The Lessons I Learned From My First Trip to a South Korean Spa

Anyone who has ever visited a South Korean bathhouse can tell you that these are very different from your usual spas. For a start, everyone is naked! Try not to let that deter you though because South Korean spas – otherwise known as jjimjilbangs[1] – are the epitome of relaxation.

 

During my first trip to a jjimjilbang, I had no idea it was a naked spa. I was trying to leave the changing room, whilst wearing my bikini, when I was suddenly accosted by a K-beauty shop attendant, who was angrily repeating something in Korean. Desperate to understand why she was yelling, I kept repeating ‘mollayo’: I don’t know [2].  Abruptly, she began pointing at her chest and mimed taking off her clothes and all I could think was ‘shouldn’t you at least buy me dinner first?’. Luckily, an angel appeared and explained that I needed to go take off all my clothes, while laughing at my apparent shock. However, as soon as I left the changing room and saw that everyone was minding their own business, I quickly settled into a salt bath. 

 

Reclining in this 45-degree bath, a woman who appeared to be in her late-20’s silently approached me, with a wicked grin on her face, and pressed a worn button on the wall. Water rapidly began to bubble from every corner and, within seconds, was chaotically spilling over the edges of the pool. Unbeknownst to me, the part I believed to be a seating area was in actuallity a medieval torture device (okay, so I may be exaggerating, but this was truly the most painful jet massage I have ever endured!). Water was thrust against my back and feet with such determination I was convinced I would never walk again. Thankfully, as soon as the jets turned off, my muscles completely and entirely relaxed, leaving me mellow. 

 

Once I was suitably calm from my series of long soaks, I put on the pungent smelling brown jumpsuit, which was given to me on arrival, and joined the co-ed sauna area. Korean saunas are nothing like you would expect. Otherwise known as ‘hanjeungmak’ [3], these are tall wooden kilns that reach temperatures of 98-degrees [4]. I tried my hardest to enter the 95-degree room, but immediately ran out, feeling rather sorry for myself, after burning the soles of my feet. 

 

So far, visiting a jjimjilbang has been my biggest culture shock and not just because I was surrounded by naked people and baked in a pizza oven. Here are a few rules to help you navigate a jjimjilbang.

 

Dos:

Get naked

When in Rome, do as the Romans do; when in a jjimjilbang, get naked! It was a truly unique experience, for me, and I was shocked at how relaxing I found it. As this is a common pastime in South Korea, it is highly unlikely your nakedness will be given a second glance.

Try a scrub

The scrub procedures in South Korea are notorious for being painful, due to the sheer force the masseurs put into the treatment. However, these excruciating scrubs will leave you with the softest skin of your life. I seriously doubt babies have skin this smooth!

Make a full day out of it

Jjimjilbangs not only provide spa facilities but entertainment features too! When I visited Dragon Hill Spa, the centre offered: karaoke, PC rooms, game arcades, nap rooms, a swimming pool, a ton of restaurants, and even a cinema [5]. 

Be quiet

The purpose of a jjimjilbang is to unwind, don’t ruin that for other people! Whilst there are areas to socialise, respect the quieter areas where people are resting.

Socks 

In some saunas it is mandatory to wear socks, so you do not spread dirt across the main areas. Be sure to respect this custom, as it can cause a lot of offence if you do not conform to this rule. 

Wear your head towel 

When travelling across rooms you are likely to want to dry off; however, there is nowhere to leave your towel. The easiest way to keep hold of it is to wear it on your head! Many South Korean women even stylise it by fashioning the ends to look like sheep horns [7].

 

Don’ts:

Over exert yourself

Many of these spas contain ice rooms as well as saunas, meaning the temperature difference could be quite large. [6] If moving from one extreme temperature to another, you are almost guaranteed to pass out. I moved from a 15°C bath to a 40°C bath and felt light-headed almost immediately. 

Forget your swimming cap 

Often, jjimjilbangs have swimming pools, but you can only enter if you have a swimming cap. Whilst they do sell swimming caps in their onsite stores, it will cost you an arm and a leg! 

Lose your wristband 

This keeps track of money spent in restaurants, arcades, rentals, treatments, and all your belongings – this wristband is your life. Do not lose it!

Go into the baths with open wounds 

They may end up infected and can spread germs to other people. Also, if you’re in a mineral tub it’s just going to hurt.

Don’t Forget to monitor the time

You must exercise time management when visiting these facilities: if you have paid for 12-hours, then you must leave before your 12-hours are up. Staying for even a few minutes beyond your time limit can lead to being charged double.

 

Experiencing a South Korean spa is essential for anyone travelling to South Korea. This is a truly unique experience that you are unlikely to encounter elsewhere. My first visit was to ‘Dragon Hill’ near Yongsan station. I chose this spa because it was the most publicised and highest rated bathhouse I could find. For 12-hours during the day it cost 12,000 Korean Won (roughly £8) but if you venture here overnight it will be a little bit more expensive. I had a lovely experience here; however, I have heard many complain that the food is overpriced, and many thought the building looked run down. Personally, that didn’t bother me as the price was so low and there were many facilities.

 

[1] https://www.lingq.com/en/learn-korean-online/translate/ko/%EC%B0%9C%EC%A7%88%EB%B0%A9%EC%97%90/ 

[2] https://www.90daykorean.com/i-dont-know-in-korean/ 

[3] https://www.minervaquest.com/2017/12/07/getting-naked-korean-jimjilbang/ 

[4] http://www.dragonhillspa.com/en/the-spa/traditional-hardwood-charcoal-kiln/ 

[5] http://www.dragonhillspa.com/en/cinema/ 

[6] http://www.dragonhillspa.com/en/the-spa/iceroom/ 

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrCYd94XdTg

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