There’s nothing quite like being at the mercy of a Korean ajumma, clad in just a black bra and panties, while lying stark naked and exposed in a public bathhouse full of dozens of similarly naked Korean women.
Now imagine said ajumma (a middle aged and/or married woman) is armed with two of the roughest scrubbing gloves you’ve ever laid eyes on, and she has your entire body as her canvas, to scrub, scrub, and scrub some more.
The Korean jjimjilbang (찜질방) scrub has been something I’ve both treated myself to and also inflicted upon myself as a mild punishment for not taking better care of my skin’s condition. This is simply because after just 20 minutes of the most vigorous scrubbing you’ll probably experience, your skin looks like new. For no more than 20,000 won ($18), the scrub (shesin or ddae miri) will increase blood circulation and remove all those dead skin cells, leaving your skin incredibly soft, purified, and glowing. It’s wonderfully rejuvenating, yet initially it can be quite painful.
First, you’re ordered by the scrub ajumma to soak in a medium temperature bath for 30 minutes pre-scrub. Always follow her advice, as you want the outer layer of your skin to be as soft and pliable (in other words, easy to remove) as possible. Make sure to use plain soap before the scrub, as shower gels may make your skin too slippery.
When you get to the ajumma’s table for your scrub, you can always ask for it to be more gentle — sal sal (살살). Of course, that’s no guarantee that the first few layers of your epidermis won’t be mercilessly (albeit caringly) scrubbed off. (Note to the queasy: You may notice small, squishy, rice-sized blobs stuck to your skin after about 10 minutes of scrubbing — this is normal and is just the top layer of dead skin clumping and rolling off. You’ll be all the better for it!)
Jjimjilbang, which translate roughly to “steam rooms,” can be found in all corners of the Korean peninsula and are part of the glue that holds a community together. It’s common for the whole family to spend the day, or a few hours, at the jjimjilbang, which is always separated by gender where the nude bathing is concerned. Mothers take their daughters along to teach them proper skincare techniques and spend quality time together; friends go for a natter and catch-up, while scrubbing each other’s backs.
Many people simply refer to these ubiquitous places as just jjimjilbang, but the place where you strip down and spend time soaking in hot baths and steam rooms is actually called a mogyoktang (목욕탕). In the common area of the jjimjilbang, where you don cotton pajama-like attire, young couples meet for cheap dates, friends sit back in massage chairs, and families drink the icy sweet fermented rice drink called sik-hye (식혜). The jjimjilbang is also home to various sauna rooms, or kilns, filled with jade stones, rock salt, crystals, or special wood. Choose which temperature you can endure best (they’re all either sweltering or even more sweltering), and you’re good to go.
A much loved feature for many weary travelers and party animals is the option to sleep over in one of the sleeping rooms, where for no more than the single entrance fee (about $6 for your run-of-the-mill version), you can crash on the floor. It may not be the comfiest night’s sleep, as the mat is no thicker than about 2 centimeters and there are bound to be a few snorers, but if the last train has departed and you want to skip paying high taxi fees, then just do it.
Of course, there’s more to the jjimjilbang these days than some hot pools, icy baths, and skin-melting saunas. In some of Seoul’s most popular spots, such as Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan, where the hilarious show Running Man was filmed, you can spend hours upon hours in the cinema, noraebang (karaoke), restaurants, and even an arcade game room.
In Spa Land in Busan, located inside the world’s largest department store, the water in the baths and pools is pumped from two types of hot springs that lie 100 meters underground and are sterilized 36 times per day. There’s a bathtub for everything you could possibly think your skin would ever need, like the sodium bicarbonate bath and hot springs to remove dead skin cells, make your skin shiny, and help with blood circulation and backache.
If that isn’t enough, then try out one of the 22 spas or 13 themed saunas with fancy features, such as the Salt Room, where at 50.5°C (123°F!) you can absorb the goodness of the world-famous Himalayan salt stones. If that doesn’t check your boxes, there’s the Yellow Ocher Room where you can have your brain waves “stabilized” by the high quality ocher that lines the walls. The Wave Dream Room has an atmosphere “akin to staying in the deep sea” and helps with relaxation. To top it off, try the Pyramid Room, which is “designed at a tilt angle of 52 degrees to absorb universal energy” so you can “experience a mysterious atmosphere in a pyramid space.”
Amusement park-themed rooms aside, a trip the jjimjilbang is an experience you won’t easily forget. Despite being a non-Korean, or waegukin, I haven’t had too many odd looks from my fellow bathers. I’ve had a curious 5-year-old swim over to me once to touch my skin and see if it felt any different, but other than that, I like to think that I blend right in.
If your local jjimjilbang, complete with curious kids and swooning couples, isn’t something you’re into, then there are other more luxurious options. Some say that Siloam Sauna is one of the best because if offers individual beds and different rooms for snorers and non-snorers. Spa Lei, a women-only luxury spa in Gangnam, is all about beauty and comfort. You could look at it like the Lululemon of Korean spas, and for only 12,000 won (about $12, which is considered high), it won’t blow the budget.
If you’ve never spent time naked with strangers or had the living daylights scrubbed out of you by an overly energetic Korean woman, I’d recommend a trip the jjimjilbang. Your entire body will benefit, and you’re bound to have some unique tales to tell.
Have you ever been to a jjimjilbang? What was your experience like and what’s your favorite (and least favorite part)?