One thing I recommend to foreigners when they travel to Korea is “definitely visit a jjimjilbang while you’re there”. These come in all shapes and sizes, but a jjimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse or spa that caters to Koreans and others as a way to relax and even realign your energies. The typical bathhouse has gendered bathing areas and sleeping rooms, they unfortunately are not yet transgender friendly. Other features may be an arcade, a scrubbing station, Karaoke, steam and ice rooms, outdoor pools, restaurants, masseuses, and even movie viewing areas. In bigger bathhouses, the pool, restaurant and other amenities may be mixed gender.
When you check in, you receive a towel, clothes, and a wristband with a sensor and key. This wristband will allow you to pay for whatever services you use while there, including full body scrubs and massages. The bathing areas are communal and will have a section for you to lock your clothes and belongings in the provided lockers. This, in turn, has an area for bathrooms and getting ready to go back out in society.
The bathing area has between five and ten different pools for you to use ranging from very cold to almost scalding. The bathhouse I visited, Dragon Hill Spa, has gingseng baths which were delightful and so comfortable. The outdoor gingseng bath in particular was awesome as I could relax in the sun and bathe.
Don't Be an Uninformed Foreigner
One of the biggest faux pas you can possibly make in a Korean bath house is not knowing what you should do when at a bath house. Upon arrival, you will receive: 1 small towel (not great for much if you're not used to it a.k.a American), the most unflattering baggy shorts and t-shirt, and a receipt or wristband for the lockers. When you first enter and get your wrist band, you will go to a small locker room where you will store your shoes, the locker number will coincide with either your wristband number or the number on your receipt, as well as a locker in the main gendered locker room where you will store your belongings (bags, clothes, etcetera). Once you reach the main locker room you can choose to either strip down and go straight to the baths or put on the clothing provided and explore, either is great, I prefer to bathe first instead of other things. Don't be afraid, you'll likely be more self-conscious than others will be, just relax and enjoy the experience.
You Should DEFINITELY Shower Beforehand
This is imperative and a massive mistake I made when I was there. I didn’t know about this and I did it wrong. When you get there, showers are set up in the bathing areas for you to wash off shampoos, conditioners, and any body wash. It also helps to remove any natural oils that could cause issues in the filtration system, after all you’ll be using these as well as other people. The same way you should shower before swimming you should shower before going in the pools. This allows them to keep the pools clean and free of any chemicals or particles that may clog them or cause diseases. It also keeps irritants like perfumes from getting into communal bathing areas. If you don’t do this, you may be contaminating the baths as they are not all salinated or chlorinated. This ensures a safe, clean environment for visitors and reduces the amount of work that employees have to do.
You Will Get Some Stares
This is, unfortunately, going to be the case for any foreigner at a bathhouse, especially if you present as another race. The stares are more so because of curiosity than disdain and are not sexual in nature. An important aspect of a bathhouse is that in the bathing areas you are completely naked and as such you may be the first foreigner that they have seen there or have seen in that way. It’s totally okay though, no one will be rude about it and there is a likelihood that you may be ignored altogether. If you have tattoos, that may be the only time you may even have someone look at you in an angry way as tattoos are still seen as taboo by older Koreans. But, if you're looking for a tattoo artist in Seoul I recommend Key.
You’ll Realize That Western Culture is Much More Conservative
As an American you wouldn’t think that we’re all too conservative, considering the normalizing of skin. However, Americans also see nakedness in a sexual way, rather than a natural way. Due to this, Americans are much more conservative than Koreans, even though Koreans typically cover up more.
In bathhouses, you spend a decent amount of time completely nude. As an American, this was a completely freeing moment for me as I did not feel uncomfortable. While there, people of every size, shape, and age (but of your gender) will walk around in the buff while doing things like showering, bathing, scrubbing, and massaging. It feels completely natural and definitely was one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time. I didn’t have to worry about clothes or what others thought about me, I was able to just relax in the moment and lay back.
You Don't Have to Do the Math
One of the best things about bath houses is that they can take the guesswork out of keeping track of extra amenities so that you don’t have to. Their pay at the end of your stay model allow you to use your wristband to keep track of purchases by scanning instead of forcing you to remember at the end. This way, you don’t need to carry cash nor a credit card when you’re out and about in the spa itself.
Most bathhouses have a base price that is increased based on what services you use, getting a massage? $50. Want some french fries at the rooftop cafe? $11. Maybe want to sing some tunes? $2.50. It can add up but only based on what you choose to do and eat. If you’re not planning on spending on the extras, the $14 USD entrance price is NOTHING with the free amenities they have.
Spend the Night if You Like
While you may think sleeping in a room full of strangers is a little weird, it’s a very common cultural thing in Korea. Some spas have separate sleeping areas for each gender but others have family or communal sleeping spaces. This is extremely beneficial if you’re between travel destinations and need a cheap place to crash for a night, or if you drank too much and just need to sleep off the hangover. They do charge by the day, but 14$ a day is much cheaper than a $100 hotel room. Many families will be in these spaces using the amenities and you don’t have to be afraid, no one will bother you. In fact, I got such a great nap in that I was well rested after my day of relaxation.
There are so many features of Korean Jjimjilbangs that you will come to know and love as you spend time there. From the bathing areas to the sleeping rooms there are things to do for everyone. Not all bath houses are the same nor are they going to charge the same prices, however, you will always be able to enjoy your time if you plan accordingly.
I went to Dragon Hills Spa and Resort so if you're looking for a clean, safe environment I really enjoyed their service, you can check out there services here
For more information on Korean spas and bathhouses check out this link from vloggers Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine