The Basics: Bathing areas are single-gender, and nudity is mandatory. Leave any shyness and modesty at home, because provided towels are small and privacy is not a consideration in the design. Larger saunas (called Jim Jil Bang (???) have coed areas where clothing is required. Uniforms are provided for these. Entry fees usually are not timed. Remember to take off your shoes as soon as you enter the locker room.
What to Bring: Korean saunas are known for being all inclusive: Towels, soap, toiletries (including toothbrushes!), robes and even uniforms for the coed areas are all provided in the entry fee, as is a locker with a key on a bracelet. The toiletries are usually basic, discount brand items, so if you prefer something specific, you should bring your own. Sandals are not allowed, so don’t bother bringing them. If you are going to a large sauna with pools in the coed area, or a small sauna that is having a coed night, you need to bring a bathing suit.
About the Korean Sauna:
The Koreans have a special place in their hearts for their saunas. Fortunately for us in North America, their émigrés also have an entrepreneurial spirit. Most major metropolitan areas already have at least one Korean sauna, and it seems that more are opening regularly. The Koreans aren’t marketing these services to us round eyes.
Of course, if you are in Korea, the sauna is ubiquitous, with saunas in every hotel and bathhouses of every kind, seemingly on every corner. In the large cities, the Jimjilbangs are huge, and open 24-hours per day. If you’re a traveler on a budget, they can be an economical alternative to a hotel for a night or two.
Most Koreans treat the sauna as part of their regular routine. It is a planned outing for cleansing, as well as socializing and general wellness. Nearly every sauna or steam room is equipped with some special material or herbs, and the largest ones have saunas made from jade or lined with gold, and some have tubs made from the wood of thousand year-old trees. Unique special treatments, especially for women, are offered, as well as deep tissue massages and exfoliating scrubs where the scrubbers pride themselves of ridding your body of every dead skin cell.
Upon entering a Korean sauna, the first thing to greet you is the reception desk. Here, you pay your entry fee, and be given a key to your locker. You may also be given towels, toiletries or uniforms here, if this establishment rations them, but most give you all you want. If you are looking to get a treatment of any kind done, you should inquire here about how to book this, and how to pay for it. Leaving the reception desk, the desk attendant points you in the direction of the appropriate locker room.
Most Korean saunas use your key as a house charge card. For low-tech places, when you order something, they call the front desk and read them your locker number and the amount so they can add this to your bill when you leave. Higher tech places give you an RFID key where charges are directly loaded onto it as they are made. When you check out, you pay for any balance due.
As you enter the locker room, pay attention to the flooring. It will change from a basic industrial floor treatment to (usually) a wood-grained vinyl floor. Take off your shoes before you step on the different floor! There will be a shelf or locker here for you to store your shoes. If your shoes are expensive, you may carry them to your clothes locker for safekeeping, but don’t let them touch the locker room floor until you reach the shoe area. Slippers / sandals are for the toilet, and are not allowed here either. Socks may be worn on the locker floor.
When you find your locker, make sure the lock works, then strip. Towels, robes, and uniforms will usually not be anywhere nearby, and shyness or modesty, especially in the single-gender areas, is not appropriate.
The Bathing Area:
Once you are naked, you can enter the bathing area. This is usually separated from the locker room by a glass door. If you have a robe or any other clothing on, take it off before you pass through this door as it is not allowed in here. Reading material is also not allowed in the bathing area, but can be used in the rest area.
Once you enter, you should find a shower and wash yourself thoroughly before entering any of the pools or saunas. You will have a choice between (western) stand-up showers, and traditional Asian showers, where you sit on a low plastic stool. This first washing is important, because when you enter your body is dirty, and putting a dirty body into one of the baths will taint it for everyone.
At this point, you may first become acquainted with the complimentary towels. They are usually hand-towel sized, but freely available. (At times, they may be stored just outside the bathing area.) They offer no coverage for those looking for modesty. However, they can be folded into really nifty hats.
After this, you will be free to explore the baths. At a minimum, all Korean saunas have:
- A hot dry sauna,
- A steam room,
- A hot tub (> 105°F / 40°C),
- A warm tub, and
- A cool tub.
Larger facilities seem to add more pools before they add more sauna or steam rooms to the facility.
Unlike other cultures, there is no proscribed routine in the Korean bath: You alternate between the features in the bathing area according to your personal preference, spending as much or as little time in each as you wish. The only hard rule is after leaving a sauna or steam room, you must rinse yourself in a shower before entering a pool.
The saunas are always hot and dry in a Korean bath. Most will have a tray or bag of mugwort herbs near the heater. Most are wood, but a few are made from more exotic materials. Most have signs prohibiting throwing water on the rocks – It’s supposed to be dry in here. Oddly, all seem to have a TV inside of them. Bring a dry towel in to sit on both to protect your derriere from the very hot benches, and for hygiene. Because of the heat, you may want to bring a second damp towel in to cover your head to keep it from overheating.
The steam rooms are more typical. Again, they will usually have a tray of dried mugwort herbs somewhere near the steam generator, but otherwise, you can expect a typical steam room experience. I have seen a few with an area of the floor covered with river rocks that are used for massaging your feet by sitting or standing and walking in place on the rocks. Again, bringing a towel to sit on is prudent, as is having another one to cover your head… especially if there are Russians who frequent the place.
After a quick rinse in the showers, you can explore the pools. The hottest pools have no jets and are very hot. No, very, very hot. The warm pools are closer to the temperature of a typical hot tub, and will usually have jets of some kind, but may have more elaborate water massage features. The cold pool will again usually be without jets, but will usually have some sort of deluge shower in it to allow you to cool your head without submerging it.
After a circuit of the saunas and tubs when their skin is soft and pliant, most Koreans will return to the showers for a more thorough scrub, or hire one of the attendants to give them a full body scrub. Both are done with an abrasive plastic washcloth that can be found / purchased in the sauna. With lots of soap, the washcloth is scrubbed over the entire surface of your skin, taking off all the dead skin cells as you go. If you hire one of the attendants, expect them to be thorough. (Yes, they will scrub there.)
At this point, many will also shave, brush their teeth, and do other ablutions in the showers. This is a cleansing ritual. Most saunas provide toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and shaving cream. Soap and shampoo is provided at the showers. It’s usually all discount brands, so if you like a specific product, bring your own.
After this, the bath is done, and it’s time to take a rest.
The Rest Area:
The rest area varies on the size of the sauna. In a small sauna, it can be a room with recliners, couches, or beds of some kind. In a large Jim Jil Bang, it may be a coed, multi-floor facility with restaurants, salons, and a variety of other activities.
Clothing is usually worn in the rest area, unless it is coed, where it must be worn. For single-gender rest areas, robes are provided. For coed rest areas, a uniform of a t-shirt and knee-length shorts are provided. These are usually color coded by the sexes.
A Jim jil bang can have many different features in the coed area, including workout rooms, restaurants, salons, pools, internet cafes, and especially more saunas. The most unique saunas in the facility are here, with walls made of gold, semi-precious stones or special clays, and unique heating systems like cars loaded with hot stones that exit an oven at specified times. All seem to have a story about what specific healing benefits each has.
In the rest area, you can usually find a collection of recent papers and periodicals (usually all in Korean), and are free to bring in your own. There will also be at least one TV, most times tuned to a Korean station with news or sports on the men’s side, and Korean soap operas on the women’s side. A few have chairs with individual TVs allowing you to watch what you want, and these will also have separate quiet rooms if you don’t want to watch anything.
The biggest Jim jil bangs have restaurants, multiple rest areas, salons, and other dry saunas in the coed areas. Some even have additional, swimsuit required, pools.
If you’re looking to find a Korean style sauna, here are a few. Use our Find a Sauna feature to find more.