Visiting a Korean jjimjilbang (or public bath) is one of those obligatory experiences that no one should avoid merely out of “dignity” or “shyness.” Your first visit can be confusing, so we’ve put together the how-to you’ll need to act like a natural when going au naturel.
Anthony loves a good soak in the Mokyoktang, but after three years of jjimjilbanging still isn’t quite sure what the jade room is supposed to do for you… besides stab at the soles of your feet. Playing board games in the common area is still his favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon, so long as there aren’t too many kiddos dashing about.
If you don’t know what a jjimjilbang is then, oh my, you are missing out. Essentially, a Jjimjilbang is a Korean public bath house, but there’s so much more to it than that. The meaning of jjimjilbang (찜질방) comes from jjimjil (찜질), a heated bath, but now refers to a whole bath house always comprised of baths and a heated communal resting area, and usually also including a range of other heated (or frozen) rooms and activity areas. Some even have movie theaters with massive, lounger-style seats.
And if you’re genuinely uncomfortable bathing communally (men and women are separate), it’s not compulsory. There will be signs about telling you to at least shower before entering the communal area, but it’s not like anyone’s checking (or will even notice). Besides, you’re foreign, you can’t read those signs! To avoid the public nudity bit, just get changed directly into your jjimjilbang clothing in the changing room, and then head on through to the communal area.
[note title=”Where to go?” align=”center”]It’s hard to find an area of Korea where you can’t find jjimjilbangs. For your first experience, however, you might be more comfortable going somewhere more used to foreigners. Here are three of the best:
- Dragon Hills Spa – Yongsan
The most popular choice for foreigners wanting to experience a Korean jjimjilbang, it’s a little too touristy for me. Also, when I went, the men’s baths were filthy. Still, everyone else seems to recommend it highly, so maybe mine was an exceptional experience. To get there, go to Yongsan station and exit down the main stairs. Hang a right, go straight 100m, and it’ll be in front of you.
- Siloam Sauna – Seoul Station
By far my favorite sauna in Seoul. It’s location next to Seoul Station makes it the perfect place for sleeping over before catching the airport train the next morning, and it has great facilities, including proper sleeping rooms and the best range of baths I’ve seen. To get there, ask for siloam (“shi-low-am”) at the help desk in Seoul Station and they’ll give you directions (or use this map I just made).
- Spa Land Centum City – Busan
Ah, the best for last. Slapped on to the side of the largest department store in the world is the world’s best bathhouse. The baths are really good, but it’s the communal area that really sets it apart. Water trickles down the outside of the 4-storey glass walls, and every amenity you can think of is to be found here. Oh, this is the place with a movie theater in it. Get off the subway at Centum City station and follow the signs through Shinsegae department store to get there.[/note]
Step 1: Pay, Receive Clothing
At the front desk you’ll probably find a table with different prices. Just say “jjimjilbang” to whoever’s working the front desk and make sure they give you a key (or, at the fancier places, an RFID tag) to wear around your wrist. Some places will also give you clothes at this point. Your clothes and key will probably be color-coded to your gender too. If you don’t get clothes, make sure to keep your receipt handy, as they may ask for it later.
The price of admission varies between W6,000 and W14,000, depending on the bathhouse, the day, and time of day.
At this point men and women go their separate ways, so look out for signs saying 남 (man) and 여 (woman), and follow them. Congrats, you’re inside!
Step 2: Take off Shoes, Enter the Changing Room
When you get to an area full of small lockers take off your shoes and place them in one. There will be an area to take off your shoes, so try not to wear them on the raised area beyond that. If there’s a removable key in the shoe locker take it with you.
Next, enter the changing room and find the locker that corresponds to the number on your key, which should open it. If you haven’t yet received any clothes then find the counter (it should be near the entrance) and show him your receipt and shoe locker key.
Step 3: Shower, Bath
[note title=”The Bathing Area” align=”right” width=”250″]Some of the many features on offer in the bathing area include:
- Baths at various temperatures
- Mugwort bath
- Salt bath
- Mud bath
- Cold bath
- Wet and dry saunas[/note]
If you’re squeamish about public nudity this is the bit you’re going to skip and head straight on to Step 4. You really should give it a try, though, at least once.
Everyone else, once all your clothes are securely tucked away in your locker, and you have your locker key around your wrist/ankle/appendage of preference, it’s time to find the baths. Look for steamy glass doors, signs saying 목욕탕, or just follow the naked people. (I wish I could include pics, but taking them is discouraged…)
Once inside, you should shower before getting into any of the baths or saunas. Soap, shampoo, toothbrush & toothpaste, etc. are available for sale in the changing room (W500-W1000). Then just take your time trying out all the different baths, pools, saunas, and lounging areas.
[note title=”The Scrub” align=”center”]If you’re extremely bold (and I’ve only once been persuaded into doing this once), you can get a scrub from one of the attendants within the bathing area. They are… vigorous. In my experience girls enjoy this more than boys do; personally, I was a little uncomfortable with the level of attention paid to certain, uh, delicate areas.[/note]
Step 4: “Fomentation”
“Fomentation” room is how Korea translates the communal area of the jjimjilbang, and a quick dictionary check reveals that it is a “substance used as a warm moist medicinal compress or poultice.” Huh?
Anyway, after you’re done bathing, and you’ve returned to your locker to put on the clothes the jjimjilbang provided you, follow the signs saying “fomentation”, or 찜질방, into the communal, unisex area. It may be on another floor or just through some hanging curtains.
Here you’ll find one or several big, open areas that look something like this:
leading off of this central area can be any number of rooms, including:
- Saunas – salt, clay, jade, etc.
- Ice rooms
- Sleeping rooms (often divided male/female and snoring/non-snoring)
- Table tennis rooms[/one_half][one_half_last]
- PC rooms (PC bang)
- Singing rooms (noraebang)
- Movie/TV rooms
- Meeting or event rooms
- Gym/Exercise rooms[/one_half_last]
It’s totally possible to spend a full day in these areas; Koreans come here for some time away from home, coming alone, with their family, or as couples. This does mean it can get pretty busy on weekends, though, and kids tend to be given the freedom to run around pretty much unrestricted, which can be annoying if you’re looking for some quiet time.
Step 5: Leaving
When you’re ready to leave, just head back into the changing rooms and get back into your street clothes (I like to take a change of clothes with me so I don’t have to get into dirty clothes after all that bathing), throwing your jjimjilbang clothes into the bin provided.
Then just recover your shoes and head out, trying not to be shocked when you realize how much time you managed to spend in there.
[note title=”Planning on moving to Korea and experiencing the Jimjilbang for yourself? ” align=”center”]
Have everything you need to start living and loving your new life in Korea, waiting for you when you arrive.
As an extra resource, check out the jjimjilbang vocab guide on the right.
For general information on traveling in Korea, see our guide “Travel in Korea: The 4 Essentials of Every Trip“.