For a culture where respect, personal space and politeness seem king (or emperor) Koreans don’t seem to have any such inhibitions or hang-ups when it comes to getting their kit off in front of each other. Not randomly in the street or in shop-front windows (although I’m sure there’s a neck of town where that happens) but when it comes to the spa.
LET IT ALL HANG OUT
Jjimjilbang is the term used for a sort of wellbeing centre cum public bath. Separated by gender, you’re given an electrical key band on arrival. This usually first operates the shoe locker in the reception area and then as both you ticket and clothes locker inside. Once you’ve found your locker and strip off until only the wrist band remains it’s off to the wet bath area for a thorough clean in the shower – cleanliness is next to godliness don’t forget.
Sufficiently scrubbed, it’s time to relax and heal in the many soothing warm and hot mineral baths. Wet steam rooms are also dotted around to sweat out the toxins. My advice, pace yourself and don’t rush into any of the baths as some can be toe-curlingly hot at first. Take a dip in the cold plunge for some tingly relief.
Once done, it’s time for a rinse down or a shower and shave if so inclined (razors and shaving foam come free) and then dry off with the small towels provided. In most you’ll also find a barbershop for a haircut and shoe shiners (both for a small fee). You can also make use of the free grooming products, from hair tonics and gels, to cotton buds, toothbrushes and toothpaste.
You’re not ready for the full body clean and preen yet though – time to slip on the little pair of pyjamas you’re given and head to the sauna rooms (yes, that’s right, the wellbeing doesn’t stop at the wet rooms). These are a series of ‘fomentation’ rooms (not lost in translation, an actual thing) to relax and sweat some more. The rooms range from jade, ochre, salt, ice, charcoal and infrared, to even more bizarre offerings all with supposed body-balance benefits.
Most jjimjilbang are open 24 hours a day and are ideal for a safe and cosy night’s sleep after a heavy night out or if you happen to miss the last bus home although equally make a great rest for sightseeing legs. Most provide dedicated sleep rooms with thin mattresses (a bit like the sort you did forward rolls on in primary school) and a hardish pillow. The truth is, wherever you find floor space in the sauna areas, it is up for grabs as a place to have a kip (or update Instagram) and hopefully wake up feeling less sore in the head but perhaps a little cricked in the neck. Still, not bad for seven quid.
Where I went for some R&R: