We're in the heart of winter and there's nothing more I want to do than head to the jjimjilbang (찜질방) and chill out for a couple hours. For those of you unfamiliar with a jjimjilbang (also commonly referred to as just sauna or 사우나), it's the Korean version of a sauna meets spa. There are a variety of types in Korea with amenities ranging from basic to luxurious and prices falling between economical to treat yourself. In Korean culture, many families head to the sauna to spend the day relaxing together and scrubbing off the week's worries.
First you'll head to the front desk to check in and decide how long you want to stay at the sauna. Most saunas offer an hourly or daily rate, with prices adjusting for weekdays vs. weekends/holidays. You then get a ticket with which gender sauna you will bathe in prior to relaxing in the mixed gender common areas. You'll be handed a set of sauna clothes in addition to a little bracelet with matching ticket number that has a key on it to open your lockers. This is also the way you pay for any services or food when you're in the sauna, so don't lose it!
Look for your matching ticket number to find your shoe locker. Take off your shoes and socks and keep them in there. From here on out until you leave the sauna, everyone will be barefoot.
Once you've dropped off your shoes, move to the gendered sauna you've designated and in there, you will find a massive room that has larger lockers with the same number as your shoe locker to store your clothes, bags, etc. In this room will be many toilets, showers and everything you'll need to get ready. Many people bring in a little caddy of their own shampoo and other toiletries, but every sauna provides these basics to the guests. They also have towels, hair dryers, sanitized combs/brushes and other comfort items you may need. Once you strip down, you must take a shower before moving to the next room that is full of different pools and baths of varying temperatures where other sauna goers of the gendered sauna you've chosen will be relaxing. In the women's sauna, there's always a side room off of this general pool/bath area. Inside, there will be ajummas (아줌마 - older ladies) ready to give you a massage, body scrub, hair shampoo and scalp massage, etc. Don't be alarmed that they are also sans clothes, except for plain black underwear/bottoms. These services cost extra, so this is where you will show them your bracelet with your ticket number so they can add on whatever service you'd like. I've never been to the men's side, but I imagine the same services are offered.
Jjimjilbangs vary greatly from the pretentious spas I've experienced in the US. Here, they all offer the same come-as-you-are-because-you're-about-to-be-walking-around-in-your-birthday-suit-and-no-one-cares atmosphere. Despite any weirdness you may initially feel, literally no one will be staring at you because of how your body looks. People are there to shower, enjoy the different baths, grab a massage or even a body scrub. The only reason they may give you a second look is if you're the only foreigner in the sauna, which is unlikely in Seoul or any other big city with many tourists.
Once you've sufficiently soaked until your skin's pruny, scrubbing off any dead skin, deep conditioned your hair and/or any other self care routines, you'll change into your sauna wear and rock the yangmeori (양머리 - sheep head) towel style before heading into the mixed gender part of the sauna. Each sauna varies, but there are typically many rooms to accommodate your desired temperature here, too. There are salt rooms, stone rooms, the list goes on. Each one promises to cure some health ailment or another, but we all know that part's bogus. It's just fun to go in and relax. There are also sleeping rooms, quiet rooms, TV rooms, kids game rooms and massage chairs, too. Each sauna varies, so they may have more amenities than another and often will vary in theme/style, too.
Of course, if you're going to spend the day at the sauna, you can't go without snacks! The most popular items seen in many a Korean drama are sauna eggs and sikhye (sweet rice drink). Each sauna's menu varies with snacky bits all the way up to bowls of ramen or bibimbap, but these two items are absolute staples. The sauna eggs originally were cooked right in the fires of the hot sauna stones, resulting in an egg that is smoky and caramelized, both in color and taste. Just like the massages and body services, you'll use your bracelet to add on any charges for the food you order.
Heading to the jjimjilbang is one of my favorite ways to relax and I plan to go more often in the upcoming year. Have you been to a Korean style sauna before? Let me know what you thought in the comments below. Stay up to date with my simple, accessible and affordable recipes on my YouTube channel here. Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog and check in for my regular posts over on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
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