The Korean Bath House & What To Do Inside
Korean bath houses are one of those topics that come up in conversation and it seems while there is high interest, most foreigners that come to Korea just don’t know what to expect and only have visions of sitting around naked and uncomfortable with a lot of people.
Sure, there’s nudity but that’s not the only thing that happens. I’ve visited a mokyoktang, or neighborhood bath house, a number of times but I’ll be honest, up until a couple weeks ago, I’d only ever gone when the mokyoktang was closed and I had the place to myself. Lucky me, right?
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Before we get too far into this, let’s get the definitions straight:
목욕탕 (Mokyoktang) – Bathing Areas
The mokyoktang is probably the area that brings on the most feelings of discomfort at first. This is where you’ll get naked but once you get over that first bit of insecurity and look around, you quickly realize everyone is naked, we’ve all got the same parts and no one is really looking anyway. (To be honest, I have fairly large tattoos down the sides of my ribs so I get stared at a fair bit, but I quickly realized they weren’t staring at my body, they were staring at my tats. If you’ve got nothing to see, no one will even look.) This area has hot water baths, cold water baths, showers and may or may not also have people on staff there to exfoliate your every nook and cranny… if you want them to. Mokyoktangs are NOT unisex but are separated for male and female use.
Neighborhood bath houses are also frequented by the same people week in and week out so there is a lot of socializing inside as well with neighbors gossiping and sharing news of the day.
찜질방 (Jjimjilbang) – Coed saunas
It’s important to realize that a place that is a jjimjilbang will have a mokyoktang as well as coed saunas and relaxation areas. A location that has a sign that reads mokyoktang on the exterior then, does NOT have a jjimjilbang area and is JUST the bathing house. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of being nude, then look for the jjimjilbang in the area to gradually work your way up. Jjimjilbangs will be a bit larger and offer a bit more in the way of treatments, massages and so on usually as well. They may also have exercise rooms and more so you could spend the whole day working out and relaxing if you wanted to.
If you’re a tourist and want a one time experience, find a good jjimjilbang.
What to do when visiting… step by step:
Step 1: Pay & Grab a Key/Towels
When you head in, you’ll pay a standard fee for using the area and likely be given a key on a rubber bracelet that will go to a locker inside where you can store all of your belongings. Don’t lose your key! It’s on a bracelet for a reason. Put it on that wrist and have fun. Once you’re inside, if you want to get treatments, massages or other experiences done, staff will simply record down your locker number and you’ll pay on departure. Convenient, isn’t it?
Step 2: Get Naked!
After undressing and storing your belongings as well as the towels you received in your locker, you’ll go in. Don’t forget to take all of your shampoos, soaps and other products that you’d like to use. Often in neighborhoods, you’ll see people headed into a bathing house with a little caddy with all of their showering implements. You can also buy monthly memberships and if you do, you’d just leave your caddy of supplies in a locker inside ready whenever you’re there. Dressing rooms often have staff tidying things up and keeping track of who is getting scrubbed when and who is getting drinks and eggs from the fridge. Find the woman NOT getting undressed and ask her if you’d like to get a scrub later so she can get you a time slot.
Step 3: Find A Free Shower Head
Inside the shower room, look around to find an open shower area. There are NOT shower stalls but lots of showers lining the walls and everyone claims one by placing their caddy of goods in front of the shower heads. You might see shower heads and caddies but no one showering, that means the person is somewhere soaking. That’s fine to do. Find an empty showerhead, grab a stool and set up shop.
Step 4: Cursory Cleaning
Before heading into the hot tubs, cold tubs or doing anything else, make sure you lather up and clean yourself. The tubs are for clean bodies only. After cleaning, if you have long hair, put it up in a bun or in a towel so it doesn’t clog up the baths as well.
Step 5: Soak It Up! (For at least 30 minutes)
Now you’re ready to get into the tubs. There are often hot tubs of varying degrees as well as cooler tubs. There may be herbal pools and other things going on as well. If you’re looking to get exfoliated, it’s optimal to soak in the hot tubs for a bit before heading on to anything else. You may also find little kids in the tubs. My husband has said the mokyoktang is sort of like the poor mans swimming pool in a sense or was when he was little anyway. Children are free at many neighborhood bath houses and when he was little, he’d head in with friends to swim in the cooler baths. You will often see little children with their mothers or grandmothers swimming and splashing around enjoying the water while their elders are bathing. Don’t be surprised to see little boys in the women’s bath house either. There is a certain age when they’ll head to the men’s shower room but when they’re little, they often stay with their mothers. If you want to stay away from the little ones and relax, head into the hotter baths as the little ones tend to stay in the cooler ones.
Step 6: Exfoliation
This step is, of course, optional, but I highly recommend taking advantage of the scrubbing stations. The feeling of seeing so much dead skin taken off is oddly gratifying and you will be so so soft afterward. The ladies that are scrubbing are easy to spot as they’re the only ones walking around in underwear in the bath house. The station will look like a massage table that has been covered in linoleum or plastic. You lay on it naked and the scrubbing staff member will scrub just your back, your entire body and may include a facial and oils as well. According to my husband, this can vary depending on who is working and what they usually do. It can cost anywhere between $20 and $45.
My recent experience was $25 and included a cucumber facial, oils and a peach scrub at the very end as well. It was FANTASTIC!
Step 7: Soak, Sauna, Repeat
After getting scrubbed, rinse off and feel free to soak for a bit longer, head into the sauna rooms and take advantage of the other relaxation areas that may or may not include saunas of varying degrees, dry saunas, ice rooms, salt rooms and more. At my in-laws mokyoktang, there are two larger pools of water, one cool and one hot and two medium size even hotter pools and then smaller cooler pools too. There is a wet sauna room and then there is a dry sauna room too. This is a pretty basic but mokyoktang set-up and is not really for tourists but for the locals in the area though tourists and foreigners are of course always welcome.
Language for the jjimjilbang/mokyoktang experience:
구운계란 – SAUNA EGGS: Sauna eggs are hard boiled eggs that have been cooked slowly for a long period of time with steam. The outside shells turn brown and the eggs are a bit more rubbery than what you probably cook at home.
식초 – SIKCHO VINEGAR DRINKS: These drinks are supposed to be good for digestion and the intestinal tract system. They are diluted so it’s not like you’re just drinking vinegar and will come in fruity flavors like persimmon, pomegranate and blackberry.
식혀 – SIKHYE SWEET RICE DRINK: Also helping with digestion, this drink is made by pouring malt water over cooked rice and then boiled. It’s a bit sweet and is often served after meals at restaurants as well.
세신 (Seshin) – FULLY BODY SCRUB: If you want that full body scrub, just ask the “room manager” as I mentioned before who can let you know when an appropriate time would be available for you.
Below you’ll find some rooms that you may or may not see at a jjimjilbang:
참숯불가마 – CHARCOAL ROOM
아이스방 – ICE ROOM
소금방 – SALT ROOM
자갈방 – PEBBLE ROOM
산소 토굴방 – OXYGEN CAVE
옥 한증막 – JADE SWEATING ROOM
For some humorous tales about jjimjilbang experiences, check out Around The World in KT Days and her awesome post The Naked Truth Tales From the Jjimjilbang.