in the morning, my friend and I decided to partake in the spa’s services. We ventured into the bathing room, and proceeded to spend the next few hours soaking in baths of differing temperatures with about 30 other naked Korean ladies. There were boiling hot baths, peppermint and rooibos flavored baths (we literally were soaking in a bath of tea!), and ice-cold baths as well. Oh, and I should add that the fountains in the women’s bathing room at Itaewon Land are literally shaped like penises. I am not joking…they aren’t simply phallic, they are actual penises. There are standing showers and “sitting showers,” where female friends and relatives diligently scrub one another with sponges, available for purchase just outside. You’re expected to shower before entering the tubs, but I think the communal scrubbing is an optional practice.
We then decided to splurge and indulge in a Korean scrub for 20,000 won ($20), saying goodbye to a lovely layer of dead skin. (I’ve heard that many Koreans think that westerners smell like dead skin. Now I know why.) After the vicious scrubbing was complete, I felt like a new person. The spas all offer dozens of services like this, from massages to pedicures to eyebrow threading. All of the jimjilbangs I’ve visited also have a food court, PC rooms, and sometimes norebang—the price is right and the options are endless. Koreans definitely know what’s up in the spa department. Highly recommended experience!
Where to Go