How to enjoy the bathhouses of Shanghai like a local

 © Zé Zorzan/unsplash
© Zé Zorzan/unsplash | Zé Zorzan
Photo of Monica Liau
17 October 2017

Spend time in any big city, and your skin will start to feel a little grubby. Luckily, bathhouses are a regular and affordable part of life in Shanghai, filled with enough steam, hot water and good vibes to leave you utterly clean, rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. While less formal than the bathhouses of Japan and Korea, they are no less a part of many people’s functional monthly routine. Even better, many facilities are open 24 hours a day – so you can hang out for as long as you see fit. Here’s how to enjoy bathhouses like a local.

Don’t lose the bracelet

Enter through the doors, slip off your shoes and hand them to an attendant. In return, you will be assigned a bracelet with a number. This is your locker number, the electronic key to your locker, and the way to pay any extra services inside the bathhouse. Keep it with you at all times, it’s your key for the rest of the day. After you finish at the bathhouse, you’ll go back to the front desk where they’ll tally your expenses.

No to bathing suits, yes to shower caps

While in some countries, it may be common to cover (ahem) certain areas, most bathhouses in Shanghai are divided by sexes, and everyone enters absolutely nude. Don’t bother with bathing suit bottoms… it’s weird. No one else will be covered, except for maybe another foreigner. That said, you will be required to wear a plastic shower cap over your hair. Yes, it looks silly – but the bonus is that there’s very little stray hair floating around in the pools, clogging drains and getting stuck around your toes.

Bring toiletries, and shower first

After stripping down, you’ll be ushered into a room where vats of water steam and burble invitingly. Before plunging into the different tubs, take a long shower at the sit down vanities or standing stalls. If you have special shampoos, face washes and face masks, now is the time to use them. Of course, most bathhouses stock shampoo and soap, but many (women at least) bring products from home – and as long as it’s not drippy or gloopy (i.e. mud masks), the staff are happy to accomodate. You’ll often see women putting creams into their hair and cloth masks on their face before sitting in the hot sauna. Follow suit, it’s great.

Soaps and Shampoos | Takashi Ota

Switch pools frequently

Any bathhouse worth its salt has several different pools of varying temperatures, as well as a big cold pool in the middle where you can refresh. After showering, start in a warm pool and move up to the steam room. When the heat becomes too much, plunge into the cold pool, and drink cool water from one of the stations. Then head to a warmer pool (all the temperatures are noted), soak, plunge into the cold pool. This is great for the skin, and the mind. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Scrub and renew

After your skin has had time to warm up and relax, head to a section of tables where you’ll see people laying out on boards, being scrubbed vigorously by attendants in bathing suits and rubber boots. Honestly, it looks a little ridiculous, and a little uncomfortable. But this is one of the most important bathhouse rituals, and you’d be remiss to skip it. Almost everyone goes in for a full-body exfoliation, in which an attendant uses a rough loofah to remove dead skin from your entire body. It’ll make your skin pink, but also promotes circulation and makes your skin softer, healthier and more youthful looking (you’ll be amazed). In addition to a simple exfoliation (cābèi, 擦背), add a natural treatment like a milk bath (literally, milk) and cucumber face mask (fresh cucumber is ground up before you, and slathered onto your face). After your treatment, rinse off in the shower and head back to the sauna and hot tubs.

washcloth bathsponge and loofah | Steve Johnson

Set aside half the day

After finishing your soaks, exfoliations and more soaks, throw on the house loungewear (often exuberantly Hawaiian-themed) and wander into the communal area. Bathhouses are not only places to soak, but also places to spend time hanging out, playing games, eating snacks, watching TV and even getting an extra foot massage or two. At many places, you’ll find table games like ping pong and pool, quiet rooms with comfortable chairs where you can read and sip a juice, communal rooms and restaurants and more. Always plan on spending a few hours at the bathhouse, you’ll be sucked into the experience faster than you know. While most bathhouses are open 24 hours a day, don’t arrive too late in the evening as many attendants go home. Also, don’t arrive drunk – they won’t let you in.

Best places to begin the experience

New Star: This Korean-owned brand has two locations, but the one located in Little Korea is a little more orderly. Come here for the extensive list of treatments, and the large collection of pools. Entrance $15.

Xiao Nan Guo: Xiao Nan Guo is one of the longest running bathhouses in Shanghai, and offers good pools plus a great selection of games and activities in the common areas. Entrance $15.

Gokurakuyu: Japanese-owned bathhouse located in Pudong, offering spotless facilities, a huge sauna and a very zen-like, laidback atmosphere. Entrance $20

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