Korean Bathhouses: Introduction and Etiquette for First Time Users

For first-time visitors to Korea, you may not be familiar with jjimjilbang (찜질방), or a Korean bathhouse, a wonderful, relaxing getaway. Jjimjilbang, which roughly translates to "heated room," might be mistaken for a sauna or spa by someone who is not familiar with them but they are much more.

Thought to have formed first around natural hot springs in early Korea, they were places where citizens went to bathe and then relax in traditional heated ondol rooms. Now found in almost every city throughout Korea, many attend these bathhouses at least once a week as part of their beauty routine, a way to wind down, and to socialize with others. It is not uncommon to find family groups, co-workers or a group of friends hanging out at the jjimjilbang.

When you first enter a bathhouse, you will first need to remove your shoes and store them in a cubby, for which you'll be given a key. Wear the key on your wrist, and don't lose it as the number on it is often linked to your tab that you pay at the end of the visit. A pair of slippers be provided for you, but if you are worried about wearing slippers that someone else has worn, bring your own. Shampoo, conditioner, soap, and wash-cloths are for sale at most jjimjilbangs, but if you have a particular preference or skin sensitivity, you may want to bring your own. You will also be provided with a cotton pair of shorts and a t-shirt for the dry sauna areas that are co-ed.

When you go to the locker area, it split for men, or nam (남); and women, or yeo(여). If you aren't used to nudity, you may be shocked, but this is quite normal and no one is going to question you or look at you funny.  

Before heading into the heated pool areas, you are expected to shower first. This is not optional. You must give yourself a good scrub down, and then you can head into the heated pools. Do not try to wear a bathing suit, you will be asked to remove it.

You can soak in the several different pools for some time, but then should head back in and scrub yourself down. Using a very good exfoliating cloth or sponge, and you should be seeing piles of dead skin come off. If you are unsure of how to do this, there are ajummas on the female side and ajhussi on the male side, who are specialists; and will give you a good scrub down. Do not mistake this for a nice massage. They are going to give you the scrubbing of your life, called seshin (세신). This is a service and does cost extra. After seshin, they also do thorough deep tissue massages for an additional fee.

After your scrub and massage (if you choose to get one), go shower again, and get dressed in the outfit provided to you. You can then go into the co-ed area and relax in one of the many heated rooms or in the main areas where you can usually watch TV, buy snacks (boiled eggs or a milk drink are very popular), or even take a nap. Some of the larger jjimjilbangs will have arcades, movie theaters, restaurants, play areas for the kids, and many other extras.

Jjimjilbangs are also usually open twelve to twenty-four hours. There are heated rooms where you can sleep overnight, and are some of the cheapest places to stay in Korea. You will only have a thin mat, a thin pillow and sometimes a blanket, but for the price, it is a bargain.  

If you've never been to one of these wonderful retreats, make sure to check them out when you are in Korea!

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