Jimjilbangs and Saunas, Jeju, South Korea.
Story by Sara Stillman | Photo – Flickr
After a long winter was almost over, advice from a friend and a visit to a Japanese onsen finally prompted me to check out the world of saunas and jimjilbangs on Jeju. I had been missing my bathtub in Canada and my muscles were sore, but I was feeling a bit shy about getting naked in front of a lot of local strangers. The morning after my first trip to the Deabo Sauna in Sin-Jeju, however, I woke up without one of the chronic headaches I’d been getting for the last two weeks. My body and mind felt tension-free and clear. I danced better in class. I was hooked.
The etiquette of Jimjilbangs
Korean bath-houses or saunas are gender segregated. There are showers, hot, cold, (and sometimes rooibos tea) baths, and saunas of varying temperatures. There may be a sleeping room or an exercise room. They cost around 3,500 won, but some places have discounts if you buy tickets. The walls of the bathing areas and saunas are usually decorated with very beautiful semi-precious stones, like rose quartz, agate, amethyst, and jade, in intricate designs. Don’t be surprised if you look up to see a big pink heart or star on the roof while sweating out the week’s stress in one of the sauna rooms.
Jimjilbangs have all the features of saunas and more. They afford cheap and handy accomodation- usually costing around 10,000 won. There’s generally a Korean food restaurant, separate sleeping rooms for men and women, and a whole floor or two where men, women, and kids can hang out. In this area, entire families, couples, and friends watch TV on blankets on the floor, play video games, have coffee or beer, and sit in saunas together. Some jimjilbangs, like Tap Changito in Tapdong, even have a cinema and a comic book library.
It’s this casual social atmosphere of the jimjilbangs and also the saunas that may take some getting used to at first for westerners (along with the nudity). My first impression of jimjilbangs was that people seemed to leave home to hang out as if they were at home- with the same people but in different, colour-coded clothing. (The Yongduam Sea Water Sauna Club’s lounging outfits are the cutest I’ve seen so far: pale pink for women and sky blue for men.) In the saunas, I laughed when I first saw women reading comic books or novels in the bath, and I was surprised when a woman sat down next to me in the nude and started chatting about her son and daughter in university like it was the most natural thing in the world- and it was. This social aspect of visiting the bath-houses is what makes it such a wonderful, mildly addicting, Korean cultural experience.
What the foreigners had to say
But don’t just take my word for it. I asked some other foreigners why they go to saunas and jimjilbangs, and they all seem to agree that it’s something everyone should check out at least once. Cynthia Loiselle said she likes it “because it is a quiet time for [her] to bond with other women. There is no judgement there, no reason to feel weird about being naked. It’s just a relaxing time where everyone seems to be there for a common purpose: to take care of themselves…I see women young and old hanging out, relaxing, letting the baths wash their troubles away.”
Jason R. Motz couldn’t say enough good things about jimjilbangs and recommends the salt saunas, maeshil (a sweet and refreshing plum drink served ice cold), and the massage chairs. He said, “the best thing is if you properly execute your bath. By this I mean you have to go from hot to cold for the proper amout of time… After the 1st cycle it’s easy to stay in the hot and therefore easy to stay in the cold. After 2 or 3 cycles, you come out of a hot sauna and go into to the cold pool and it’s the best feeling of total utimate body relaxation.”
Finding your closest location
There are many local saunas on the island. Ask around and, unless you live in a very rural small town, you’ll probably find there’s one conveniently located near your home. As for jimjilbangs, there are seven main ones on Jeju that the Tourism Information Centre could show me on a map.
Yongduam Sea Water and Sauna Club
Yongduam Sea Water and Sauna Club is on the coastal road in Jeju-si near Yongduam (Dragon Head Rock) but closer to the Leisure and Sports Park. What looks like a big mound of golden yellow earth outside the building is a traditional sauna. Lisa Rosso says of the ocher sauna experience, “So I’ve discovered what it would be like to be cooked in a clay oven!” I’d have to agree, but it felt amazing afterwards.
Jeju Burim Jimjilbang
The Jeju Burim Jimjilbang is in Sin-Jeju between Jeju Grand Hotel and Marchen House Apartments. I found the women’s sauna here to be particularly pretty and the massage and rub-down area was hopping with three cheerful body-workers. The hour long wait for my scrub-down passed by quickly, and before I knew it, I was being scrubbed and polished head to toe with freshly crushed cucumber on my face. The whole procedure included some massaging and and lasted about 50 minutes- all for just 20,000 won. Loiselle was right: “the scrub-downs are painful but leave your skin feeling silky smooth”!
Tap Changito is beside the E-Mart in Tapdong, near the ocean.
Other Jimjilbangs in your area
Ilchul Bulgama is near Samseonghyeol in Gu-Jeju across from the Culture and Art Centre. Shilla Bulhan Junmak is a little further south in Gu-Jeju near Suseonhwa Apartments.
In Seogwipo there is Kasan Tobang, a traditional ocher sauna in Tophyung-Dong with upscale accomodation. There’s also the jimjilbang at Water World, under the stadium, which has an ice room to go along with the saunas.
Dos and Don’ts
Meng Suk Kang who works in Deabo Sauna (which has been in her family for 3 generations) answered some of my questions about bath and sauna ettiquette.
– Do wash your hair and body (8)thoroughly before going into the bath or sauna rooms. After that you can go back and forth between the saunas and baths as you please.
– Do wrap a towel around your head and hair.
– Do put your towels in the basket when you’re finished with them.
– Don’t sit on the floor or in the sauna without a towel underneath you.
– Don’t read a book in the sauna; however, in the bath, it is okay.