Imagine riding the subway in Korea: grandmothers, couples, business people; the black and grey coats; the perfect appearances and conservative interactions. Now imagine all these people — completely naked. Scrubbing each other’s backs. And chatting amicably.
This phenomenon, far from uncommon, is a Korean cultural institution and if you go it may make the list of your most meaningful and self-reflective cultural experiences to date.
The jimjilbang (literal translation: heating room) is a Korean bathhouse with standing and sitting showers, mineral pools, wet and dry saunas, and additional spa services like body scrubs, massages, and facials.
Jimjilbangs, however, are far more than just baths. They serve as one-stop-shops for relaxation, with spaces to eat, sleep, watch TV, or just chill on your phone or read. People go for alone time, entertainment, socialization, and self-care. With 2,500 in Seoul alone and more in major cities worldwide (including Minerva destinations San Francisco and Berlin), spa-seekers have their pick of locations.
Even for those with previous sauna or spa experience, a jimjilbang will likely prove to be something very different. Most of us might view spas or saunas, and especially nakedness, as a private experience. The jimjilbang is both an individual and community experience.
Walking into the female showers and pools (wet-areas are sex-separated, whereas dry areas are communal), one sees grandmothers relaxing in 40°C pools with their eyes closed, allowing the jets to soothe their tired muscles. Mothers scrub their daughters’ backs, girlfriends chat in pairs, a middle-aged woman enters a sauna and begins a series of yoga exercises. People shower, soak, soothe, steam, scrub, and shave in an endless stream.
It is a 24/7 rotating door of self-care. Everyone is equal. Everyone’s presence is valid. No person’s body is worth more than another’s. There is no “body positivity” because there is no need for it: everyone has a body, and everyone is there to take care of it. That is the end of the story. No comparisons. No positive or negative. Everyone belongs.
There are many things to learn from jimjilbang culture. What if spas were not a place to attain beauty or perfection, but simply a place of care for self?
Not an unjustifiable luxury, but accessible legitimacy? (Jimjilbangs in Korea are only ₩9000, less than $10 USD).
How would we experience the world if we operated from the perspective that our bodies are simply bodies, and we only have to experience them and take care of them, not compare them?
What if we could just lie in a pool and sit with ourselves, not worrying about what we looked like or what anyone else thought?
It is difficult to operate with this perspective in the everyday world, where body and self comparisons abound. Especially in Korean society, harmony, conformity, and capitalism come together to prioritize flawlessness and fitting in above all else.
Yet, step into a jimjilbang and you escape into a space that embodies the opposites of everyday life, at least for a while.
I challenge you to try it, just once.
The experience might feel vulnerable at first, but it may also feel freeing.
So get naked. I dare you.
Jiljilbangs in Seoul: The How-To
Usually ₩9000 before 8:00 PM and ₩12,000 after, per 24/hour period. Includes sleeping over. Extra services inside (ex, food, massages) are added to guests’ tabs based on the number on their key-card, and paid upon leaving.
Avoid going in large groups, preferably two or three maximum. Going with friends can ease nerves, but going solo allows you to prioritize your own experience. Talk quietly, remember you are sharing a public space and others are there for relaxation and space.
The Door-to-Door Experience
Arrive, take shoes off, pay and get towels, shorts and shirt, and bracelet with locker key attached.
Go into sex-segregated shower rooms, usually the first or second floor of the jimjilbang. Strip, place all clothes in locker and put key bracelet around ankle.
Enter the “wet area” (pools, saunas, etc) with any personal care items (shampoo, soap, scrubbing cloths, shaving materials, etc) you may want. You can place them in a plastic tub inside the wet area. Many people bring one of the two jimjilbang-provided towels with them here, either to wrap their hair in, or to cover their face in the very hot saunas.
Step one: Shower or rinse in the standing-up shower. Cleanliness is important before entering the public baths. Shaving is not required nor expected.
Step two: Explore the varying temperatures of hot pools and saunas. Make sure to take a cool-down rise or bath once in awhile to regulate body temperature.
Step three: Sit-down-shower and scrub. Here is where Koreans give themselves and each other a serious scrub-down using rough “scrub mitts” to remove all dead skin from their bodies, as well as shave, brush their teeth, and any other form of personal care desired. There are also scrub and massage services inside the wet area, ranging from ₩20,000 for a full-body scrub, ₩45,000 for a 40-minute massage, and additional prices for more advanced massages.
Step four: Exit the shower, dry off, and use the complimentary lotions and personal care items, or your own. Hair dryers are provided, but some jimjilbangs have them and charge by coin-usage, so you may want to bring your own. Return to your locker and put on your jimjilbang shorts and shirt.
Beyond the wet areas, there are also dry-areas which go by many different names including “fomenting rooms,” but involve hot and cold dry-saunas, fitness centers, TV rooms, cinemas, cafeterias, snack bars, and floor space for relaxing where people read, sleep, or hang out together.
Optional dry services: massages, aesthetic services (nails, facials etc), hair services. Although the jimjilbangs operate 24/7, these additional services might shut down by 10 PM. They may be in the communal or gender-segregated areas.
All jimjilbangs will have sleeping rooms, and sleeping is included in the standard jimjilbang fee. Some jimjilbangs only have rooms where everyone sleeps on a mat on the floor with a blanket, others which have separate bunks. Most will have the option of gender-separated rooms as well as rooms for “snorers.” Koreans seem able to sleep anywhere, perhaps due to a long tradition of sleeping on the floor and a love for the traditional heated floor system (ondol). If you are a more particular sleeper however, bringing your own additional blanket, eye-mask, ear plugs, water, and small pillow. Note that most sleeping areas do not have chargers for electronics, so keep a power port in mind.
Lastly, if you want more detailed information on a specific jimjilbang and its services, many online travel blogs will let you know exactly what to expect.
Where to Go in Seoul
The Local Option: Gold Spa (Gangnam Station)
Just a few blocks from the Minerva residence, Gold offers a local, community jimjilbang experience and a nice selection of pools and saunas. The wet and dry areas is combined, so the entire jimjilbang is gender separated. Non-Korean visitors are not as common here, so staff and locals will likely be curious and friendly. Bonus: has a hanjeungmak, or traditional dome kiln-like sauna, so you can experience transitioning from the hot hanjeungmak to the relaxation room and back.
The International Option: Siloam Sauna (Seoul Station)
Rated as one of the top jimjilbangs in Seoul, Siloam is frequented by international visitors, making it a good choice is you are nervous about fitting in. With a wide selection of pools, large amount of shower space, and a bit of additional information provided in English, Siloam should feel quite comfortable. If you transit by subway, mind that Seoul Station and mall are huge and easy to get lost in. Taking Exit 15 will be easiest — it may not be well marked, but follow signs for the airport. Otherwise, the bus may be simplest.
Dragon Hills Spa (Yongsan Station)
Designated famous tour site in Seoul, Dragon Hills is quite tourist-friendly and aesthetically polished, but with fewer saunas than Siloam and up-charges for food and other amenities more aggressively. It operates somewhat more on a Western spa model, with different package options.
Riverside Spa Land (Gangbyeon Station)
This spa has sparkle, and over 10 “theme rooms.” Maybe not quite as traditional, but quite fun. Also features a comic book room.
Sparex (Dongmyo Station)
This spa has quite good TripAdvisor reviews, although Minervans did not find it to be anything special. A little more clinical and distant than warm and spa-like However, it is a solid option if you are in the area. It can be a bit tricky to find, but simply locate Exit 6 of Dongmyo Station and Sparex will be directly thirteen floors up.
If I’d have to recommend one last place to visit in Seoul, the jimjilbang would most definitely be it. So what are you waiting for? Take a friend, pick an evening, and make some space for exploration and yourself.
This is the third piece in Esther Wenger’s monthly series on self-care throughout the academic year. Keep an eye out for her next piece in January.