A bathhouse or jjimjilbang (찜질방) is a heated room where Koreans of all ages come to unwind, hang out and engage in health and beauty rituals.
They're typically casual spots but the more elaborate joints have restaurants, outdoor swimming pools, hair and nail salons and karaoke rooms in addition to the usual baths and saunas.
When visiting a jjimjilbang, there is an unspoken code of manners and customs unspoken customs, which we'll break down for you, step by step.
Getting through the door
You'll be greeted with a wall of small lockers. These are for your shoes: slip them inside and take your locker key in hand to the front desk. Pay up 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), a towel and a pair of cotton pajamas.
The changing room
The key in your hand will direct you to your locker to store your belongings. Most jjimjilbang have two distinct areas: the baths, which are same-sex only, and the sauna areas, which are communal.
If you're going to the baths, remove all clothing, bringing only a small towel and toiletries with you. If you're going to the saunas, change into pajamas. Wear your locker key on your wrist.
Wash before getting into the baths. There will be rows of washing stations; grab one and pick a faucet. There will be soap, but there isn't likely to be shampoo or conditioner.
Once you're clean, head to the tubs. There will be a variety of temperatures, from about 38°C (not too hot) to about 42°C (pretty hot), and also a cold tub. Optimal soaking time is about 20 minutes.
Being in the buff
The most difficult part of the experience for a lot of first-timers is being naked with strangers. Fear not: Koreans consider this a normal part of visiting a jjimjilbang.
You can use your towel to strategically cover yourself as you walk around. Don't bring it into the water. Keep it dry enough that you can towel off before heading back to the changing room.
Traditional Korean saunas (called hanjeungmak; 한증막) are stone or clay kilns heated to between 50 and 90 degrees celsius, and are really quite pleasant compared to western ones.
As you lie on hemp mats (or salt or jade crystals), the heated stone gently warms your body. After 15-20 minutes, you start to sweat. Cap off with a cold, sweet sikhye (식혜), a fermented rice drink.
The sleeping rooms
You can opt to spend the night for an extra cost. At simpler spots, the sleeping room might be a wide room with thin plastic mattresses. At more sophisticated places, they're like capsule hotels.
There are also usually big common rooms where people congregate to watch TV, sit in massage chairs, snack and generally hang out.
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, get your shoe locker key back, and you're good to go.
Most jjimjilbang expect you to stay no more than one night, though some will allow you to stay multiple nights and to come and go.
Read the full overview of visiting a jimjilbang, including average cost, what to watch out for, and more by hitting the link below.