For first-time visitors to a bathhouse, the idea of stripping down in a public space may sound intimidating, especially in an unknown environment such as a South Korean jjimjilbang. Even for those familiar with a Moroccan hammam or Turkish bath practices, a jjimjilbang is still guaranteed to give you a completely new experience. Although you may be skeptical, once you try it for yourself, we promise you, you’ll wish the jjimjilbang was part of your weekly wellness routine. Before your first visit, you may have a few queries. To answer those questions, here’s everything you need to know before visiting one of South Korea’s jjimjilbang spas.
How to prepare for your first visit
1. Drink plenty of water.
Between sweating it out in the hot tubs, saunas, and kilns (more to come there) and having your skin scrubbed off, it’s easy to forget about water. Don’t let dehydration distract you from the moment.
2. Tattoos are OK.
For those who have visited one of nearby Japan’s legendary onsens you know that tattoos are taboo. So it makes sense to wonder if the same goes at a jjimjilbang. Rest assured though, your ink will not exclude you from this experience.
3. Wear loose clothing.
The last thing you want to do after a relaxing day at the spa is to squeeze back into those skinny jeans. Wear loose, comfortable clothes that barely kiss your new, baby-soft skin.
4. Pack the essentials.
You’ll shower at least twice on your own during the process, so take with you any shampoos, soaps, scrubs, and loofahs that you will need. You can pick up a couple of towels for wrapping your hair and drying off at check-in.
5. Relax into it.
Leave the stress at home. Even if you feel completely lost — which you still most likely will — there will be other friendly and eager people around to enlighten you.
The check-in process
When you arrive, check-in at the counter by picking up towels, a set of pajamas, and a numbered key that sometimes doubles as a tab for any other expenses while you’re inside. After you’ve picked up these essentials go to the next room or hallway. Kick off your shoes and match the number on your key to the numbers on the lockers that line the walls. Once you stow your shoes you’ll move on to the changing rooms. This is where men and women go their separate ways.
In the changing rooms, you’ll once again match the number on your key to the numbers on the lockers. This second locker is where you’ll store all your clothes and belongings, and, yes, this is where all your clothes must come off. This is normal to the Korean women or men around you. They probably won’t pay you much attention, so take full advantage of the airy and free feeling. If you’re really uncomfortable you can use the towels to cover yourself up a bit, but the towels usually run closer to the size of hand towels so the coverage is limited.
How to fully embrace the bathing room
Now that you’re naked your cleansing can begin. Take your toiletries into the bathing room and, before anything else, shower. Then choose from the baths heated to different temperatures, saunas, or one of the extra pampering options. Most Koreans come ready to scrub their own bodies down. It’s not required, but it’s a part of the experience that’s worth a try. Assistants are available to scrub, clean, and massage your body for you. For the adventurous, you can also try a steam tent, cupping, or cucumber facial, among others.
Once you’re in the bathing room, your time is yours. Rotate between baths, saunas, and treatments until you’re ready to move on.
Head back to the changing room and put on the pajamas you received at check-in. Then, go into the sleeping room. There are human-sized, slowly heated kilns — called hanjeungmak — lining the walls where you can comfortably sit or lay inside for 15-20 minutes before you start sweating. These kilns are wood or charcoal-burning and often lined with different minerals or salts for various health benefits. When you’ve had your fill, feel free to take a nap on the floor of the sleeping room. There are often pillows and blankets for added comfort as well and you can even pay a little extra to stay overnight.
The check-out process
After your much-needed nap, make your way back to the changing rooms. Once again, strip down — there will be a basket for your towels and pajamas — and take one last shower to rinse off. When you’re dressed and ready, go back through the check-in steps in the reverse order. Make sure you have everything out of your changing room locker, pick up your shoes, drop off your key at the counter, and just like that, you’re a jjimjilbang pro and devotee.
Best places in Seoul for the jjimjilbang experience
1. Dragon Hill Spa
It’s about more than just the jjimjilbang at this spa. When your massages and pampering sessions are over, you won’t even need to leave the comfort of the spa to experience other Korean highlights like karaoke, an arcade room, and a movie theater.
Where: 40-712 Hangangno 3(sam)-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (02-792-0001, 010-4223-0001)
2. The Spa in Garden 5
The approximately $9 entrance fee is a small price to pay to get access to this mini-city inside a spa. Detox in the Boolgama healing zone before getting a trim at the barbershop, relaxing for a film in the theater, finding a new read at the book cafe, and more.
Where: 10 Chungmin-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul (82-2-404-2700)
3. Spa Lei
After a day spent shopping in Seoul’s ritzy Gangnam district, the only natural thing to do is rejuvenate with a spa experience. The catch here is that access is exclusively for women. The shopping day doesn’t have to end when you enter the spa, either, as the spa caters to its female clientele with lingerie and jewelry stores.
Where: 8-22, Jamwon-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul (82-2-545-4002)
4. Itaewon Land
Escape from the notorious nightlife of Itaewon — or sweat out the soju from the night before — at this five-story jjimjilbang. Either way, it’s one of the best cleansing experiences around as the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources verified the high quality of the spa’s water.
Where: 732-20 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (82-2-749-4122)