Photo by Forest Hanbang Land

Photo by Forest Hanbang Land ()

Hit the jjimjilbang! Korean bathhouses more than just hot soaks, spa treatment

When my sister and I were old enough to start going on daytrips on our own, we enjoyed going on low-budget adventures. There were times when we’d miss our last train and would end up staying at the jjimjilbang overnight because it was a safe and cheap place to stay.

You might recognize jjimjilbang as being a Korean bathhouse, but they are more than that. Not only can visitors enjoy hot soaks and spa treatments, but there are also rooms with entertainment like a small movie theater, arcade games, rooms for rest and even overnight stays.

On average, entrance to a jjimjilbang is about 13,000 won ($10), a price that makes it an inexpensive option for budget travelers and those seeking to experience a unique and relaxing aspect of Korean culture.

Jjimjilbang are focused on wellbeing, body and skin care, and offer two different options depending on how long you want to stay. One is Mogyoktang (목욕탕) only, which is essentially day-use for enjoying the gender-segregated hot and cold tubs, steams saunas and body scrubbing areas. Mogyoktang is gender-segregated because it requires full nudity, so it might need some getting used to for first-timers.

The other option paying for not only the baths, but also entry to the Jimjilbang (찜질방) area, which is unisex and has the relaxation rooms, but requires you to wear pajama-style clothes provided at check-in.

Though a visit to the jjimjilbang may be an eye-opener for newbies, you’ll leave with glowing skin as soft as a baby’s. Once you get over the initial part of being naked in front of others and get the jjimjilbang etiquette down, you’ll surely fall in love with the bathing culture and visit every month like many Koreans do!

Still worried? Let me give you all the details so you’ll be ready to give the jjimjilbang a try. Winter is a perfect season to visit a bathhouse for skin care and body relaxation. Let’s go!

What to bring You can buy single-use toiletries, face masks, and bath mittens on the site. There is free soap and skin creams, but I recommend bringing your own if you have sensitivities or allergies.

- Toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, body wash, facial cleanser, toothbrush, toothpaste and more), body and skin care products. - Optional: face mask, water bottle, hair band (for long hair), and Korean bath mitten (If you want to scrub like Koreans).

At the counter 1. Choose your course - Mogyoktang (Bathing only): about 7,000-12,000 won ($5-9.2) for adults - Both Mogyoktang and jjimjilbang: about 12,000-16,000 won ($9.2-12.3) for adults (Each bathhouse has different rules but usually allows you to stay for 12 to 24 hours)

2. Get your supplies At check-in, you’ll get a locker key, two towels, and, if you’re using the jjimjilbang, you’ll also get pajama-style clothes that you must wear. Men can usually use an unlimited amount of towels.

3. Remove your shoes Put your shoes into the locker and take the key as it will be used for your clothing locker in the changing room. Your shoe and clothing lockers will have the same corresponding number.

Course 1, Mogyoktang (Bathhouse) Hitting the bath house is a common weekly or monthly routine for many Koreans. Once you try Korean body cleansing, you’ll feel like new!

1. Get ready to bathe You can only take towels and toiletries into the bath area. Have the key around wrist or ankle so you won’t lose it. Do not bring your phone into the bath area, as it might make others feel uncomfortable.

2. Grab toiletries and refreshments Before entering the bath area, you can purchase single-use toiletries, snacks or drinks. My go-to is a Korean-style sweet rice drink because it’s a refreshing beverage to have while soaking in the hot water.

3. Enter the bath area First things first. Before you enter the tubs, you have to wash your body. You’ll notice an area where other women or men, depending on your gender, are showering. Before using the water basins and chairs available, make sure to rinse them off with soap and water. Also, you should tie up your hair if it’s long. If you don’t follow these etiquettes, you might get scolded by elderly Koreans!

4. Enjoy tubs or steam sauna! There are several different hot and cold tubs. Some have jets or bubbling motors, so be on the lookout for buttons around the tubs. Although a lot of people share the baths, the water is clean and circulating. The tubs are cleaned and water is changed every night. To prevent dehydration, don’t bathe longer than 20 minutes. If you want to enjoy the water longer, take 10-minute breaks and don’t forget to hydrate.

5. Time to scrub! This is the most important reason why Koreans visit the bathhouse. Make sure you soak in the tub long enough so the scrub mitten can effectively remove the dead skin cells. Beware if you have sensitive skin, however, because the bath mitten can be a little harsh and scratch your skin if you’re not careful. Instead, I’d recommend you use a bath sponge and special soap called Sesin binu that is great for exfoliation. - Do it yourself! Try to softly scrub your body and focus on the rough areas like your elbows and heels of feet with the bath mitten. Your skin will start to brighten with each scrub. - How do you scrub your back? Ok, this is a culturally-challenging moment! You’re lucky if you’re with your Korean friend because they will start scrubbing your back even before you ask. If you’re alone, don’t be scared to ask any person around you for help. Any Korean will happily do it for you with all their strength. They don’t mean to cause you any pain, but just focus on their mission to remove all the dead skins from your back. If Koreans care about you, there won’t be dead skin cells left on their watch. Don’t forget once they’re done, it’s your turn to scrub their back!

If you’re too shy for this, you can also look for a long bath towel to scrub yourself with.

- Pay for a Sesinsa (세신사), an expert in exfoliating and massaging If you pay for the Sesin service, you’ll lie in a massage bed and a staff member will scrub your entire body with two hands wearing a bath mitten. You’ll have to flip and move your body as needed to make sure they can polish your body. After they remove all the dead skin, they will offer you an extreme massage, too. Seeing how the Sesinsa professionally and enthusiastically performs the Sesin service on your body will be one of the most fun and unforgettable cultural experiences you can have in Korea! - Entire body (Including back and massage): about 30,000 won ($23) - Back only: about 15,000 won ($11.40)

6. Take a shower and clean up before leaving the bath area. After you finish the body cleansing process and regular shower routine, clean up your seat and bring all your belongings with you. Try to dry your body and hair in front of the bath area. The staff will call you out if you drip water on the dry floor.

7. Finish the bath course! Put your wet towels in the basket. If you need more towels, ask the staff.

You’ll find vanities with cotton swabs, skin creams, hair dryers and other supplies near the baths. You’ll be surprised to see how soft your skin is, but don’t forget to moisturize!

Course 2, Jjimjilbang Jjimjilbang creates a culture of relaxation and body-healing, but it also has entertainment options. So, you’ll find that many friends and families gather here. It is also a nice spot for a quick nap after a long day of work.

1. Change to the special clothing and enter the jjimjilbang area (unisex).

2. Explore the various types of rooms - Dry & heated rooms: The walls and floors of each room are lined with stones, such as red clay or crystal salt because of the health benefits. The heat from a room is basically affected by the stones. So, while lying in a room, the heat and pressure from the stone can stimulate blood circulation and eliminate waste through perspiration.

- Ice room: It’s usually for cooling down and taking a break after using heated rooms. - Main Hall & relaxing rooms: These are the areas where people gather for a chat, watch TV, eat snacks and sleep. You’ll want to use the large wooden logs for back support. - Sleeping rooms: You can use as many mats and pillows as you need to sleep on a heated floor. These rooms are usually gender-segregated. - Others: Some entertainment facilities include a PC room, recreation room, small theater, singing room and beauty salons. Some of the more upscale jjimjilbang have swimming pools and golf or sports facilities.

3. Food Jjimjilbang is a great place to enjoy various healthy and tasty Korean foods. You can try bibimbap, soft tofu soup, stir fried spicy pork, grilled fish and more. Most of dishes are served with hot soup and lots of vegetables. You can also try corn dogs, baked eggs, Korean cup ramen and traditional colds drink from the snack bar.

Many jjimjilbang shut their kitchens during COVID-19, so ask the staff before check-in if they serve meals. Photos courtesy of Korea Tourism Organization

4. Tips for sleeping over If you have to stay in another town unexpectedly, and the hotels around you are fully booked, it’s a great time to try jjimjilbang! If you have problems sleeping on the floor, try to use several mats to make a cushion between your back and floor. If a sleeping room is too hot or noisy for you, there are spots that look like caves where you can crawl in for a little privacy. Make sure to keep the key with you and put your phone and money in the safe place or your locker before you fall asleep.

Things to know

  • You can be rejected to enter if you’re drunk.

  • No photos allowed inside the gender-segregated area in a Mogyoktang.

  • Take a quick shower before using the tubs.

  • Tie up your hair in the tubs if it’s long enough to touch the water.

  • Don’t turn on TV or talk loudly during sleeping hours.

  • Don’t use sauna and heated rooms after consuming alcohol.

  • Don’t forget to check the pockets of your clothing before you return them.

Korean Lesson

  • Jjimjilbang: Korean dry sauna with traditional heating system (Ondol)

  • Mogyoktang: Public bathhouse

  • Mogyok (목욕): Bath

  • Tang (탕): Bath, soup

  • Bang (방): Room

  • Binu (비누): Soap

How to make a sheep’s head towel

1. Fold a towel in thirds hot dog-style, with the first fold away from you, and make sure the last fold goes on top towards you.

2. Fold each of the ends three times the way you fold a sleeve. Make the first fold big and the other two small and tight. Then the towel will stay tight and stable in the shape of a sheep’s head.

Want to try jjimjilbang? Check out this list! Before COVID-19, it was very easy to find 24-hour jjimjilbangs anywhere in Korea. Today, however, many jjimjilbang businesses, including the foreigner-friendly Dragon Hill Spa near Seoul’s Yongsan Station, have closed.

If you’re looking for a place to enjoy a nice bath and a nap, search for an open jjimjilbang. If you’re only looking to enjoy the baths, look for a jjimjilbang or a mogyoktang.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many 24-hour jjimjilbang businesses have reduced their hours, making an overnight stay impossible. So, check the business hours carefully at the counter.

If you’re new to jjimjilbang, here are some I recommend. They are all amazing and fun places to hang out with your friends or family!

Sparex Good Morning City This is one of the most popular jjimjilbangs in Seoul. Its unique interior gives the feel of a traditional Korean folk village. This jjimjilbang is conveniently located at the center of the Dongdaemun Fashion Town, so it’s a popular place to spend the night after shopping at the night markets. Due to COVID-19, the food court is currently not operating.

  • Fee: 15,000 won for adults (24 hours)

  • Hours: 24 hours every day

  • Address: Line 2,4, 5 Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station Exit 14, NAVER

Spa Lei (women only) This spa has very clean, fancy and sophisticated facilities and is for women only. So, this is a perfect place for female friends or family to spend some girls’ time. They also serve great Korean food at the food court, and you can sleep in a clean and fluffy bed for an additional fee. It’s a famous spot for many foreigners to stay overnight after taking a tour around Gangnam, one of the busiest areas in Seoul.

  • Fee: 14,000 won for adults (12 hours) / 5,000 won for a bed

  • Hours: 24 hours every day

  • Address: Line 3 Sinsa Station Exit 5 NAVER

Aquafield Anseong This jjimjilbang is inside the busy Starfield Mall and closes a bit earlier than others. But, the spacious and luxurious facilities at Aquafield Anseong are still worth a try! In the summer, they even have a water park. Parking is free and Starfield Hanam and Goyang have the same facilities as well.

  • Fee: 23,000 won for adults (6 hours)

  • Hours: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. every day

  • Address: Starfield Anseong, NAVER

Elybaden This is one of Daegu’s top jjimjilbang and a great place for families as it has clean and spacious facilities and a large ballpit play area for children. Also, parking is free!

  • Fee: 13,000 won (6 hours) & 16,000 won (12 hours) for adults

  • Hours: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Mon-Thu) / 24 hours (Sat-Sun) / 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Sun)

  • Address: Joam-ro 38, Dalseo-gu, Daegu, NAVER

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