Korean Spas: What to Know Before You Go

Rinse, steam, and repeat

When I was growing up in Korea, going to the bathhouse was a weekly ritual. My whole family would get our toiletries together and head over to the friendly neighborhood jjimjilbang. It was a communal affair as well as a way to get clean. As children, my siblings and I looked forward to the snacks and banana milk our dad would buy us.

Now I live in Los Angeles, where we are lucky to have so many bath places to choose from. Here are some pointers to help you navigate them all.

You know to get totally naked for the segregated areas of the spa. That means taking off slippers and jewelry, too. Why? Because you’re there to get clean, not to cover up. Don’t worry about running into someone you know. If you do, they will be in their birthday suit, too. Here’s some perspective. When I was little, I’d have to bow to my teachers when I ran into them in the bathhouse. Talk about awkward!

After undressing, take a shower. Use bar soap, not shower gel if you plan on getting exfoliated. Shower gel makes your skin too slippery to be scrubbed properly. Korean spas take great pride in being clean, and that means the patrons, too. I usually end up showering twice at a spa, cleaning myself when I enter, before going to any of the communal areas, and rinsing off again just before I leave.

Jjimjilbang means steaming room. They are usually open 24 hours. In Korea, these are considered cheap places to stay overnight after a long day of work or after a late night of reverie. Facilities usually provide shorts, shirts, and towels for you to wear while steaming. Most charge a little extra during late night hours.

Perhaps because Koreans believe in fighting fire with fire, the saunas and steaming rooms are popular even in the summer. There are usually a variety of hot rooms, soaking tubs, and an ice room for cooling down. Don’t be shy about exploring all of them.

Koreans like to wrap their heads in towels shaped like sheep heads (yang meoli) to soak up sweat and keep their hair from drying funny. Also, we don’t use towels to wrap our bodies, just to dry off and, of course, to wrap our heads up to look like lambs.

Once you’ve soaked well in a hot tub (about 30 minutes), your skin should be ready for scrubbing. You can do it yourself with your own itaeli (sometimes spelled “italy”) towel or have one of the scrubbing attendants do it for you. This form of exfoliation is called seshin, which means new skin in Korean. The ddaemili (translation: dead skin pusher) will scrub you till you’re raw. A good ddaemili will give you a massage at the same time and show you all your ddae to prove how hard they’ve worked. Professionals recommend spending time in a steam or sauna post exfoliation, because once you’ve been scrubbed, your pores are nice and open for a good, clean sweat. And if a halmuhni (grandma) or halabeoji (grandpa) asks you to scrub her or his back, just do it.

Korean spas feature little cafés for getting snacks and drinks. Popular drinks include shikhae (a sweet fermented rice drink), coffee, and a variety of canned beverages. Roasted eggs are also a popular snack in Korean spas. Just like you, the eggs are cooked. Similar to hardboiled eggs, they are roasted for 9 to 12 hours until they are browned and hard. They have a deeper flavor than regular boiled eggs.