Traditional bathhouses are an essential part of contemporary South Korean culture. Literally "heated rooms," jjimjilbang (찜질방) are where locals come to unwind, hang out and engage in a whole host of health and beauty rituals that go far beyond a quick soak.
South Korea's bathhouses attract grandmas and young couples alike. It wouldn't be odd for a group of friends to meet up at a jjimjilbang on a Friday night – call it a spa date, but a surprisingly affordable one. Entry to a bathhouse usually costs between ₩7000 and ₩20,000, with smaller, neighborhood jjimjilbang being the cheapest option.
Most places have different day and evening entry fees, with the latter being a little higher. More elaborate joints have restaurants, outdoor swimming pools, hair and nail salons, and karaoke rooms in addition to the usual baths and saunas.
These spas have an unspoken code of manners and customs, which can make a first-time visit intimidating for foreign travelers. Here's our guide to towel techniques and Korean bathhouse etiquette to help you experience the jjimjilbang like a local.
Arriving at a jjimjilbang in South Korea
The first thing you're likely to see when you walk in the door is a wall of small lockers. These are for your shoes, so slip them inside and take your locker key back to the front desk. Pay the entry fee (the price should be posted at the reception desk) and hand over your shoe locker key. In exchange, you'll be given a new locker key for the changing room (sometimes the first key is used for both), plus a towel and a pair of cotton pajamas.
Many jjimjilbang use electronic keys, which are also used to record the fees for any additional services. Otherwise, the staff will note your locker key number if you add any services inside (such as a scrub or massage) and bill you at the end.
The key in your hand should have a number on it – that's your locker, where you'll store your clothes and anything else you're carrying. The front desk staff should point you in the direction of the appropriate gender-segregated changing room. If not, you want nam (남) for men or yeo (여) for women.
What are the baths at jjimjilbang like?
Most jjimjilbang have two distinct areas: the baths, which are same-sex only, and the sauna areas, which are communal. Whichever you visit first is up to you, but most people prefer to wash up before sweating it out (and then wash again at the end of the visit).
If you're going to the baths, you need to remove all your clothing, bringing only a small towel and toiletries with you (wear your locker key on your wrist). If you're going to the sauna, change into the pajamas provided.
The cardinal rule here is that you need to wash before getting into the baths. There will be rows of washing stations and piles of plastic stools; grab one and pick a faucet. There will be soap, but rarely shampoo or conditioner, so you'll need to bring your own (most convenience stores in South Korea sell single-use packets of various toiletries, and jjimjilbang usually sell them as well).
You don't have to wash your hair, but if you don't and it's long, be sure to tie it up so it doesn't trail in the bath. Once you're nice and clean, you can head to the tubs.
Bathhouse tubs come in a variety of temperatures, from about 38°C (100°F, not too hot) to about 45°C (113°F, pretty hot), and there are also cold tubs. In most jjimjilbang, the soaking pools are indoors, but some places also have open-air baths. Bathhouse regulars have their individual routines down to a science, but in general, the optimal soaking time is considered to be 20 minutes. If you plan to stay in the water this long, it's best to keep your heart above the waterline.
South Koreans (and South Korean women in particular) are mad about exfoliation, and you'll see locals giving themselves long and hearty scrubs. You can buy scrubbing towels and mitts at convenience stores and markets. If you really want to up your jjimjilbang game, you can opt for a professional scrub (called seshin).
In a corner of the bathroom, there will be a few plastic tables manned by ajumma (aunties) – or men on the men's side – wielding scrubbing mitts. They're generally merciless, but you will never have smoother skin in your life. Do this after soaking for a bit, so the steam from the baths can loosen up your skin. A basic scrub usually costs ₩20,000, and you can also get an oil massage for about ₩60,000.
Getting used to being in the buff at a South Korean bathhouse
The most difficult part of the experience for a lot of first-timers is being naked in front of strangers. Fear not: locals consider nudity a normal part of visiting a jjimjilbang, and you are unlikely to be given a second glance by anyone else. You can always use your towel to strategically cover yourself as you walk around (but the towels are small, so this isn't easy).
You shouldn't bring your towel into the water. If your towel does get wet, a stack of fresh towels is usually waiting near the door to the changing room. The best way to keep your towel dry is to wear it on your head. Another etiquette tip: splashing and loud talking may earn you some dirty looks.
What are South Korean saunas like?
The sauna you might picture – a steaming room heated to hellish temperatures – is probably different from a Korean sauna. Traditional saunas in South Korea (called hanjeungmak; 한증막) are stone or clay kilns that are typically heated to between 50°C (122°F) and 90°C (194°F) and are really quite pleasant. If you've never liked saunas elsewhere, you might like them here.
As you lie on hemp mats (or sometimes salt or jade crystals), the heated stone gently warms your body, and after about 15 to 20 minutes, you'll start to sweat. It's easy to fall asleep, but don't – or you'll risk dehydration. Cap off a good steam with a cold, sweet cup of sikhye – a traditional fermented rice drink usually sold at jjimjilbang. You can also buy eggs that have been steamed in the saunas, known as maekbanseok year.
Why do jjimjilbang have sleeping rooms?
Many jjimjilbang are open 24 hours and double as South Korea's best budget accommodations. For a few thousand won more than the standard entrance fee, you can opt to spend the night in the sleeping room. In simpler spots, this might just be a wide room with some thin plastic mattresses (and yes, they are thin) and squishy plastic blocks serving as pillows on the floor.
In more sophisticated places, the sleeping rooms resemble capsule hotels, with two levels of cubbyholes that offer a little privacy. Some have separate rooms for women and snorers (regardless, earplugs are a good idea). Some also have blankets to loan or rent, though the rooms are usually heated – using the traditional under-floor ondol technique – so they're usually not necessary.
There are usually big common rooms where people congregate to watch TV, sit in massage chairs, eat snacks and generally hang out. These areas are mixed and non-naked, so be sure to wear the pajamas provided. Some of the fancier jjimjilbang, such as the Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul, also have outdoor swimming areas, hot tubs and entertainment zones such as arcades to keep sauna-goers busy, sometimes throughout the night.
Checking out at the end of a session
This part's easy. Hand your locker key to the front desk staff, and they'll present you with a bill if you've racked up any charges inside. Once you're paid up, you get your shoe locker key back, so grab your shoes and you're good to go. Most jjimjilbang expect you to stay no more than one night, though some may allow you to negotiate a stay of multiple nights. There's every chance you'll find yourself wanting to come back.
The best jjimjilbang in South Korea
Here is our pick of the best jjimjilbang across the country.
- Dragon Hill Spa (Seoul): Conveniently situated next to Yongsan Station, this over-the-top place is arguably South Korea’s most foreigner-friendly jjimjilbang. In addition to all the usual facilities, Dragon Hill boasts a heated outdoor pool, a horse-riding simulator and a movie theater. The ice room is said to revitalize skin and improve blood circulation.
- Supsok Hanbang Land (Seoul): While Supsok Hanbang Land might be located in central Seoul, a visit feels like an escape to the South Korean countryside. It’s nestled amid trees on the slopes of Ansan Mountain, and you can soak up the bucolic atmosphere in its outdoor areas. It has traditional charcoal-fired kilns – a rarity for an urban jjimjilbang – and sells Korean barbecue dishes in addition to the usual canteen fare.
- Aquafield (Goyang): This upscale jjimjilbang is part of the enormous Starfield shopping and entertainment complex in Goyang, a satellite city just northwest of Seoul. At ₩23,000 for six hours, it’s pricey, but you get top-tier facilities. For an extra ₩32,000, you can add access to the spa’s rooftop infinity pool, with views of Bukhansan Mountain.
- Centum Spaland (Busan): Part of Busan's Centum City, the world’s largest shopping complex, Centum Spaland offers a luxe version of the jjimjilbang experience. The complex includes 18 zen-like hot spring baths, a cafe, a Finnish-style sauna and lots more. It’s just a short bus ride away from Haeundae, South Korea’s most popular beach.
- Jeju Sanbangsan (Andeok-myeon Township, Jeju-do): Jeju Sanbangsan is known for its high water quality and carbonate hot springs, with water that rises from 600m (1969ft) underground. It’s an idyllic retreat, with outdoor pools affording views of palm trees and Sanbangsan Mountain, a tuff lava dome that juts dramatically out of the otherwise flat terrain of this rural corner of southwest Jeju-do Island.