Here’s an experience everyone should have in Seoul ! – going to the 찜질방, or Korean public bath houses, which are a favourite past time of the locals, especially in the Winter, and is a much-loved family-centric activity that a lot of Koreans attribute their good skin and healthy ruddy countenances to.
What is a JJB ?
They are public bath houses that can be found almost everywhere in Seoul and range from small and exclusive bath houses with expensive sauna and massage treatment rooms to huge kitschy affairs with more than 20 themed rooms, a restaurant, arcade, manicure and pedicure, and even karaoke rooms.
Koreans typically go there to sweat out their exhaustion, chat with family and friends, enjoy the warmth of the sauna during the winter, and entertain themselves while improving their well-being.
Its a very communal thing so if you are afraid of crowds or very self-conscious, it may not be a good idea. But I personally love it !
FAQ when I bring it up to my friends:
- Is everyone naked?
- Is it 24 hours?
- Is it hygienic ?
- What’s so fun about lying around and baking yourself to death?
- What do I bring ?
- How much does it cost?
Well I’m here to answer your questions !
It costs about $ 25 for 24-hour entry. You are given a locker key with a rubber tie to put around your wrist and a clean set of ‘sauna pyjamas’ which you change into once you’re bathed and ready to face the other sex.
You only need to bring yourself, your bath essentials, and a change of clothes. Everything else can be bought there for a nominal fee.
Firstly, yes you have to be naked to some extent in the gender-segregated bathrooms because for hygiene reasons, you need to bathe yourself first before using the spa-pools. In any case there is really no need to be shy because there are women of all shapes and sizes and they aren’t going to check you out in the middle of the spa. So don’t worry 🙂
Also, once you reach the unisex sauna area everyone is clothed in the JJB uniform so don’t worry you won’t need to parade yourself in your birthday suit in front of the opposite sex
This kinda answers the third question. All four JJB’s I’ve been to were very hygienic. Everyone scrubs each other with really scratchy bath cloths until their skin is pink and glowing and ready to receive the special goodness of every spa room (there are red clay rooms, mineral salt rooms, brick rooms, etc for people with different health issues)
Most of them are 24 hours so you can sleep there overnight and are a great alternative to getting drunk on the streets of Seoul.
Whats so fun ?
First, you scrub each other’s naked backs. Its always funny, you will find that you are full of the giggles, and for some reason, you will reach a new level of closeness with the friend whose back you are scrubbing. Its back to basics, strip away the layers, good, clean fun.
There’s something indescribably liberating about strutting around in ‘public’ absolutely starkers. Lying in the hot pools and feeling your muscles slowly but surely untense and relax while chatting to your friends who are looking and feeling similarly dreamy.
Then sweating it out in saunas before dipping into icy cold pools to close your pores and squeaking in frozen shock before lying down on ondol-heated floors and snoozing peacefully until you’re super sleepy and ready to collapse into your hotel room bed back home.
There are usually pools with varying degrees of heat – 25, 30, 40, and then the icy ones, 6, or 7 degrees.
The Naked Scrub –
I ALWAYS do this. Basically you pay a really strong Ajumma about $25 to scrub the shit out of you, literally. It is very undignified. You are sprawled on a metal tray wearing absolutely nothing and a middle aged woman with a very tight perm wearing a black bra and panty set splashes soap water on you. Armed with a bristly glove, she scrapes and scrubs you until literal ROLLS of dead skin come off your body.
It can get painful at times, but its the pleasurable kind of pain (I am not a sicko, my friends liked it too), and you emerge feeling like you have come out of your chrysalis – cleaner than you have ever been your whole life.
My very disturbed friend A has just one word to describe the experience. “TIT-illating.”
Finally, JJB FOOD! (My favourite part)
There’s usually a canteen in the JJB that will serve sauna favourites ! A very popular drink that’s just perfect in the hot sauna is sikhye, or 식혜 , a freezing cold sweet rice drink.
Its made by pouring malt water onto cooked rice and adding sugar. Its refreshing, tastes like toasted grain, and incredibly addictive when you’re fresh out of a steam room with its light sweet taste and silky coolness.
They always dispense it in carryaround containers like A’s above.
삶은 계란 (sol-meun gae-ran)
These eggs are cooked on premises in the JJB’s hottest sauna ! According to the Koreans, when the eggs are baked in the sauna, the cholesterol leaves it, making it a healthy snack sans the heart clogging fat !
You are apparently supposed to eat it by using your friend’s head to crack the shell. Please do not do this. I clobbered L on the head with the egg and not only did it not crack, it may have left her with an even lower IQ than before.
It just tastes like regular egg, though. When I first tried it four years ago, I was expecting it to taste like nice and savoury tea egg and was a little disappointed.
Mandu, or Korean dumplings.
My favourite JJB snack ! Something about the nice chewy skin and salty veg filling that keeps me popping these babies. Can’t stop at one !
We over ordered a little this time around – it was going to be our last meal in Seoul and it was also my birthday 🙂
Juicy giant Tonkatsu !
Kimchi pancake – 김치전!
I really liked the one at Gangbyeon Spa Land (which is where we went this time) It was nice and dense and very tasty without having too much of a sourish tang from the aged kimchi.
And for the first time – spicy cold buckwheat noodles, or 비빔 냉면 (bi-bim naeng-myeon)
It was wonderful ! Not too spicy, sourish savoury with perfectly cooked noodles, YUM !
And finally, because it was the eve of my birthday :
미역국 – Miyeok-guk – Korean Birthday Seaweed Soup !
All Koreans drink this on their birthday, mainly because women who have just given birth drink a lot of this for their high nutrition value. Its like remembering who gave you life every year !
That was our JJB experience this year, I’ll be happy to answer any of your questions if you want to try it out but don’t dare , just formspring me !