Step 1: Leave your shoes at the door
Upon arriving at the jjimjilbang, the first thing you’ll probably notice is a wall of small lockers. These are for storing your shoes: take them off, put them inside, and take your locker key to the front desk. (At some spas, you will not remove your shoes until after you’ve paid.)
Step 2: Pay up
After being greeted by an attendant at the front desk, you will pay the admission fee which can range from 6,000 won ($5.60) to 15,000 won ($14.00) depending on the facility, the time of day, and if you’ll be staying overnight. You will then receive pajama-like clothing, a towel, and a key to be worn around the wrist. Many spas now use electronic keys, which keep track of any additional services you may receive (such as a scrub or dinner) so you can pay your bill at once at the end of your stay.
At this point, the staff should point you in the direction of the appropriate gender-segregated changing room. If not, look out for the signs saying ‘남’ for men and ‘여’ for women.
Step 3: Strip down
Your key will have a number on it. After you’ve made it to the changing room, find the locker with the corresponding number. This is where you’ll keep your clothes and other belongings.
Most spas have two separate areas: the baths (which are gender-segregated) and the common area, which consists of saunas, concession stands and other facilities. You can choose either or both, but if you do plan to visit the baths, you must remove all your clothing, bringing only your towel and toiletries with you. If you opt to visit the common area, change into the pajamas. Be sure to always wear your key on your wrist.
Step 4: Lather up
If you want to soak in the baths, you are required to shower off first, as Koreans take sanitation very seriously. You can do so either at one of the available showers or washing stations, which are equipped with plastic stools and plastic bowls to rinse with. You can either bring your own toiletries, or purchase single-use products in the changing room for a nominal fee. While you’re not required to wash your hair, you should tie it up so that it doesn’t get into the tubs.
Step 5: Get to soakin’
After you’ve washed up, make your way to the baths. Each tub has a different temperature, which is clearly marked, so you can choose based on your preferences. Many Koreans like to go back and forth between very hot and very cold tubs, which is said to have positive effects on the skin and circulatory system, but the order is up to you.
Step 6: Brave the scrubbing table
Koreans do not take their skin care lightly, which is why you’ll spot many of them exfoliating themselves or their friends with scrubbing towels and bath mitts at the cleaning areas.
If you’d like to give yourself the same treatment (while upping your jjimjilbang game), consider getting a seshin, or professional scrub, after soaking in the tubs. At these stations, you’ll find a number of tables manned by older, underwear-clad women (or men in the men’s section). Using scrubbing mitts, they will mercilessly scrub you down from head to toe and everywhere (literally everywhere) in between until your skin is red and raw and perfectly smooth. A scrub will set you back about 15,000 to 20,000 won ($14 to $18). You can also opt for an oil massage if you prefer for something a bit more relaxing.
Step 7: Sweat it out
Now that you’ve soaked and been scrubbed, don your pajamas and make your way to the common area. Like the baths, there are also a number of saunas, which each have different temperatures and utilize different materials for varied medicinal effects.
Hanjeungmak, or traditional Korean saunas, are typically stone or clay kilns heated to between 50 and 90 degrees Celsius (122 and 194 degrees Farenheit). Inside, there are hemp mats, salt crystals, or jade crystals that gradually warm your body. After about 15 minutes, you will begin to sweat profusely, so be sure to stay hydrated. If you have any existing medical conditions, also be mindful of how long you stay inside.
Step 8: Have some food and fun
After you’ve worked up a sweat, stop by the concession stand for a cold cup of sikhye. This traditional sweet beverage is made with grains of cooked rice and pine nuts, and is the quintessential jjimjilbang treat. Do as the Koreans do, and pair it with a serving of maekbanseok gyeran, or boiled eggs that have been cooked in the saunas.
Enjoy your snack in the common room, where visitors gather to watch TV, relax in massage chairs, or simply nap the afternoon away. In many bigger facilities, you can also enjoy amenities such as PC rooms (internet cafes), outdoor swimming pools, and noraebang booths that keep spa-goers entertained during their visit.
Step 9: Rest and relax
Typically open 24 hours, most jjimjilbang are also utilized as budget accommodations. For just a few bucks more than the admission fee, visitors can stay overnight in designated sleeping areas. Sometimes, this room is a common, mixed-gender area with thin pads and plastic box pillows for sleeping. At more upscale facilities, sleeping rooms are more private, boasting cubby-like beds. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to bring along a pair of ear plugs to drown out the soju-induced snoring.
Step 10: Settle the bill
When you’ve had all the jjimjilbang fun you can handle, change back into your clothes and gather your belongings and locker key. After you’ve brought your key to the front desk, you’ll receive a bill if you’ve made any additional charges. Once you’ve paid, you’ll be given your shoe locker key, and you’re good to go!
Pro tip: Towel tricks
The most uncomfortable aspect of the spa experience for jjimjilbang newbies is getting naked in front of strangers. However, it should be noted that this is a normal part of visiting a Korean spa. While you may get some looks if you appear to be non-Korean or have tattoos (some spas will not permit you to enter if you have tattoos), most people will not pass you a second glance.
If you do feel uncomfortable, you can cover yourself strategically with your towel as you walk around, before and after sitting in the baths. Alternatively, you can attempt to blend in by shaping the towel on your head to resemble the hairstyle of Princess Leia – a truly Korean jjimjilbang look often seen in K-dramas.
If you follow these steps, you’re certain to have a fun and memorable Korean spa experience – and most likely ready for another. Happy soaking!