One night in a Korean sauna

What is it like to spend a night in a Jjimjilbang? I have given it a try, together with Lea from France and Xiao Ying from China – two of my fellow students from Seoul. We got to know the differences to conventional saunas, slapped eggs on our heads and made a “sheep head”.

What is a Jjimjilbang?
A Jjimjilbang (찜질방) is a Korean public bathhouse with various saunas, pools, showers, and a relaxation area that is typically open 24 hours. Usually, the place has a larger common area with lounges and TVs, exercise rooms, restaurants, sleeping quarters, and of course different temperature saunas. In these areas, it is mandatory to wear clothing that is handed out at the entrance. There are also areas divided into men and women with hot tubs, steam baths, showers, and sometimes massage tables. Here it is intended to be naked.

As soon as our semester abroad ended, our university was kind of in a hurry to get rid of us. We already have had our graduation ceremony ten days earlier – with a little celebration and handing over of the certificates, although we had not even written our final exams at this point. The last day of the university also meant that we had to move out of our dormitory rooms – meanwhile, some of us still had to take their final exams, as my roommate Jazz. The university’s hurry was also due to the fact that the new students who had rented the dormitories during the semester break should have the chance to move in immediately.

The next day, I was planning on taking a bus to Busan, the second biggest city of South Korea with around 3.4 million inhabitants. But there was (so far) one more night left in Seoul. – And where could we have spent it any better than in a Jjimjilbang.

Lea, Xiao Ying and I met in the early evening in Sinchon – a district for students in Seoul – for having dinner and to spend the end of the day in a Korean bathhouse in the neighbourhood. The Jjimjilbang was comparatively small. At the entrance, we were given clothing – a t-shirt and short sweatpants as well as two small towels. Mine was in light pink. After we left our bags in a locker at the entrance we were ready to explore the Jjimjilbang.

Jjimjilbang as a replacement for taxis
Inside one of the saunas

Jjimjilbangs are one of the cheapest possibilities to stay overnight in South Korea. Depending on the size it usually costs between 10,000 and 12,000 Won (8.50-10.50 USD) per visit. It gets even a little cheaper if you do not stay overnight. During the day, Jjimjilbangs are a popular destination for families. In night time they serve as cheap accommodations after work or in favour of party people (either way because they are too drunk to find their keys or the taxi for going home is just too expensive – because Korea has no public transport at night).

A sauna for chatting, reading, and relaxing

The saunas of our Jjimjilbang were housed in bright coloured igloos made of stone with small windows facing the common area. On the ground of the saunas were pebbles covered with thin mats to prevent to burn the soles of one’s feet. The igloos have dim lighting. The atmosphere is calm and relaxing. At least the main sauna where we were sitting was not too hot in order to comfortably last for some time. Actually, Jjimjilbangs are designed for longer stays and differ from a conventional sauna in its temperature, which is usually between 40 and 70 degrees. The stay reminded me of a very hot summer day. Those days where you already start sweating while sitting around. Someone was even lying next to us and reading comfortably. Jjimjilbangs are often used to chat with friends or just relax a bit. The kind of saunas I know from Europe, dry saunas and steam baths are way hotter. Usually, they have temperatures between 50 to 100 degrees.

A few weeks later I visited a way larger Jjimjilbang in Hongdae, another student district in Seoul in the neighbourhood of Sinchon. There they had a much bigger selection of saunas. Including some which work as a sort of oven (한증막). These are significantly hotter with temperatures up to 135 degrees. In the Jjimjilbang I had visited, existed a small rounded stone house which was formed like an oven with a narrow passage to keep the heat indoors. Inside it was comparative dark. On the other end was a walled-in fireplace for burning coal. It was absolutely silent. Talking takes too much energy in the heat. Every visitor had to bring an hourglass inside to make sure to not exceed the prescribed maximum time in order to not overload one’s body. I was sitting close to the exit because the heat was increasing towards the back.
Unlike the Finnish saunas which are the most common ones in Europe, the saunas in Korea (normally) do not have benches. Instead, all visitors sit on the floor – the material is mostly stone covered with mats or planks. In Korea, it is common to take a sauna in clothing (except in the gender-segregated areas).    

The sheep head – the fashion trend of the sauna

Lea, Xiao Ying and I got quiet fast into a conversation with three Korean women in our age – here in South Korea going to a sauna is definitely also a common evening activity instead of karaoke or watching a movie. We noticed that the three had folded their towels in a special way by rolling the ends up. I have read that this trend gained national attention in 2005 introduced through a K-Drama (My Lovely Sam-Soon) and since then it has become a “cute” fashion trend in saunas. Because of its look, it is called “sheep head” and even has a practical purpose. The towel around the head is supposed to ensure that you sweat more but also protects the hair from the heat. The three Korean women willingly taught us the correct folding technique.

Dressed vs. naked
As already mentioned, Koreans take their saunas in clothes. The Korean etiquette prescribes to stay dressed in front of the opposite gender. It appears way looser in the gender-segregated areas. There it is common to show yourself naked. This applies to both saunas as well as for example changing rooms of public swimming pools (read more about my visit to a water park in Seoul in my blog post about Daily Life in South Korea Pt. I).     
Why my friend hit soy eggs against her head …

Every Jjimjilbang has at least one kiosk if not even its own restaurant. The most popular snacks are eggs steamed in soy sauce and Sikhye, a Korean rice drink that is served in cups with straws. I have read that some eggs even get cooked by taking them into the oven-like and therefore hottest saunas. My food-decision was rather unusual because I bought ice cream and a Korean beer. But my friend ordered the famous eggs. She wanted to try opening the eggs by slapping them against her head (but I am afraid she would not recommend this technique). She got the idea from a K-Drama which aired at the time (The Legend of the Blue Sea). In this drama, the main female character Shim Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun) spends a night in a Jjimjilbang and cracks her eggs with the mentioned technique. Anyway, this does not seem like a common way of peeling eggs since in the series the main lead handles a lot of things a bit extraordinary. But in her defence, she is a mermaid.

Little by little, we tried a steam bath as well as a whirlpool in the women’s area. I also let myself kneaded by a massage chair. The latter was actually quite pleasant the only thing was that the chair also massaged my calves and feet which was rather uncomfortable. That is why I cheated a bit and changed my seat to cross-legged to avoid the massage on my legs. After all the sauna visits we were finally tired enough to go to sleep. There was a common igloo for men and women to sleep. Since my fellow student did not want to sleep in the same room as foreign men we decided to sleep in one of the rooms in the separated area for women. The sleeping rooms are equipped with thin mats and hard pillows. The next morning ended with a shower and the checkout.   

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