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Jjimjilbang: A wellness journey through steam baths

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Nowadays, we live at a frenetic pace under the constant fear of not being productive enough; we inhabit the one that Byung-Chul Han (한병철), one of the most influential Korean philosophers of today, describes as the burnout society. We do not have time for ourselves or those around us, we are faced with a scenario of exhausted, frustrated, and depressed people. That is why we need to revolutionize our use of time and embark on new experiences that give us well-being, and health and allow us to create and strengthen ties with our family and friends. In South Korea, there are ideal spaces for this, the jjimjilbang (찜질방) or Korean saunas, traditional bathhouses that are increasingly modern and that can be enjoyed by small children to older adults. They sound simple, but they form a microcosm within Korean leisure culture with their massages, steam baths, dining rooms, and even beds for the night. Discover what other secrets are hidden in these places, highly appreciated by Koreans and increasingly frequented by tourists; a visit is all you will need to get hooked on this magnificent alternative of naked relaxation. Do you dare to know a little more about this essential part of contemporary Korean culture?

The word jjimjilbang derives from the words jjimjil (찜질) which means hot water, poultice, or burying oneself in the sand to sweat and treat illnesses, and bang () which means room. In that order of ideas, it could be understood as a hot room with revitalizing and medicinal effects. Presently, it is used to refer to a large public place similar to a sauna, which has a wide variety of services such as jacuzzis, swimming pools, massages and exfoliation, common showers, daycare and children’s area, playroom, gym, cafeteria, rest and sleeping areas with heated floors with the traditional ondol heating system (온돌), and rooms of different temperatures and materials, each associated with different therapeutic properties; the most modern ones even have beauty salons and cinemas. Most remain open 24 hours a day, and the best thing is that whether you stay a few hours to recharge after a long day at work or spend the night there if you live far away and need to wait for the next day’s subway, they have an affordable cost for common people ranging from 8,000 to 15,000 won, which has made it a popular plan for groups of friends, couples, families, or for those who want to take care of themselves and incorporate the radiation emitted by the heating of different minerals, crystals, stones and metals to their beauty routine, which has been associated with attributes such as facilitating cellular activity, improving blood circulation, reducing muscle pain and strengthening the immune system.

Some associate its origin with the time when in the Korean peninsula, no water supply network passed through the houses, especially those of the humblest population, so families had to go to public baths to clean themselves, there they sat on small stools and washed with fountains or vases to then plunged into shared pools. Other sources trace their origin back to the Joseon dynasty (대조선국) when the Sejong Sillok of the Annals of Joseon (조선왕조실록) dating from the 15th century speaks of hanjeungmak (한증막), formerly known as hanjeungso (한증소), state-supported kiln saunas, maintained by Buddhist monks and used for medicinal purposes. Since 1429, saunas have been built as separate facilities for men and women due to their high demand. Today the hanjeungmak continue to exist but are incorporated into jjimjilbang instead of being independent facilities.

For Koreans, jjimjilbang is one of the best ways to break the ice in a relationship, and some even believe that you cannot consider someone a true friend until you share a bathroom with that person; however, for many foreigners, it can be quite a culture shock to see people of all ages without clothes in saunas, but if you know what to expect and what are the essential steps to follow once you arrive at this social spa, you will not die in the attempt.

Before even thinking about what you are going to do in a jjimjilbang, you must have the right mindset; to fully enjoy the experience, you must go with an open mind. Once you arrive at the establishment, the first thing you must do is pay the entrance fee, which is usually published at the reception desk and may vary depending on the bathhouse, the day, and the time of the day; in return, you will receive a key to store your shoes in a locker. Later, that key will be exchanged for another one that you could wear on your wrist in the form of a bracelet, which will allow you to store your clothes and belongings in the dressing rooms that are separated by sex; remember that regarding the signs on the door, nam () is used for men and yeo () for women. Additionally, you will be given a robe, a dry towel, or a change of clothes depending on the place; the latter usually consists of a t-shirt and shorts whose color will depend on the gender of the individual.

Most jjimjilbang has two different areas: the baths, where you can find small tubs that are only for people of the same sex, and the sauna areas, which are communal and will be varied in style and temperature. The most recommendable thing is to take a shower before starting to enjoy the facilities, but it will also depend on what you want to visit; if you only go to the saunas, it is not mandatory since there you will keep your clothes on all the time while you lie down on hemp mats, crystals of salt or jade. If you’re a little bolder and decide to venture into the baths, look for steamy glass doors with signs that say mogyoktang (목욕탕), or just follow the naked people. Wash before entering the shared bathtubs; in case you have not brought your toiletries, you can get them in the convenience stores that are inside the jjimjilbang themselves, then find the tub with which you are most comfortable in terms of temperature and bring a small towel with you. To prevent the latter from getting wet, you can wear it on your head by rolling its ends in a style called yangmeori (양머리) or sheep head towel.

It is common for Koreans to take the opportunity to carry out meticulous bath and skin treatments; exfoliation is one of the most common practices and consists of rubbing with a rough towel all over the body. Helping each other is a courtesy rule, so don’t be surprised if someone offers to rub your back or asks for your help; however, if you like, you can also access additional services such as professional exfoliating treatments called seshin (세신). Once you have finished with the wet area, shower again and get changed, the fun is not over yet. Head to the common area; from there you can easily find the rest area, restaurants, and other attractions such as TV rooms, karaoke or norebang (노래방), PC rooms or PC bang (PC), among others.

Always remember to stay hydrated, cold sikhye (식혜), a traditional sweet rice drink, is the most representative of the jjimjilbang. For food, sauna eggs or maekbanseok gyeran (맥반석 계란), hard-boiled eggs that have been slow-cooked in the hottest sauna; seaweed soup, or miyeokguk (미역국) and traditional Korean shaved ice cream with red bean paste, patbingsu (팥빙수), are an excellent choice. When you are ready to leave, you only need to recover your belongings and put on the clothes with which you arrived at the place initially, the ones you used for your stay, must be placed in a basket provided for that purpose. And so, your visit has ended, you will be surprised at how quickly time has passed.

If you go to Korea, going to jjimjilbang definitely should be on your to-do list, it is an activity that will allow you to get a unique and very interesting glimpse into what life is like for local Koreans, how they relax after a hard week and where they seek comfort to heal both their body and their soul. There are countless of these bathhouses, some of the more recognized are Dragon Hill Spa, Siloam Sauna (시로암 사우나), and Spa Land Centum City, do not hesitate to search for more about them and find the one that best suits your tastes. What do you think of Korean bath culture? Would you go to a jjimjilbang? Would you risk going out of your comfort zone and going beyond the sauna? Tell us in the comments, and remember that your health and well-being always come first.

Written by: Laura Herrera

Reviewed by: Angie Salavarria

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