on… Jjimjilbangs (찜질방)

Posted: 22/05/2011 in Asia, Korea, Wellbeing
Tags: , , , , , ,

Jjimjilbang(찜질방) translates to heated bathroom.

Bang is the Korean word for room as in noraebang (노래) or singing room.

The reason I am being so scrupulous with including the Hangeul is that sometimes the Roman alphabet is woefully inadequate when transliterating Korean words. Let’s face it, how many words do you know that start with a double J?

Calling a찜질방 a heated bathroom is also woefully inadequate when you consider what else is on offer in these places.

So what exactly is a Jjimjilbang?

A jjimjilbang includes the basic elements of any health club or spa you find the world over: shower, steam room, hot tub, sauna, massage tables, vanity area and  swimming pools – in larger places anyway. These basic elements are combined with many other ways for Koreans to relax and enjoy themselves. I have noticed that in Korea you are never far away from people shouting or eating, sometimes both at the same time. This is well catered for by the provision of noraebangs, PC rooms, videogames, snack bars, juice bars and often other traditional restaurants. It’s quite common for people to eat salty snacks after a sauna session, a great idea when you can taste the salt of your own sweat on your lips, a sure sign of dehydration. Charcoal infused hard boiled eggs are also very common and can be bought at the same counter as crisps and ramen noodles. When you consider the health aspect it seems strange that you can also buy beer too! The whole concept is more about relaxation than actual health. Relaxation can be difficult for many without the use of beer so I am happy not to judge the inclusion of beer  in these temples of health. Actually, I had a beer whilst watching a re-run of a Champions League game in my first visit to a jjimjilbang. Depending on the place itself you are likely to find TV areas, DVD rooms and most importantly (for me anyway) sleeping rooms. This being Korea virtually all jjimjilbangs are open 24/7 so it’s a cheap and convenient option for the budget traveller or for people using a place just for a kip. I suspect their use may also include drunken men escaping suspicious spouses and drunken men pre-empting hangovers. I initially used a jjimjilbang to sleep in because I was simply waiting to get a train in the morning and it would have been foolish to check into a Motel or Hotel at 2 in the morning just to leave again at 7.30 in the morning. I have since been converted though;  last week I used one for relaxation alone.

Gang&Jam (26)

The culture shock (for some cultures anyway) comes in the complete lack of privacy. To some Europeans and Scandanavians I don’t think there would be a big problem with the nudity, North Americans seem to have a bigger problem with this and the UK and Ireland are probably somewhere in between. The censuring of any kind of nudity on U.S TV, the lack of European style sunbathing and the refusal to call a toilet by its real name (a toilet) all combine to make any visit to a jjimjilbang quite a shock for many North Americans. People from Germany, Austria and all those other countries where people like to skip round forests in the nude will find it all quite…normal.  The etiquette is to be in the nip for all the showering and hot tubs, this is in gender segregated areas next to the locker rooms. The locker rooms are for clothes only as you leave your shoes near reception with the same key. The vanity areas located near the locker rooms and bathing areas are also gender segregated, and although it is not strictly necessary some men wander round in the nip here too. When I say ‘vanity area’ I mean wash basins with mirrors, hair dryers and products for making oneself handsome, or ‘make handsome style’ as my own Korean hairdresser says. In the bathing area there are communal showers and individual sit down cleaning areas with mirrors. Showers are necessary before entering a hot tub or sauna (hygiene) and the sit down areas are for more detailed scrubbing and grooming. You can get towels and scrubbing towels from behind the counter or from the area adjacent to the bathing room(s). In fact, you can get just about everything from the jjimjilbang including the customary uniform (shorts and T-shirt with branding), slippers, toothpaste, toothbrushes and hair products.

Gang&Jam (23)

I suppose this part of the jjimjilbang is simply a bath house.  Most apartments don’t have baths in Korea so these bathing areas are primarily for cleaning oneself. This may be the main difference to the U.S or Europe where visiting a spa would be less common-place and more of a treat or part of a health regime. The Arab cultures have the Hamman which I suppose is similar, and the Romans had their baths of course. I come from a culture where you do you personal cleaning and grooming in private, so the weirdness for me is not nudity in a shower or bathing area, it is the lack of privacy regarding personal grooming. I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of some guy shaving round his nuts on my way to the sauna, either that or he was creating a bizarre winter themed puppet show with shaving cream, I say pretty sure because I didn’t stay around to find out. Many people just sit around chatting whilst attending to their cleaning needs, I find this quite strange. I just cannot  imagine people talking about the baseball results or a work promotion whilst shaving round their nuts or scrubbing their backs, it’s multitasking gone too far. I also don’t understand when people use their mobiles whist using the toilet, sit down toilet that is, every pause in the conversation would be followed by an unpleasant splash.

Gang&Jam (29)

After personal grooming is completed you have the option to watch TV in the unisex lounge or retire to a sleeping room. The sleeping rooms often have bunk beds and are dimly lit with ‘yo’ sleeping mats and square cushions. I have never slept in the sleeping room because sometimes people snore and there are too many people there. The sleeping rooms I have seen resemble a cruel plot for battery farmed humans. There is also quite a smell with so many humans confined into one room. On the three occasions I have managed to sleep I found a quiet corner near to the main TV lounge and used my mp3 to block out any noises. To say that I slept soundly in jjimjilbangs would be a gross exaggeration, I did get a few hours though, and I think with practice it would be possible to sleep ok in these places. On all sides of the main hall, or TV lounge are rooms of varying themes and varying temperatures. Such rooms often have aromas piped in or crystals lining the walls. Himilayan rock salt rooms seem quite popular. They even have oxygen rooms and ice chambers. My personal favourite is the charcoal rooms, they are very primal and I think they date back to prehistorical times. Bowing under a low slung door and climbing through earthen tunnels reflects a time when saunas carried great religious or shamanistic significance, as they did for the ancient Finns, Baltic people and Russians. The décor of the charcoal rooms is very understated, kind of like the vice chief’s hut of a primitive village in Matabeleland. In contrast to the relaxing charcoal rooms they also have Jade Pyramid rooms with small tomb like areas to crawl into. The Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul excels itself in gaudy Las Vegas like reconstructions. If you have ever seen the old tv show ‘The Crystal Maze’ you will have a pretty good idea of what these places are like. I woke up in a 40 degree Egyptian tomb on my first visit, it was the quietest place to sleep with only a handful of people in there. I soon realised that falling asleep in a 40 degrees Pharaoh Mausoleum  might not be a good idea and took myself to the 35 degrees pine scented wood hut instead.

I’m still unsure about the health benefits of saunas and jjimjilbangs. All I know is that I feel absolutely great afterwards. If you have an ice cold shower after a 96 degrees sauna it sorts out your immune system. I think the health benefits may be worthy of another post. Obviously I didn’t take my camera into the jjimjilbangs so I have put some links below to get a feel for the aesthetics. If you live in Korea there is an amazing blog about Jjimjilbangs in all the different cities of Korea.





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