Going Naked in South Korean Public Bathhouse
How does South Korean public bathhouse work?
One thing is for sure. You go naked along with everyone else!
That means naked from the locker room walking to the bath area. No cubicle, no changing room, no privacy. You’re not allowed to bring any piece of clothing to the wet area.
Therefore for obvious reason there’s no photo for this post.
During my visit to Seoul, I went to the public bathhouse with my South Korean friend and her mom. Just in front of my locker, I was hesitating for a minute, looking around to see what other people were doing. My friend has told me all about how things work, so it wasn’t a surprise. Still, when it was the time to take off everything, I have to admit it was kind of daunting! I wouldn’t care as much if the room was full of strangers. But going with a friend and her mom was something else! (And actually I would find it really weird to go with my mom.)
By this time my move was so slow that when I took a peek, oops my friend’s mom was already naked.
So I had no choice but to follow suit.
It was really quite awkward between me and my friend for a few minutes. But after that, it seemed like the natural thing in the world to be naked in the public bath. Everyone seemed so comfortable walking around, taking shower, relaxing in the tub, and doing their own thing. Even the cleaning lady was naked.
There are two sections of the wet area, the shower area where you wash yourself with soap and shampoo, and the bath area where you plunge into several different tubs.
You first need to wash yourself. Unlike any gym shower section that I’ve been to, the washing section was a big open square area with many shower heads along the walls. You can take a small bucket from the stack to put all your washing gears in and small low stool. People shower sitting down on the stool.
Once you’re clean, you can go to the bath section. There are several different tubs with different colored water with different heat level, all for different purposes – though I can’t remember what exactly. I remember the colors though – there is blue, and gold (sort of yellow brown), and maybe green?
There’s also a long rope-thing in the middle of the room. When you pull, there’s like a bucket of cold water pouring over you. Like a huge toilet eh?!
Apparently it is good for you to be in the hot tub and poured over by the cold water alternatively. Do that several times and you’d have the best skin treatment!
I hate cold water so the cold water part was a bit painful. But it was fun to pull the rope thing, so I did it several times.
The Lounge – Bath Intermezzo
As the male and female sections of the public bath are separated, there’s a common lounge area in the middle. We were provided with a loose – almost oversize – t-shirt and short to wear to go to this area (so no underwear uhum). That’s where we met our boyfriends after the bath to spend some time together.
What’s in the common area? Lots of things! The lounge is a big tatami area with lots of mattresses, so people can take nap, or even sleep overnight! In fact, my friend told me that her brother has often stayed overnight in public bath, when it’s late and he’s lazy to go back home. It’s perfect really, since you can take a bath at leisure, then sleep. Most public baths open 24 hours and it costs less than $10. It’s super cheap if you consider it as an overnight stay!
So then I was contemplating if it’s possible for us to stay at one public bath to another instead of the hostel the next time we go to South Korea. It would be a pretty damn cheap accommodation! :) We just have to travel really light, as the lockers are not big, and all the stuff has to be carried during daytime. I mentally put that on my todo list.
Apart from mattresses, there were coin-operated massage chairs, televisions, comic books, and a small food bar. The food bar sells hard-boiled tea eggs (yum!) and barley drink (super yum!). I loved both so much so I was happy and contented. I’m sure there are other food and drinks available as well, but those are the traditional food and drink that people take in public bath.
There’s also sauna in the middle of the room (very hot!) which I got to try as well. There were wood blocks all around the room for head rest if you want.
The End of the Bath Journey
After spending enough time at the common area, we went back to the bath area. After the sauna you probably want to have another rinse, or shower, or wash your hair. Or you can continue to the bath tubs, whatever you like. We’re at the end of our bath journey. You can take provided towels, dry up, and dress back.
I went around the corridors and saw that they have a couple of room treatments. One of the treatments involves sitting on some kind of steamy herb pot with bare bottom. The sitting stool kinda looks like a small toilet or a bigger potty. I found this so interesting, but my friend said it’s a common treatment (possibly for detox or digestion? I can’t remember) that she even has the home version of it!
Jjimjilbang or public bathhouse is very common in South Korea. Apparently it is also common for the young people to go to public bath for dates! The ones we went to were very simple and the common area a bit dark, so it’s kinda funny to imagine having a date there. I’m sure the fancier one works better for date. (actually that’s still a bit weird for me – maybe it’s okay for the 5th date or so)
On the other hand, another Korean colleague told me that she never ever went to a public bath, because she found it awkward to be all naked with strangers. So that’s two end of the spectrum for you. Not everybody goes to public bathhouse.
I for one though loved it so so much. Would definitely go again the next time I go to South Korea! The local standard public bath costs less than $10 which is really good value. Of course the fancier one costs more – around $30. But we liked the local baths so much we went twice in that week to two different places!
I didn’t however saw any foreigner-looking people there the two times I went. I can blend in pretty well in South Korea so I didn’t stand out at all, and enjoyed the experience very much. The second time we went we were going through everything ourselves without our Korean friends with no problem at all. I’m not sure I would like it as much if I go to some other countries where I would stick out like a sore thumb – a naked one that is. So if you are foreigner-looking and travel to South Korea and experience the public bathhouse, let me know how that goes for you?
As I know Japan has a similar bathhouse concept but I haven’t been to Japan so I can’t compare. I’ve read sort of similar experience of hammam in Turkey and Morocco, so I’d be interested to try that out some time!