A sauna is a great way to relax and de-stress. And with more and more kinds of saunas readily available, the choice of how to get hot is increasing all the time!
But with so many sauna traditions, it can be hard to keep track of what’s what. That’s where we can help! We’re going to take a look at one of the most interesting types of sauna – the Korean sauna. We’ll delve into its history, and share the customs and practice you need to know about.
So if you’re ready, read on for 15 facts about a Korean sauna!
What is a Korean sauna?
1. You’ll find a Korean sauna in a jjimjilbang
Jjimjilbang is Korean for “steam-quality house”, and it’s here you’ll find your sauna. The jjimjilbang itself is a bathhouse, complete with saunas of different temperatures.
As well as the saunas, you’ll find showers, baths, massage tables and hot tubs. These areas are single sex. But elsewhere, both men and women use the same space. Unisex areas include snack bars, lounges, computer gaming centers and karaoke booths. The latter are known as a noraebang in Korean.
With so much entertainment on offer, it’s not surprising that the jjimjilbang is a popular weekend retreat for Korean families.
You can also spend the night here at bargain prices, though you’ll be sleeping in a large room with lots of other people. Many Korean men who have to work away from home take this option during the week.
2. Nakedness is non-negotiable
In Korean saunas, you go naked. The good news is that, unlike in German saunas, you’ll only be au naturel with people of the same sex. As noted above, all the “wet rooms” are single sex spaces.
Although it might seem strange at first, no-one else will bat an eyelid. This is just how things are done in the jjimjilbang.
When you go into the “dry rooms” – the unisex areas – you wear special loose-fitting pyjamas. These keep you comfortable and protect your modesty. You’ll be given a pair when you check in, so you’ll look exactly the same as everyone else. There are, though, different colored pyjamas for men and women.
3. Everyone washes before using the sauna
Scrupulous hygiene is very important when there are so many naked bodies around. And before using a sauna or spa bath, everyone is expected to wash thoroughly.
You don’t have to wash your hair if you’d rather not. But if you don’t and you have long hair, make sure you tie it up. That’s particularly important when you’re using the baths – more on those later. Hair dangling in the shared water is considered to be very unhygienic.
4. There are showers, Jim, but not as we know them
We’ve already seen that washing before using the baths and saunas are essential. But if you’re imagining standard shower cubicles, think again.
In most jjimjilbangs, you’ll find low plastic stools. The idea is that you collect a bowl of water and sit on the stool to wash.
Most jjimjilbangs will have soap available. But if you want to wash your hair, you’re likely to need your own shampoo and conditioner. In many cases, you’ll be able to buy single use sachets on the premises.
Experienced users of the jjimjilbang will often arrive with a whole host of their own toiletries. They come fully equipped to spend the whole day in some serious pampering.
Some will even leave baskets of toiletries next to a wash station in a bid to save it for their own use later! That’s fine if it’s quiet. But at busier times, don’t worry about using a wash station that’s been “reserved” in this way.
5. Exfoliation is a key part of the experience
Exfoliation – brushing the skin to remove dead skin cells – is a key part of the experience. Korean women in particular take this very seriously.
Exfoliation is done in the same area as washing. Here, you’ll see people rubbing themselves vigorously with exfoliating mitts. If you’re feeling brave, you can also get someone else to do it for you, complete with oils.
The bath houses are staffed by ajumma (Korean women of senior years) and ajussi (the male version). You’ll always be scrubbed by someone of the same sex as you – and they’ll be naked too! Make sure you’re ready for it – they don’t hold back! The whole process takes about half an hour.
But while the oil scrub massage is tough, it will also leave your skin beautifully soft. Grit your teeth and enjoy the results!
6. You can choose from different saunas
Korean saunas are known as hanjeungmak and they’re quite different to traditional Scandinavian saunas. If you’re imagining a baking hot, wood-clad room, you’re in for a surprise.
The hanjeungmak is a kiln sauna, with walls and floors made of stone or clay. And the heat is much gentler than in a Scandinavian sauna. Here the temperatures are between 122 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit. And you can often choose a sauna at the level you find most comfortable.
7. You lie on mats or crystals
Once inside your chosen sauna, there are no wooden benches to lie on. Instead, you’ll usually stretch out on a mat made of hemp. In some cases, you’ll lie instead on a bed of jade crystals or salts.
In either case, it’s very comfortable. And because the heat is milder, you’ll warm up gradually. The main thing to watch out for here is that you don’t nod off to sleep. Spend too long inside and it’s still hot enough to leave you dehydrated at best, and with heat stroke at worst.
8. You shouldn’t enter the baths straight after taking a sauna
In many countries, it’s traditional to leave the sauna and jump straight into a cold pool. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can do this in a jjimjilbang!
Here, you’ll find a number of different baths. But none of them are designed to cool off immediately after the sauna.
Instead, you’re expected to shower after your sauna before entering the baths. That will ensure that all your perspiration is washed away first, keeping the baths clean for other users.
9. You can choose from baths at different temperatures
Once you’re scrupulously clean, you can choose from baths at different temperatures. There’s usually one cold option, and others between about 100 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit.
The baths are usually indoors, but in some jjimjilbangs there’ll be open air options too. You can stay in the baths for as long as you like, but 20 minutes is generally considered the perfect duration.
That’s actually quite a long time to spend in very warm water. If you want to do it, it’s most comfortable if you keep the water below the level of your heart.
10. You can get something to eat and drink
Amongst the mixed sex areas of the jjimjilbang are snack bars. Here you can buy a traditional Korean drink, a sweet confection made from fermented rice wine. It’s called sikhye, and it also contains grains of cooked rice or sometimes pine nuts.
Another sauna specialty are maekbanseok gyeran. These are eggs that have actually been steamed inside the sauna, a process that takes about three hours. The result is a brown shell and a chestnutty flavor. (You can also get plain old boiled eggs – but where’s the fun in that?!)
You’ll also find water coolers throughout the jjimjilbang. Take your own water bottle and fill it up to stay hydrated.
10. Silence is golden
The jjimjilbang is a place of relaxation. If you go with other people you know, resist the temptation to chat loudly. In this respect, Korean saunas are far more similar to German ones than the sociable Finnish sauna experience.
And if you use the hot baths, don’t splash around in them. Tranquillity is the watchword here.
11. No shoes are allowed in the changing rooms
There are separate changing rooms for men and women in the jjimjilbang. But before you even get there, there’s a separate area with shoe lockers. That’s because you’re not allowed to wear your shoes in the main changing room.
When you check in, you’ll be given a locker key with a number. This will usually work for both your shoe locker and the main locker in the changing room.
In some cases, the shoe lockers are in the reception area. In others, they’re at the entrance to the main changing rooms. Either way, stow away your shoes before going any further.
The locker key is usually on a rubber band. Pop that over your wrist to keep it safe whilst you use the facilities.
Sometimes, the shoe locker key will be separate. And you may have to hand it back at reception before you go to the changing rooms.
You usually pay for everything at the end of your visit. If you’ve had to hand in your shoe locker key, you’ll get it back once you’ve settled your bill.
12. The towels are tiny
In addition to your locker key and pyjamas, there will be towels for you to use at the jjimjilbang. But be warned – these are not like the towels you may be familiar with! The Korean version is considerably smaller than a Western bath towel. It’s more like a hand towel.
And oddly, some jjimjilbangs have different towel offerings for men and women!
Women checking in will usually be given two of these small towels. Men won’t be given any – but they actually get the better deal. There are piles of towels in the men’s changing room, so they can take as many as they want.
For women, the idea is that you take one towel into the jjimjilbang. You can fold this around your head – more on that in a moment. The second towel is to dry yourself with when you’re ready to get dressed.
13. There’s a distinctively Korean way of wearing your towel
One of the surprising sights at a Korean spa is the way people wear towels on their heads. The traditional turban style has no place here. Instead, both men and women fold their towels into a hat with two cute lumps that look like lambs’ ears!
The style is called yang-mori or sheep’s head. It can frequently be seen being sported by trendy young things in Korean televisions series. And you can even find videos on how to fold one!
14. It’s busiest right before mealtimes
If you want to introduce yourself gently to the jjimjilbang experience, it’s best to choose a time when it’s quiet. To do that, avoid the periods before breakfast and dinner. The jjimjilbang will be busiest at around 5pm, so steer clear unless you want to be surrounded by naked bodies!
While the jjimjilbang is generally used by native Koreans rather than tourists, spas in hotels are particularly busy at this time. And that’s especially the case in popular tourist destinations.
15. There is a long tradition of using the jjimjilbang
The origins of the jjimjilbang are lost in the mists of time. But there’s no doubt they’ve been an important part of Korean culture for centuries.
If you watch Korean historic television dramas, they’ll often feature the king taking a spa break in the springtime. This, of course, means he is away from the palace, and provides a perfect opportunity for plots and intrigue to develop!
Ready to try a Korean sauna?
That brings us to the end of our look at 15 facts about a Korean sauna. We hope we’ve helped satisfy your curiosity – and given you the courage to try out this unique experience for yourself!
If you travel to Korea, visiting a jjimjilbang is a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture. So grab one of the tiny towels, fold it into a sheep’s head, and prepare to be seriously scrubbed! And when you’ve finished, why not tuck into some steamed sauna eggs and fermented rice wine?
Best of all, unlike spas in many other parts of the world, a jjimjilbang won’t cost you a king’s ransom. You can even stay overnight as a budget accommodation choice. Just remember to pack some earplugs in case you find yourself sharing the sleeping room with a snorer!