I studied abroad in South Korea two summers ago and the experience was an unforgettable one. I ate amazing food that I still dream about to this day, I made friends from all around the world, but when my friends and family ask me what the most memorable part of that trip was, they’re always surprised to hear that it was my exhilarating experience at a public bathhouse, or jjimjilbang (찜질방).
Jjimjilbangs are very common all over Korea and have spas, showers, saunas, and one can even spend the night there for very cheap. They have gender separated bathing areas and a unisex communal heated resting area. And just so we’re clear, the bathhouse does not consist of individual showers with doors. No, it is an area with showerheads along the walls with people showering for all to see and different baths in the center of the room. I’ll walk you through my first time so that you can understand the process, and also be informed if you ever find yourself in this situation.
To be honest, I almost skipped out on this cultural experience once I found out that I’d be in the buff for all to see. The bathing areas are gender separated so I’d only be naked in front of other women, but still. I have insecurities about my body and to walk around completely exposed was a very uncomfortable thought. But because of my FOMO, I agreed to go even though I usually end up doing things I could’ve gone without. Luckily, this was an experience that I would have definitely regretted not doing, so FOMO wins this time.
When deciding who to go to the jjimjilbang with, I would recommend going with only one friend of the same gender. This way you aren’t overwhelmed with the fact that all of your friends now know how you look in your birthday suit. You will want one friend there though because you and your friend will be able to help wash each other’s backs, but we’ll get to that later.
When you first check into a jjimjilbang, they’ll give you a locker key and a set of clothes. Before you enter the locker room, you must take off your shoes. When you walk into the locker room, you’ll find your assigned locker, put the clothes they gave you in there, take off all your clothes, and store those as well. Things are about to get real uncomfortable from here on out. To look or not to look was the question on my mind. I didn’t know if I should avert my eyes or just pretend like everything was normal. I tried to do both and it was awkward at first but it got better as I noticed all the other women walking around naked with ease. To them this was normal but as a foreigner, I felt very uneasy but I tried to “fake it ‘til you make it.
My friend and I then walked into the bathing area. Like I said earlier, the bathing area has showers and baths. You should first take a shower before entering the baths to reduce contamination. The place I went to had different baths with different types of water and we tried all of them out. Some of these included a regular hot bath with nothing added to the water, a bath with a bag of herbal medicine, a natural hot spring outside, and a cold bath, which was nice in between the hot baths.
When I was able to sit in a bath submerged in water, I started to feel more comfortable about looking around. This was the part of the experience that stuck with me the most because upon looking around, I realized that everyone there had different bodies and no two bodies looked the same. That was the moment when I realized that I should accept my body for what it was because looking around the room of naked women, I didn’t see a standard of beauty. Everyone’s body parts were all different and they were all okay with it so why shouldn’t I be? Sitting there made me appreciate my body in a way that I had never appreciated it before.
Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked. Where were we? Oh! Once you’ve soaked your body in hot water long enough, you’re ready to shower again. This time, you’ll need a scrubbing cloth and a friend. You’ll scrub your body with the scrubbing cloth and be amazed and disgusted at the dead skin rolling off your body. If I told you how much dead skin was coming off, you wouldn’t believe me. And I shower everyday and use a loofah so I’m not a dirty person, I swear! My Korean friend told me that Japanese people visiting Korean jjimjilbangs would keep the big chunks of dead skin as a souvenir which is almost too bizarre so I’m not sure how true that is. My friend and I took turns scrubbing each other’s backs, which was awkward but better than paying a stranger to do it, which is an option. I felt so clean afterwards that I always tell people that I don’t think I’ve been cleaner since the day I was born.
Once you finish your shower, you’ll go put on the clothes they gave you and head out to the unisex communal heated resting area where people will just sit on the floor and hangout. This area has food for sale and some traditional foods to buy at a jjimjilbang are boiled eggs and an ice cold sweet rice drink called sikhye (식혜). They also have many rooms set at different temperatures to relax in. They range from ice cold to burning hot. We just went from room to room and sweated it out while relaxing. I remember thinking while we lied around in those rooms that I’ve never felt so mentally and physically relaxed in my life.
Standard clothing all guest receive at a jjimjilbang
Jjimjilbang-goers love to turn their towels in “sheep heads”
Boiled eggs and sikhye purchased at a jjimjilbang
The ice-cold room I liked to call “Antarctica”
One of the hot rooms
A therapeutic rock room
After about an hour of this we left for Korean BBQ and beer. That day is a day I’ll never forget. I took a huge step towards self-acceptance, went way outside my comfort zone, and experienced something completely foreign and unfamiliar to me. If you ever find yourself in Korea and feel hesitant about going to a jjimjilbang, do yourself a favor and do it. You’ll come out feeling like you’ve just cleansed your body and soul.