The Korean bathhouse is a unique experience. Many Westerners feel uncomfortable getting naked in public to use the baths, and I understand that it can be a difficult undertaking, especially with children. If this had been our first and only time in Korea, and if we hadn’t had an inkling of how awesome Korean jjim-jil-bangs were, we probably would not have taken our kids to a bathhouse. Since we already knew all about them, we just couldn’t leave the country without visiting one.
Roman and the boys went one way, and I went the other as we entered our gender-separated bath areas. When you enter a jjimjilbang, you receive a computer-chipped key that goes around your wrist, and can be used to open your locker and make purchases inside (of drinks, snacks, spa treatments, etc.). You settle the bill when you leave the spa. This is highly convenient, since nobody wants to bring their wallet into the bath.
After getting undressed in the locker room, you enter the bath area. Imagine a huge, steamy space with running water echoing off the tiled walls. The first thing you do is shower. Small towels and soap are usually provided, but some people bring their own shampoo and bath products. There are plenty of sit-down showers, with low plastic chairs, and also a few stand-up showers. Once you’re clean, you have your choice of stone baths to sink into. Some are very hot, while others are warm. There is a cold pool if you’re overheated. There are often outdoor baths where you can enjoy the fresh air, and special jetted tubs for sore muscles. There are baths with mineral-infused water, or water from natural hotsprings. There is also an assortment of saunas, one of which usually has a television set with a Korean soap-opera on. It’s completely commonplace to see Korean women hanging out naked in the sauna, chatting, drinking iced tea, and watching television. It’s a hard scene to imagine for most Canadians, but I think our embarrassment of nudity is a cultural thing. Once you’re in a culture where nobody thinks twice about walking around nude in the bathhouse, you don’t think twice about it either. There are also spa treatments available in the bath area, including the infamous Korean scrub-down (which I have never worked up the courage to try).
As if the variety of baths weren’t enough, jjimjilbangs have a unisex area with even more saunas and amenities. It’s like a bathhouse theme-park. Pajamas are provided for this area, and couples and families can reunite, visit the other saunas and resting rooms together, and grab a snack or even a meal at a restaurant. On our trip to Spa Land, we got some marbled eggs and large peach ice-teas, and we hung out in comfy armchairs in the TV room. Afterwards, the kids wanted to try every one of the saunas systematically, from the Charcoal room, to the Wave Dream room, to the Ice room. There was even a Roman room!
Some jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours, and can be used as a cheap alternative to hotels – if you’re willing to sleep on a futon in a large room with a lot of other people. I wouldn’t try it with kids, but we did this once in our youth when we visited Seoul. I didn’t mind the experience in the women’s sleeping room, but apparently the men’s room was full of snorers. Another thing to note about Korean (and Japanese) bathhouses: some have signs saying they don’t accept people with tattoos. I have a fairly conspicuous tattoo on my back, so that made me nervous once I noticed the signage towards the end of my visit (even though I had been enjoying the bathhouse with no problems until then). I half-expected someone to kick me out of the bath area, but nobody paid me any attention. I don’t know how strictly these rules are enforced, but I’m guessing it depends on how many tattoos one has, and how fancy the bathhouse is.
During our week in Korea, we went to two jjimjilbangs. The first was a new bathhouse called Spa Land in the enormous Centum City mall. It was a bit pricey (18,000 won for adults), and had a four-hour time limit (which was fine for us, but unusual). Everything was shiny and new, and very clean. The outdoor footbath in the unisex area was quite lovely. The second jimjilbang we visited was the well-known Hurshimchang Spa, which cost about half the price of Spa Land, and was twice as nice. We came here after our very long uphill hike to Seokbulsa Temple, and it did wonders for our sore muscles. The bath area is large and impressive, with a variety of fancy baths, and water from natural hotsprings. The actual jjimjilbang (pajama area) at Hurshimchang is smaller, and has an additional cost.
The boys both went with Roman to the men’s bath area, so my jjimjilbang experience was largely unchanged (apart from pangs of guilt from pawning the kids off on Roman). He claims that the boys behaved very well. They were a bit nervous before we went in, but afterwards they raved about the baths and insisted on going again.