What goes on in a jjimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse

Nov 20, 2017

More than just an indulgent soak in a tub, a visit to a Korean bathhouse offers a crash course in Korean customs and tradition.

The jjimjilbang (bathhouse) in Korea is the quintessential cultural pivot around which daily life rotates. Dotting the peninsula are hundreds, if not thousands, of bathhouses, where young families, business executives, students and weary nation-builders go to discuss important family matters, social issues, politics, or to simply soothe themselves into a state of devil-may-care rest and relaxation.

For the foreign visitor, a trip to a bathhouse is an important stop on any itinerary, regardless of time of year. It is a place where you can enjoy pure and unadulterated pampering, while giving you an insight into Korean customs and traditions. It is also a place for social bonding, and this is felt no sooner than when you surrender your shoes in a locker at the entrance.

What you’ll find inside

Bath areas are segregated by gender – and to wear a swimsuit is anathema to bathing etiquette. If being in your birthday suit isn’t enough to encourage collective identity building, there is also the yangmeori (Korean for “lamb head”), a cleverly fashioned hand towel worn by all visitors. These ‘helmets’ are meant to prevent perspiration from dripping into your eyes. It’s common for friends of the same sex – sometimes, even strangers – to scrub one another’s backs. Called “skinship” – a portmanteau of skin and kinship – this form of bonding is also practised between fathers and sons.

The buildings which house jjimjilbangs range in size from modest sheds to decked-out, six-storey palaces. Most of the latter offer the same fancy trappings: exercise rooms, computer stations, karaoke and TV rooms. You’ll also find massage and beauty services, dessert parlours, restaurants, snack booths and miscellaneous shops. There is usually a vast communal area where everyone can lie on an ondol (heated floor), a warming system carried over from traditional Korean homes. If your spine is feeling out of whack, the typical remedy in Korea is not to visit a chiropractor, but to lie on the ondol and place your head on a brick-sized slab of wood.

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The food

Indulging in delicious Korean cuisine is customary to the bathhouse experience. In family areas and TV rooms, visitors eat miyeokguk (seaweed soup) or baked eggs cooked in the hottest of saunas on site, and drink sikhye (a sweet beverage made from rice). Patbingsu, shaved ice topped with fruits and sweet sauces, is a common treat among the younger generation.