If you had to guess where most Koreans go to wind down on weekends, where would it be? No, it’s not some park or some beach… but a Jjimjilbang, the Korean spa! Mind you, for me, it’s up there among the top things to do in Korea.
If you’ve seen SOME Korean dramas, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about, as the traditional spa has made multiple appearances in the media. But even if you haven’t heard of it before, by the end of this post, you’ll have enough information to make your decision and visit a jjimjilbang for the first time… or not. But trust me though, if slow travel is your thing, you won’t want to skip this one.
What is a Jjimjilbang?
The word Jjimjil (찜질) means fomentation, and its verb form means to relieve pain and inflammation with a hot/cold pack, or appliance of herbs. The word Bang (방) means room. So Jjimjilbang literally means something along the lines of “Sickness relief room.” And believe me when I say… it really does feel that nice.
What to Expect
First and foremost, because this tends to freak people out… You don’t wear clothes inside the Korean spa. And I mean NOTHING. This might sound terrifying, but I promise you, you’ll get used to it pretty quickly because everyone treats this as such a regular thing. There’s no staring, no peaking, and no weird comments. If anything, everyone is going about their days as if they were all wearing clothes.
This will also explain to you why this particular blog post has a limited amount of photos. Cameras are not allowed as soon as you enter the locker area.
Of course, if you’re going to an all-gender spa, the bathrooms, and locker rooms are gender-segregated. And you will wear clothes in the common hang-out area.
What to Bring
All Jjimjilbangs have most of these items, so treat this list more as a suggestion. If an item has (**) marked, that means you’re on your own if you don’t bring it. But I’ve visited while bringing NOTHING plenty of times.
- Facial cleanser**
- Make-up remover**
- Body wash
- Normal-sized towel
- Hair ties**
- Toothbrush and toothpaste**
Visiting a Korean spa: Step-by-step
There are certain etiquettes to visiting these Korean spas, and I’ve seen a couple of foreign visitors looking lost when they first visit. So in this section, I’ll be breaking down the main steps for going about your first Jjimjilbang experience. Unfortunately, there will be no more photos from here on, so please bear with me.
Step 1: Shoes off & check-in
The first thing you would want to do when you enter the lobby area is take off your shoes and carry them with you to the front desk to check-in.
In some places, the shoe lockers will be right there in the lobby. In this case, please put your shoes into one of the lockers first and take the key. Upon check-in, they will give you these items:
- a locker key (attached to a wristband) with the same number as the shoe locker number you’ve chosen
- Wear the wristband at all times (or put it on your ankle) since you will need it when you buy food and drinks inside.
- A bathrobe OR a pair of comfortable shorts and a shirt
- Two little towels
- By little, I mean hair towel size. This is why I recommend bringing a towel with you if you’re not used to drying up with such small towels. I’ve personally been fine without my own towel.
Once you’ve paid your entry fee (usually between 8-12 USD depending on the place), you’ll take your robe, towel, and head to the locker room.
Step 2: Locker room
Here, you’ll look for your locker, and put all of your belongings in there along with all of your clothes. From this point on, you’ll see very few people wearing anything at all. So take a deep, calming breath in, and strip away.
If you need to remove any makeup, do so in the locker area’s powder room. There, you’ll find huge mirrors, facial tissue, hair dryers, and other women getting ready to go in, or getting ready to leave.
Once you’re ready to go into the bathroom, wear your key wristband, grab ONE of the two towels (your bathrobe if they gave you one, your bathing supplies if you’ve brought them), and mosey on into the bathroom.
Step 3: Explore the bathroom
Sometimes called “The Wet Room,” this is quite literally a jacuzzi paradise. You will see pool after pool, after pool, all with different temperatures and different herbal aromas. If you’ve been to a Japanese onsen, this is probably not news to you.
Upon entering, look for a shelf of cubby lockers, if any. If there is one, put your towel (and bathrobe) in the cubby and go find the showers.
FIRST: get clean!
This is the most important Korean spa etiquette so please don’t ever, ever skip this step!
Usually, the shower area will be a line of low walls and low plastic stools with shower heads. Take a seat at one of the stools and scrub yourself clean with soap and shampoo.
Once you’re all done and clean, tie up your hair before going into any pool at all (very important as well.)
There will usually be ONE cold pool in the bathroom. By cold, I mean 15 Degrees Celcius (59 Fahrenheit). This is the first pool you’d want to go into. And the pool you’d want to keep coming back to between the hot pools to reset your body temperature.
Getting in feels brutal, but holding your breath and sinking your whole body in quickly is the easiest way. You do not need to soak in here for long. Just 5-10 seconds will do unless you enjoy the cold.
These hot pools are where all the fun is at. Please note the temperature screen by each pool to see how hot they are (all marked in Celcius).
You can keep switching between these event baths for as long as you’d like. But it’s not recommended to go from one hot pool to another hot pool. So don’t forget to alternate between these hot ones and the cold pool.
Usually, there will be a wet sauna room inside the bathroom as well. If there is one, treat it like another hot pool. Dip yourself in the cold pool quickly before entering, but don’t forget to take a quick shower before going back into the cold pool!
Doing some light stretching in here is normal. The locals like to do it, too 🙂
Keeping in mind that these will require extra payment, you can opt for a body scrub available inside the bathroom. Just walk up to one of the Ajummas (older ladies) working in the body scrub section and ask for a time slot. They will let you know when to come back for your turn.
A word of caution: These scrubs are NOT for relaxation. These Ajummas will savagely scrub dead skin off every corner of your body. It’s a bit of a jarring experience, but your skin will literally brighten up and feel a lot softer afterward.
If you want a body scrub, I recommend spending at least 40 minutes to an hour soaking in the hot baths first. This will soften up your skin so the body scrub isn’t painful.
Step 4: Explore the saunas
Once you’ve soaked in the pools to your heart’s content, it’s now time to explore the saunas, which are the very core of Jjimjilbangs. There are a few different types so I’ll briefly explain what each of them does below.
But before you head into the saunas, grab your towel, get dried up, and head back to your locker to put on the shirt and shorts you were given. If you’re in an all-gender Jjimjilbang, this part of the spa will have both men and women using the facilities.
Traditional Korean Sauna
This sauna is usually a stone room shaped like an igloo, but the temperature is the complete opposite of an igloo. It is quite literally scorching but can become addictive if you can get over the initial heat and build up a tolerance for it.
Infused with quality pinewood and other herbs, this sauna is an ancient health and beauty technique that helps promote body functions, including metabolism, and relieve nerve pains.
The first time I went in, I couldn’t stay for longer than 20-30 seconds. Now I’m averaging around 5 minutes. I highly recommend pushing through and getting somewhat used to it as it seems to be the most useful among the sauna rooms in my opinion. But please, monitor your own body temperature and how you’re feeling, and don’t push your limits too far.
Red Clay Sauna
The red clay room is pretty hot as well, but not nearly as intense as the traditional sauna. The average temperature of a red clay sauna is between 70-80 Degrees Celcius (158-176 F)
Probably shown most in the Korean media (dramas and reality shows), the floor of this room is covered in little balls of red clay. These red clay balls generate far-infrared rays that help release harmful substances from our body cells, hence detoxifying the system.
The least intense of the 3 is the Charcoal room, with temperatures ranging from 60-70 Degrees Celcius (140-158 F). Infused with minerals like Calcium, magnesium, sodium, and iron, this sauna helps maintain our body’s electrical balance and relieves many discomforts.
Step 5: Sweat it out in the relaxing area
This “relaxing area” is also famous for appearing in the media like dramas and reality shows. This is usually where the snack bar will be. All you need to buy some snacks and drinks is to give the salesperson your locker key to scan. Any expense you have will be charged at check-out.
You’re also allowed to bring your phone with you to use, but please be considerate of other guests and don’t take pictures.
Step 6: Shower and get ready to leave
Koreans usually spend an entire day or more in a Jjimjilbang facility. If you’re tight on budget, you can spend the night since they’re open 24 hours.
But if you’re ready to leave, head over to the shower and wash off the sweat, put your clothes back on, and go to the front desk to check out. Here, you will get your shoe locker key back. Don’t forget that if you’ve bought any food and drinks inside, you will have to pay for those before you leave.
And that should wrap up your first Korean spa experience! If like me, you’re already addicted after the first time, then keep going back!
My Favorite Korean Spa
My absolute favorite place to visit is Spa Lei in Sinsa / Jamwon District. Unfortunately for any man reading this article, it is a women-only Jjimjilbang… The price is a little higher than most Jjimjilbangs as well, so the facilities are more high-end.
I was trying to visit some of the more famous all-gender spas like Dragon Hill Spa, Siloam Sauna, Itaewon Land, or The Spa in Garden 5. Unfortunately, it seems like they’ve all CLOSED down during COVID. Spa Lei seems to be the only one that is still going strong.
HOWEVER… If you’re a guy… you’ve been wanting to try out a jjimjilbang… and Busan is on your itinerary, then you are in luck! Centum City Spaland is a famous all-gender jjimjilbang down in Busan. I have never been personally, but from what I’ve heard from my local friends, I’d highly recommend it.
The only tip I have for anyone wanting to visit Spa Lei is this: Choose an odd-number shoe locker. The even-number lockers are below the odd-number ones when you’re in the locker room, so you’ll be crouching down to store or get your things. It’s a bit inconvenient.
Hours: 24 hours
Address: 5 Gangnam-daero 107-gil, Seocho-gu, Seoul
If you’re the type that can’t stand not knowing the ins and outs of the local culture, you absolutely should brace yourself and visit a jjimjilbang ONCE. And I will die on this hill.
Are you convinced yet?
Ohhhhh! I really need a spa right now 🥰🥰🥰
That means you’ll have to come! xD