Naked in Korea: My Jimjilbang Experience

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I step out of the elevator to see a group of Korean women in their birthday suits nonchalantly chatting, laughing and going about their business in the locker room area. I see a sign that reads: No swimsuits allowed in the baths. I have no choice but to slip out of my numerous layers of winter clothes. All of them. And as if that's not enough for me to abandon what little dignity I had left, I'm handed a tiny white towel. 

I want to cover my face.

When I planned my first trip to South Korea last January, I knew there were a few experiences I wanted to try. The list included (but was not limited to): snowboarding, clubbing in the Gangnam area, sampling some authentic Korean barbecue and street food and curiously- going to the Korean baths and sauna known locally as the jimjilbang. 

My Jjimjilbang Experience5

These places are relaxation complexes that have a spa, sauna and public bathhouse. They are often open 24 hours a day with separate places to sleep, relax, soak in hot water or sit in a sauna. From a backpacker's perspective, they could be the cheapest places to stay overnight at only 12,000 KRW (about 11 USD)!

Dragon Hills Spa

I asked a couple of friends who had been living in Seoul for some recommendations. They both gave the same place: Dragon Hills at Yongsan Station stop. I found the place easy enough, only a few hundred meters from the subway line. I was surprised to find out it was seven-stories high! There's an arcade, food court, separate men and women's jimjilbang, a fitness center, sleeping area, a barbecue and even a cinema!

My Jjimjilbang Experience4

Dragon Hills Spa is one of the largest, most luxurious jimjilbangs in Seoul- you could be trapped here for days on end!

It was wise to ignore a friend's advice to go with other women. The humiliation would be too much. In fact, there's no other way to try this cultural experience: go at it alone, leave all your pride at the doorstep, get naked and the hardest part- try not to stare!

My Jjimjilbang Experience1

The Walk of Shame

So back to my story: With towel in hand, I sheepishly walked down the steps that lead to the sauna and baths. Upon entering the jimjilbang area there could be several reactions when locals see foreigners: some get ignored, some get stared at and the rest get a mix of both.

I fell into the 3rd category, most probably for the following reasons:

1 I look Asian enough with my facial features for others not to have to take a second glance.

2 I'm tanned from many years of surfing so I was by far, the darkest-skinned woman in the baths.

3 I'm not too comfortable discussing this but I feel it needs to be shared. Culturally, most Korean women leave the hair on other parts of their body (other than the head) in pristine condition. I don't need to get into the varying reasons of why that is, here. So I simply stood out in that aspect.

Thankfully, I was alone with my thick skin so I strode in there as nonchalantly as the locals. 

Photo Credit: Urijamjari

In the baths area, there were women of all ages! Kids running around, teens scrubbing each other's backs (this is perfectly normal), mothers scrubbing their toddlers and even elderly ladies washing their clothes. The first polite thing to do is to shower thoroughly. I made sure they saw me scrub and scrub hard with the towel they gave. Hygiene is super important especially when you enter the sauna or soak in the heated pools.

Disneyland of Spas

As soon as I got over my lack of clothes and dignity, I started to actually enjoy myself. 

This place is the Disneyland of hot baths, bubble-jet massage saunas and mineral soaks if there ever was one! The best part is going from a hot sauna into a cold pool. It got me rejuvenated every single time. There was a section where you can get a tan,  massage, a body scrub and other beauty procedures. But you have to shell out a little extra. I was content to try all the herbal pools, salt saunas and jet water massages. Check out a detailed list on BRB, Moving to Korea.

A Few Luxurious Hours

This was definitely a place where you could choose to relax, have fun and bond with your family members and friends. Of course, I can't quite imagine doing the last one.

The 12,000 KRW fee allows you access to most of the facilities in the Dragon Hills complex. But after a couple of hours, I felt so insanely clean and strangely spent. So I decided to have a good meal at the rooftop and took a nap afterwards. For the common areas, they give you a top and pair of shorts to lounge around in. I came during the height of winter so staying in where it was warm and comfortable was an inexpensive luxury.

My jimjilbang experience was something I really enjoyed and will probably try again on my next visit to South Korea. Despite the initial embarrassment I felt, I learned a bit more about the culture plus earned a few points in the "Dare Yourself " department.

Dragon Hill Spa - family room
Photo Credit: SuzÿQuzÿ

Brave enough to try the Korean Jimjilbang Experience for yourself? Read on:

1 Bring your own toiletries

I didn't realize that you can bring in a lot of toiletries and beauty products to use in the baths. The essentials would be: soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion. If you want to maximize the whole pampering and preening experience, bring some facial masks, essential oils, a scrubber or loofah and hair spa treatment. You can also buy most of these products at the counter close to the locker area.

2 Get Over Public Nudity

If you can recover from the initial shock and get over your self-consciousness, the jimjilbang experience can be pretty enjoyable and liberating. Even if you stand out like me or get some curious stares, just shrug it off and don't get offended. I kept telling myself: Nobody knows me here anyway!

3 Take Your Time

If you have at least 3 hours to spend, you should definitely try this out for yourself. It takes time to get comfortable and even more time to enjoy the facilities that the spa has to offer. Soak in the hot tub, explore the arcades and food court, take a nap. Most locals I saw really took their time in getting themselves clean, relaxed and beautiful.

Learn more about Sauna Etiquette.

If you're a guy and want was wondering about a man's experience at the jjimjilbang, check out Chris in South Korea.

Ever had an unusual, awkward or extraordinary new experience while traveling? Share it with other travelers by commenting below!

Jimjilbang accomplished,
Sole Sister Lois

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5 sole trails

  1. You used my photo without my permission. The photo with the Photo Credit of SuzÿQuzÿ is my photo. You should wait for people to respond to your request to use their photos before you post them on your blog. But, I had a great time in Korea. It was the best four years of my life. Since you linked my photo to my flickr stream, then I give you my permission to use it on this post (Naked in Korea: My Jjimjilbang Experience) only.

  2. Hey SuzÿQuzÿ! I left a note on Flickr about the image. I'm sorry I couldn't take enough photos of the jjimjilbang since I traveled alone. I will keep your advice in mind, of course. And thanks so much for letting me use the image :)

  3. wow.. awesome how this is. Awesome how South Koreans (Japan too)take relaxation so seriously, obviously already a part of culture. Knowing how hard working South Koreans are... they're lucky to have this.

  4. I totally agree that South Koreans as well as the Japanese are very hardworking. So yeah, they definitely need an outlet like the spa to relax. It was a great cultural experience, for sure :)

  5. Thanks for the article. Mild to moderate knee pain can often be successfully treated at home. Whether due to a sprain or arthritis, there are several ways to combat the pain.


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