South Korea,  traditions

our big fat Korean wedding – part 4, jimjilbang/Korean sauna

This is the last post before the summer holiday break and I decided to continue with my Korean adventure. It is the fourth part in my Korean trip cycle. To read the previous parts, follow the links below:

Before I took off to Korea, I did some research. Many sources recommended a visit to jimjilbang, which in Korean culture is what sauna is in Finnish, onsen in Japanese, banya in Russian, hammam for Turkish – a cheap public bathhouse. All of the local friends we met during our trip suggested exactly same thing, but of course I knew better. I wasn’t going to “waste” my precious time to see a place which I clearly knew. I’ve been to the saunas naturally. And no matter how much I like those visits, I had other plans during my Seoul part of the trip (my poor husband had to visit all 5 royal palaces of Seoul with me, yes, FIVE!). 

It is worth to mention that majority of Korean apartments do not have big bathrooms with a space for a bathtub. Usually they are small with a shower only, interesting fact, there is no shower curtain either. Water is splashed everywhere and disappears quickly into a drain located in the middle. Therefore, the floor may be wet, so the Korean custom of having wooden or plastic bathroom footwear is very useful.

Thankfully it started to rain, and it was raining heavily (the typhoon was approaching Seoul) so I could either give up and visit a place so many people told me about, or stay in the hotel. Because it was only about 15 minutes walk to one of the most suggested places and at 2 PM on my last day the rain didn’t seem ready to stop, I went to a Siloam Sauna. It may not be exactly the same as the other establishments of it’s kind, but the general rules are identical.

It is very conveniently, for the visitors at least, located nearby the Seoul Station. And even though it is called sauna, the experience is rather unusual and totally different compared to the one you are probably used to. It was very hard for me to enjoy it at the beginning because no one seemed to speak English and the translation from Korean was somewhat confusing. I decided to describe not only my experience but also the way it is supposed to be used. Just a word of advice, though. This place involves being naked; the nudity is mandatory in the communal sex segregated bathing areas. Most of us Europeans do not care much, but many of my readers are from the US and they are not comfortable walking around with no piece of clothing, so bear it in mind, lower ground floor is definitely not for you. Although if you’d step out of your comfort zone and decide to go downstairs, you will not regret it. The feeling of being uncomfortably exposed doesn’t take long, I promise. And the experience is absolutely worth it. People come in all shapes and sizes after all!

I mentioned the translation and the check-in desk is the first place when most English speakers are already confused; I know for a fact that it includes the native speakers as well. You can choose to pay either a smaller sauna entrance fee or slightly bigger which include a fomentation. OK, this is not the most commonly used word and since it is associated with some form of a treatment we concluded we’d rather pay minimum and then decide later on what we would like to have, if anything. Apparently, in this establishment, this word means access to floors other than the baths (basically the ones where you are NOT naked), of which we’ve learnt soon enough.

The first thing you do after buying the tickets is going to the correct part of the building, if you’re a man you turn directly left. Then you take off your shoes, nothing unusual for those who are familiar with the Korean customs, put them in a tiny box, and move half a floor up to the proper locker room. That’s where you’re given your sauna clothes (brown or orange, depending on gender) and if you decide on going upstairs to the common area you put them straight on, or, if you want to use the wet room facilities first, you go stark naked or with a microscopic modesty towel (literally the size of a Western handkerchief, so covering anything is not really an option), downstairs. Remember that any time you want to go to the lowest level, you need to leave your clothes (even the sauna ones) in your locker.

You can still enjoy the upstairs though and it’s absolutely worth the price. Apart from restaurant with mouth-watering Korean food, you can have a nap in one of the spacious rooms with relaxing sounds of forest or ocean humming in the background, or if you snore there are even rooms for people like you so you won’t disturb anyone’s relaxation. There is also warm sand to put your feet into or some special fomentation rooms (yes, that’s a word they like to use a lot) which are lined with either wood, charcoal, red clay or jade; there’s also an ice room, barbers, nail bar, gym, karaoke.

And back downstairs! For those of you who are willing to check it, there are pools with different temperatures and healing properties, mini waterfall to stand under, rocks to walk onto and, my favourite, a salt chamber. The salt can be used as a peeling, there are plenty of small crystals on the floor and the benches or simply inhale the air inside the room and improve your breathing (very beneficial for asthmatics). Just don’t forget to clean thoroughly before diving in; there are showers (Korean style, so to sit on one of the stools in order to comfortably use it) and a soap column, which was one of the weirdest things I’ve seen, looking a bit like Indian lingam. In case you would require a massage, there are people whom you can pay some extra and use their service. They also make sure that, apart from them, everyone else is naked. Obviously, no mobile phones allowed downstairs (not to scare you off, but taking pictures of people using public bathrooms in South Korea was a huge problem at some point so these days the restrictions are actually taken very seriously, don’t even think of taking your phone to the naked area, even if you wait for an important email, you can use it upstairs, though on mute, to not disturb others with the noises it would make).

The jimjilbang prices are very reasonable and majority, if not all, are open 24/7 so for my friends those were the chosen places to socialise or to continue “having fun” which started the previous night (and clearly not to show up drunk at their houses where it’s common to live with one’s parents). With the food and entertainment provided – restaurant, karaoke or gaming rooms; the choices were virtually limitless. It is not uncommon to spend there the whole day and/or night. There is plenty of space to sleep, everyone knows it. There may be a bit of additional fee to pay if you’re visiting in the night; it is still cheaper, cleaner and safer than to sleep at the train station so it’s a dream place for any backpacker. And because somehow all the hotels I stayed were Western style, taking even an hour only nap on a tatami mat in a traditional Korean way, was also an intriguing experience.

The next time I am in South Korea, and I hope I will be back there, I definitely plan to experience more. It may be part of the national culture, but most of all, it’s fun, especially in a group of friends. Not only on a rainy day, that’s for sure!

PS. As with many businesses affected by the pandemic, this place, apparently, didn’t survive. There is some mixed information available on the internet about whether it was shut down completely or moved to a new location and I live in London, not in Seoul; since jimjilbangs are part of Korean culture I decided to keep the post for the reference. Just remember that not each would have all the facilities this one used to.

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