Sometimes, you need a hot bath. Since there are few bathtubs in Korean apartments, we are given the public sauna–that mutually nude tradition from Roman antiquity. I’ve always liked baths, hot tubs, jacuzzis, any kind of soaking. But a Korean jjimjilbang is completely different. Conan went, hilarity ensued. Anthony Bourdain went (in his show: Parts Unknown), contemplation ensued.
It’s a wonderful place for relaxation, if you can get past the shared bathtubs and the nudity coupled with dramatically conspicuous pubic hair. The pure joy of a 44C tub in winter outweighs any dangling encroachment or short & curly incursion. Don’t misunderstand, it’s a public kind of privacy. Yet one needs to be ready for extreme nudity of all sizes and ages, because, of course you don’t look, but you do see. Once past the initial nude shock, you can sit in dry Swedish saunas, wet aromatic steam-rooms, jacuzzi baths, and tubs ranging from icy to scalding. It’s an exercise in temperature toleration. My skin usually resembles a lobster after about an hour of cold to hot body shocking.
I put on the cozy pajamas they give you, and meandered to the common co-ed room. Here is the real deal. You can find beehive caves where temps hover around 100 C, Himalyan rock salt floors, personal cocoons, ice rooms and all manner of sweat chambers. There is usually a restaurant on-site, or a snack bar. Ice cream, water and ramen are the best choices. Once you’ve gotten the perspiration going and achieved perfect ice cream to spicy soup balance, lie on the heated floor and relax.
The Siloam Sauna near City Hall in Seoul was freaking packed when we arrived on New Year’s Day 2016! There were buses of Chinese tourists outside and I felt like the Star Wars quote: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Sure enough, it was a mess inside. Bodies occupying every available shower, very little space in the tubs and just too much everything. I posted up in the salt room, got some salt and gave myself a scrubbing. It was a bad idea to come on the universally most hungover and thus most crowded day of the year, but here we were. The buses left after a while, and the place thinned out.
Siloam is a massive place, with an exercise room, large restaurant, plenty of unique common rooms, and clean for its popularity. Dragon Hill (in Yongsan) might still win on size and presentation, but is also consistently and annoyingly crowded. I think on a normal day (not January 1st), this place might be better for the crowd averse.
Here are some pictures of the common chilling areas, and more information here.
My sample routine for beginners:
- Pay the fee (between 6-12,000won) and get a locker.
- Undress, rinse in shower, get in warm tub, then hot, then cold. Move to dry sauna, cold shower…repeat.
- Once sufficiently heated, rinse with cool water and change to pajamas.
- Visit all the available sweat chambers, starting with hot first, and ice room between.
- Drink a bottle of water, eat ramen noodles and ice cream.
- Nap, read, chill, people watch.
49 Jungnim-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul