The Jjimjilbang, a 24 hour sauna and spa, is a quirky part of contemporary Korean culture that can be found in most neighbourhoods in Seoul, and other Korean cities. They’re known as the cheapest form of accommodation in Korea; entry is usually around 10,000-15,000 Won (£6-£10) which will get you access to the saunas and baths, as well as somewhere to stay until the morning. Jjimjilbangs are frequented by everyone from couples, to businessmen, to teenagers – they’re something that all manner of Korean people enjoy. To experience this modern Korean craze, and to get out of our dorm room for the night, Jordan and I decided to find our local jjimjilbang and give it a go.
A girl in our hostel told us about a jjimjilbang just around the corner from us called Happy Day Spa. It’s a fairly basic spa at the lower end of the price range at just 10,000 won per person. There are more high end jjimjilbangs in Seoul with additional facilities like swimming pools and massages, but for value and convenience Happy Day Spa seemed to be the best option for us. We wanted to get the full overnight jjimjilbang experience, so left our hostel at about midnight. There’s something that feels a bit dodgy about going to a spa in the middle of the night, but we were assured it was a perfectly wholesome place. The road that it’s on was pretty seedy though; before we reached it we walked past a couple of strip clubs and suspect looking ‘massage parlours’, and I started to wonder what we’d got ourselves in for. When we found the spa I can’t say I was immediately relieved either. It didn’t look like much from the outside, just a dimly lit doorway leading to the lower ground floor of a tower block:
Once we got in though and saw so many normal looking people waiting to go in it made me feel a bit better. It was surprisingly really busy for gone midnight on a Thursday!
Finding the place and paying was the easy part. After this it becomes quite confusing – jjimjilbangs have their own specific etiquette codes that I was worried about breaking and embarrassing myself. After you pay, men and women go their separate ways to get showered so I was on my own from this point. I was dreading this bit as I’d been warned in advance that you have to be fully naked for it, and the awkwardness was made worse by not knowing when and where exactly I was supposed to take my clothes off. I almost made a MAJOR faux pas by stripping off at the first set of lockers, but then realised you’re only meant to take your shoes off here. The whole process is hard to get your head around for someone who doesn’t read Korean! I started speaking to a British girl at this point too who was also baffled by the situation, but immediately regretted it when we then had to get naked next to each other which made it 100x weirder.
Before you can enter the saunas you have to bathe, and before you can bathe you HAVE to shower. This is the golden rule of the jjimjilbangs. I think it causes major offense if you try and get in the baths without hosing yourself down first. This part is fairly straightforward; you shower (in front of everyone), bathe (also with everyone), and then change into these weird thick pyjamas you’re given. Once you get these on you know that you’re in the clear and the scary part’s out of the way. You can pass through to the main rooms when you’re dressed which are gender mixed, so I was able to find Jordan again.
His and hers jjimjilbang pyjamas
After the traumatic shower/bath experience, jimjilbangs become just like any other spa, aside from two things. Firstly, everyone is wearing matching pyjamas, and secondly there are people asleep all over the floor. When I heard that people slept at these spas I had a serene vision of people in dressing gowns snoozing on loungers, but this is so not the case. If you want to spend the night at a jjimjilbang you’ll have to curl up in whatever space on the floor you can find. By about 4am I had to step over people to get to the toilet, it’s so bizarre. Jordan and I spent some time chilling out in the different saunas and steam rooms, and then pulled up a mat each to try and get a few hours sleep on the cold, hard tiles…
By the time morning came we were both aching all over and more knackered than when we got there. Not really how I expect to feel when leaving the spa!
Overall I’d say the jjimjilbang is a funny experience, but don’t expect to be relaxed or pampered here. I can see why people choose them for a cheap night’s stay, but I have no idea why locals who have actual beds in their nearby homes enjoy sleeping here instead. It’s one of many Korean quirks I’ll never get my head around. It is such a uniquely Korean way to spend a night though, so I’d definitely recommend trying it out if you go to Seoul!
Us looking exhausted at 8am