If one should ever go to South Korea, not going to a South Korean bath house would mean missing out on a great experience. The place that one especially should look for is a (24 hour open) Jjimjilbang (찜질방 = "Heated bath" - room).
A Jjimjilbang contain all the normal facilities of a bath house, such as:
- Hot tubs (usually three different temperatures)
- Steam rooms
- Massage facilities
- Saunas (Usually from 30-90 degrees, but it varies)
But also some of these facilities as well:
- Common areas with heated floors to relax
- Snack-bars and sometimes restaurants
- Workout facilities (Gym)
- Movie theater
- Computer-rooms (pc-bang)
- Arcades (area with gaming machines)
Along with many other creative additions, this is only between 10-15 dollars!
Think of a bath house, but taken to the next level.
Not so long ago I went to a 찜질방 (Jjimjilbang) once again, and I must say it was a special experience - especially since it was the first time I went alone. In the shower- and bath-area people were looking a lot for the first five minutes, but after that it was okay.
After going into the first sauna i went into the next, apparently filled with middle aged women and their children. When I opened the door all conversations suddenly stopped. It did not feel awkward at all, especially not they started their conversations again and I could hear the term "외국인" (foreigner) in at least 10 of the fifteen conversations.
A married couple went came in about 20 minutes later (the husband laughed when he saw that is was only women - I guess he also felt a bit out of place), to whom I gave my spot and proceeded into the hottest sauna. I underestimated the heat to such an extent that I literally ran outside again, resulting in everyone outside laughing at me. The same happened to a Japanese guy just after me.
It said 90, but the heat was different from a normal sauna. It was literally an oven that radiated heat on to one's body, and judging from other people no one really used that sauna unless they wore tons of towels (wet), and foot wear as well.
Besides the small bumps I really enjoyed it^^
Simple "How to" for a foreigner:
Firstly, upon entering the Jjimjilbang you buy a ticket. Then you will receive a set of clothes (usually a pair of shorts and a t-shirt) and a locker key.
After receiving the items you continue down a hall leading towards the shoe-locker area. Here you take off your shoes and lock them inside the room to which your locker key correspond. From this area there will normally be signs towards the changing rooms for women and men.
Once you enter the changing room, you will see a lot of lockers, naked people and people wearing the set of clothes you also got handed. You better get used to the "naked" part, because that is something you will have to get used to.
Find your locker. Take off all you clothes and put it there along with your stuff, no exceptions! Then proceed to the showering and bathing area.
The showering and bathing area is were the showers, hot tubs, massage facilities, steam rooms and gender seperated saunas will be located.
First, go to one of the showers, take a scrubbing towel and wash thoroughly. Koreans will both be standing at the showers, but will also be sitting on small chairs and showering in a more traditional way.
After having properly cleaned yourself from top to toe, go to the hot tubs, usually stationed in the other end of the hall. Normally there are three different temperatures, 40°C, 42°C and 46°C, unless really used to the heat people will start from the hot tub heated to 40°C.
When done, change into the clothes you recieved at the counter, and continue to the common area. Here is where you will find all the things besides what usually belong in a bath house - cinema, restaurant, nail-shop, arcade etc. and of course the saunas.
From here you should just explore the place and experience as much as possible to get an idea of what you like and dislike.
Travelers often use Jjimjilbangs as "motels" (with luxury bathing facilities), and stay there for a night or two while finding an actual motel/hotel. They place their luggage in the reception and get it back when leaving.
Office workers also stay at Jjimjilbangs when their work day becomes too long. Which, one from the west, would deem everyday since South Koreans have the longest work day in any OECD country.
Happy holidays everyone!