If you look up a list of top things to do in South Korea, heading to a traditional jimjilbang is a must. For those not in the know, they are Korean bathhouses.
It is a huge part of the culture and many people visit them on a regular basis for relaxation, a variety of ailments or simply social interaction. You will find at least one in every town with varying degrees of fanciness but at its most basic a jimjilbang will have an area for baths, one for saunas and some relaxing rooms. The catch, for foreigners anyway, is that you must bare it all in order to indulge in the steaming hot water.
I have done my fair share of skinny dipping…usually at night, mostly when I was a tad younger and loads perkier in some areas.
I try to be positive about my body as I get older but it’s not easy all the time. Getting totally naked in front of strangers is out of my comfort zone. After traveling for seven months I was at my heaviest in years and out of shape. Even with my fears I thought I would be missing out on a wonderful experience of the culture by not going at least once. Not to mention what I had read about getting a full body scrub. On our last day in Korea, Todd and I gathered our courage and boldly headed to the highly recommended Spa Land in Busan. This place is supposed to be the king of the jimjilbangs in the country and we figured why not start with the best?
We opted to head there in the middle of the afternoon, hoping to avoid the after work crowds and overcome our shyness a little. Once we arrived we grabbed our locker keys and brown cotton PJs then split up into the segregated areas. The baths and steam saunas in jimjilbangs are separated by sex although the rest of the complex is co-ed. We agreed to give ourselves an hour and a half then meet back up. And with that we entered the naked zone.
I derobed in the locker room and headed to look for the showers.
Unfortunately I couldn’t locate them. I didn’t realize they were in the same room as the baths and not the locker area. Walking around I tried to find someone who spoke English and could point me in the right direction. I ended up using charades with an understanding older woman. Embarrassing! Once I finally got to the correct area I showered then turned to inspect the baths – they had easily ten to choose from in varying temperatures, design and types of jets. Some were even outside. Making a choice was overwhelming especially surrounded by women who clearly had a regular routine down. I scurried to the closest pool and plunged in, immediately relishing in the steamy water.
I should note that going in the afternoon meant that I was with mostly older women. Watching these ladies strut around from bath to bath without a care in the world I felt less apprehensive. No one was staring unlike in my anxiety ridden visions. After a few minutes I hardly even noticed I was naked. I was shocked at how much I wasn’t bothered. After building it up in my head so much I was just enjoying the water and the jets without a care in the world.
I definitely took advantage of all the options, switching from warm to searing baths and no jets to a personal tub full of jets. Then I jumped in the cold bath to refresh. Outside was super relaxing as they integrate real stones and waterfalls into the layout.
Then it was time for my scrub!
In a side room were a bunch of ladies rocking what can best be described as black lingerie and large scrubby mittens. I walked in, pointed to a time on the clock to negotiate thirty minutes and lay down on a clean table. I closed my eyes and experienced the most vigorous body scrub of my life. It was a little painful in spots, but mostly felt amazing. And afterwards my skin was glowing and as soft as a delicate flower.
After the sublime experience in the bathing area we met back up.
Our first stop in the extravaganza that was the sauna section of Spa Land was the reflexology foot bath. You can sit and soak your feet or walk on reflexology pebbled paths. It’s outside which made for a great atmosphere. Then onto the saunas themselves. This being Spa Land and not Spa Town there were more than we could have possibly visited without melting. We enjoyed the Salt Room, the Body Sound Room and the Roman Sauna the best, finishing in the Ice Room. The detail in each room was incredible and it would be easy to relax so much that you might fall asleep.
Upstairs is a relaxation area with recliners where you could sit and watch a personal TV or take a nap. It had been over three hours at this point and the evening crowd of younger couples, friends and businessmen were arriving. We headed back to our locker rooms after rehydrating and cooling down further. Then after changing back into street clothes we met up front to pay the bill.
It is surprisingly cheap.
It only cost us thirty dollars for the whole afternoon. My scrub was extra but well worth the additional moolah. Smaller local joints can be as little as $8 to enter. Some places you can even stay the night in the sleeping rooms, an option if you are hard up for a cheap place to crash.
Lesson learned? Go with the flow.
In a culture where going to naked bathhouses is a national pastime, no one is going to stare at you. They will not make you feel uncomfortable. You will get to indulge yourself for an afternoon on a small amount of cash and feel amazing afterwards. We slept like babies that night which was good because we had an early flight the next morning. Both of us were incredibly happy that we enjoyed the experience so much. Flying to Japan the next day we made plans to visit Hakone. The town is known for their hot mineral baths, or onsens, with a similar dress code. But that’s another story.
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