Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Korean Sauna Experience (Jjimjilbang)

I lived in Korea from around age 5 to age 10... my mother is from Seoul, so it was a great formative experience to get to know her culture (and some of our extended family) overseas.  There were definitely some Korean culture traits that did NOT carry over into adulthood (kimchi, burping at meals, sharing entrees, maintaining ivory pale skin, and views on tattoos/piercings).... but there were others that did: respect for elders, not wearing shoes indoors, and appreciation for public baths to name a few.

Wi Spa in LA

Public baths?!  Say what?  When I was younger, and we lived in Korea, I would go with my mother to the Jjimjilbang, or sauna.  The Jjimjilbang consists of two parts.... one is a co-ed sauna, where everyone wears matching pajamas issued to you by the staff.  You sit on ondol (heated) floors, even drink and eat as you relax.  You also pop into the different varieties of sauna, from ice sauna to salt sauna to traditional clay.  It's a social event, and it's warm and relaxing.  Sitting overnight with your pals at a the Jjimjilbang is cheaper than staying at a hotel.

Example of public sauna area (source)

The other part of the Korean sauna experience is segregated by gender.  This is the public bath portion, where you enter a giant wet room of naked bath experience.  There are shower stalls, low shower heads with hoses and stools to sit on, buckets, dry and wet sauna, and a variety of public tubs... the tubs are typical ice cold, warm, then super-hot, sometimes with a rose water or green tea tub too.

Typical spa (source)

You can also purchase services like massage, facials, and scrubbing.  The scrubbing is the best part.

I don't remember the order of the ritual, but my Mom would have me soak, then go into a sauna, then soak again, then she'd scrub me until I'm red all over.  You could see grey pills of dead skin exfoliate off my body...  it was gross but simultaneously fantastic.  Then you'd jump in another tub and restart the process over again.  You feel ten pounds lighter.  Seriously.  And you need someone else to help you or it just isn't the same.

My American friends do not understand this... even at age 28 my mother will still offer to bathe me when I visit her.  But it's as comforting and normal to me as apple pie.

On my recent trip to LA, my sister, cousin and I all enjoyed HOURS of Korean bath goodness.  Yes, you're surrounded by woman of all ages, shapes, and sizes in the buff.  But there's just complete acceptance there.  I've never felt cleaner!  We were at the Wi Spa, which I highly recommend.  It was interesting because this was the first one I'd been to where you saw non-Korean people, but apparently the secret is spreading and lots of folks are embracing the experience.  I can't wait for another chance to go back.


  1. I get this more than I want to admit...and it's like a mini resort in those places!!! Food, tv, crazy. I bet Nashville has one somewhere.

    1. I don't think there are enough Koreans! I figure NYC and LA are the only places. Would ATL have one?

      I'd feel weird going with my friends there though... with my cousin and sister being nude was natural, but I don't know how many of my adult friends I've seen totally bare nekkid. LOLZ

    2. ATL does have one! There's a huge one in Duluth near H Mart.

  2. I went to one at a hotel while I visited my husband in Korea. We spent a few days on Jeju and the hotel we stayed at had a really nice spa. I had no idea what I was doing but I was the only one there so I still enjoyed it. It is definitely a different atmosphere than American spas.

    1. It's more like a public bath than a "spa" in a way, right? :) Did you stay at Dragon Hill? That is a famous one. My parents honeymooned in Jeju.

    2. We were only at Dragon Hill for one night after I flew in and before we headed down to Camp Carrol where he was stationed so we didn't really explore much there. We stayed at the Hilton on the south side of Jeju and they had a really nice one.

  3. Going to a sauna is a traditional way of socializing for Koreans. For them, it’s for recreational benefit. People often go to saunas to have a private and personal retreat with their family or friends. In my opinion, sauna is a great place to enjoy some relaxing time, either alone or with family and friends. It’s such a serene place to hang out, don't you think? ->iHealth Saunas


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