Since this is about the public bathhouses in South Korea, there will be no pictures because taking a camera into that place is just… not too appropriate. In my opinion.
So yes, 찜질방 or jjimjilbangs are public bathhouses and saunas in South Korea.
I first got acquainted with a jjimjilbang during my first trip to South Korea. This was in June 2011. I was there with a couple of friends, and I remember feeling very, very self conscious when told to strip down to nothingness. Nothing. Not a stitch was to be on my body. Then I looked around. Nobody was looking at me. And everyone else was naked. After about 10 minutes, I got used to being naked in front of strangers. And life goes on as normal.
The process of going to a jjimjilbang is pretty straightforward. Here’s my routine at jjimjilbang:
First, remember to bring toiletries from the hotel/hostel. They have some for sale in the jimjilbang. Walk into the main door of a jjimjilbang and pay the entrance fee. This is usually about 8,000 won. The counter staff will hand over the following items: a set of jjimjilbang wear (usually pink for females), 1 or 2 towels and 1 key. Take this key and find the corresponding shoe locker with the number on the key. Put your shoes into this locker.
Next, find your clothes locker and put everything you have (including the clothes and underwear you have on) inside. Remember to bring along your toiletries and towel to the shower area.
I usually head towards the shower area for a soak and a scrub. Upon reaching the area, I set my stuff down in a dry place or a plastic basin and wash myself. In some jjimjilbangs, there are shower areas with curtains. These are marked (in Chinese or Hanja): “For foreigners’ use”. You could use them if you’re conscious about scrubbing yourself down in public. But in my opinion, nothing matters any more. Not after you get naked in front of 56 other women/men.
After I get clean, I head towards some middle-aged ladies wearing lacy underwear. They will usually be hard at work scrubbing down some other woman. There will be a price list in their vicinity. The first item on that list is usually a body scrub, usually priced around 20,000 won. Every other price on that list includes a scrub and “X” (“X” being the additional service you require). So for example, I asked for an oil massage (listed on the wall as ‘Oil Massage’ in Korean) and the lady gave me a body scrub AND an oil massage. 40,000 won.
So, okay. I shower and I tell the middle-aged ladies in lace underwear (ajuma from now on) that I want a body scrub and put myself in the queue. Some places require the customer to put down the cash and their locker key in order to place themselves in the queue. While waiting for my scrub, I dip myself into the warm (about 40-50 degree Celsius)/hot water (about 80-90 degree Celsius) to open up my pores. (I use the hot water bath only if I am feeling sadistic that day.) After 10 minutes (or when I can no longer take it), I dip myself in the cold water bath (usually under 10 degree Celsius). I repeat my time in the warm water bath. When I feel that the lady is going to call my locker number, I don’t go back into the cold water tub because it is more effective to scrub when my pores are open.
So I get to my turn, and ajuma indicates to me to place myself on her plastic covered bed. She proceeds to scrub. It’s usually a little painful but my skin feels wonderfully smooth afterwards. Dead skin cells roll off my body as she moves my limbs around like a fishmonger handling a dead fish. That’s a year’s worth of dead skin right there.
But seriously, getting the scrub is the highlight of my trip to the jjimjilbang.
After the scrub, I wash myself again. I can choose to go for another soak or dress to go to the unisex area.
At the common area, there are more saunas. There are many types of saunas – I have seen 90 degree Celsius ovens, salt saunas, charcoal ones, wood saunas, and the list goes on. The number of saunas varies from jjimjilbang to jjimjilbang. In the common area, there are massage chairs, computers, television sets, a small eatery and a playground. This is how a family can spend a whole day in the jjimjilbang. I skip from sauna to sauna, taking a pause in between saunas to put on a mask (usually free samples from makeup stores) or to eat/drink something. I particularly like to drink sik hye (rice juice), when I am in the sauna. My Korean friends tell me that thieving can be common in jjimjilbangs (one of my friends has got her phone stolen from her while she was in a jjimjilbang) so I leave all my valuables in my locker and keep 10,000 won in my pocket for food/drinks.
I get my fill of saunas and go back to the female area to shower. (I shower about 2-3 times in the jjimjilbang) I put my used clothes and towels in the clothes bins placed around the shower area. Use of the hairdryer is usually complimentary, but some places charge 200 won for 3 minutes or so. After putting on my clothes, I return my key to the counter and exit the jjimjilbang. I typically spend 3-4 hours in there.
And that’s it!
Also, does anyone know what the ajushi back scrubbers dress like? And, do many men go for scrubs? Let me know! (Since I can’t enter the male section of the jjimjilbang.)
There are many other ways to experience a jjimjilbang, and mine’s just how I like it. Some people have written about their experiences. I list them below for your convenience.
1). Eat Your Kimchi on the jjimjilbang experience
2). For a male’s perspective of the jjimjilbang
3). Grrrltraveler shows you how to spend the night at a jjimjilbang for cheap
4). Margaret’s tips on the jjimjilbang