The jjimjilbang (bathhouse) in Korea is the quintessential cultural pivot around which daily life rotates. Dotting the peninsula are hundreds, if not thousands, of bathhouses, where young families, business executives, students and tuckered-out nation-builders go to discuss important family matters, social issues, politics, or to simply soothe themselves into a state of devil-may-care rest and relaxation.
For the foreign visitor, a trip to a bathhouse is an important stop on any itinerary, regardless of time of year. It is a place where you can enjoy pure and unadulterated pampering, while giving you an insight into Korean customs and traditions. It is also a place for social bonding and homogenisation, and this is felt no sooner than when you surrender your shoes in a locker at the entrance.
What you’ll find inside
Bath areas are segregated by gender – and to wear a swimsuit is anathema to bathing etiquette. If being in your birthday suit isn’t enough to encourage collective identity building, there is also the yangmeori (Korean “lamb head”), a cleverly fashioned hand towel worn by all visitors. These “helmets” are meant to prevent perspiration from dripping into your eyes. It’s common for friends of the same sex – sometimes, even strangers – to scrub one another’s backs. Called “skinship” – a portmanteau of skin and kinship – this form of bonding is also practised between fathers and sons.
The buildings which house jjimjilbangs range in size from modest sheds to decked-out, six-storey palaces. Most of the latter offer the same fancy trappings: exercise rooms, computer stations, karaoke and TV rooms. You’ll also find massage and beauty services, dessert parlours, restaurants, snack booths and miscellaneous shops. There is usually a vast communal area where everyone can lie on an ondol (heated floor), a warming system carried over from traditional Korean homes. If your spine is feeling out of whack, the typical remedy in Korea is not to visit a chiropractor, but to lie on the ondol and place your head on a brick-sized slab of wood.
Indulging in delicious Korean cuisine is customary to the bathhouse experience. In family areas and TV rooms, visitors eat miyeokguk (seaweed soup) or baked eggs cooked in the hottest of saunas on site, and drink sikhye (a sweet beverage made from rice). Patbingsu, shaved ice topped with fruits and sweet sauces, is a common treat among the younger generations.
Baths and treatments
Every bathhouse offers cold and hot saunas, sodium chloride hot springs, salt and mugwort baths, and body scrubs called sesshin. This is a slightly painful and intrusive treatment that involves an ajeossi (middle-aged man) – or for the ladies, an ajumma (middle-aged woman) – scrubbing your body until dead skin sloughs off. This scrub is done with a very coarse fabric called the Korean Italy towel, which was imported by a fabric merchant who discovered its exceptional exfoliating qualities. A sesshin treatment typically takes about 45 to 60 minutes and it is the most liberating and purifying moment of a bathhouse visit. Some foreigners, however, avoid it altogether for its perceived grave violation of private space.
Jjimjilbangs to check out
Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul is a crowd favourite. With its unique Oriental-style interior, it has been a favourite filming location for many Korean dramas. An aroma of oak wafts through the air of this charcoal sauna, thanks to traditional heating methods. Like most bathhouses, it operates 24 hours and for that, it is often the night’s end for partygoers or businessmen in desperate need to sleep off the alcohol.
Siloam Spa, conveniently located near Seoul Station, is less crowded on weekends and to make up for their lack of sauna types, its sleeping area is spacious and comes with bunk beds. The bathhouse also has a number of speciality rooms such as a charcoal cold room, an ice room, and a heated Elvan jade room, all designed to purify, oxygenate and rejuvenate.
The champion of all Korean bathhouses has got to be Spa Land Centum City (35 Centumnam-daero, Tel: 82 51 745 2900; above) located in Busan, at the south-eastern tip of Korea. With 22 baths at varying temperatures boasting a variety of health benefits, Spa Land’s wet area is a veritable playground for the body. From improving cardiovascular performance to burning calories, it is easy to lose track of time in the steaming hot pools as the jets vigorously pump natural spring water from as deep as 1,000m underground.
The philosophy of the sauna, as old as time itself, shows a harmonious relationship between fire, air, water and earth. If you arrive in Korea and feel like you may be in need of such earthly elements, a visit to a jjimjilbang will surely help you restore mind, body and soul.
This article was first published at Silverkris.