9 August, 2018
When I arrived in Busan, I was a complete wreck.
I’d had a good time in Seoul, but perhaps too good. Days packed with sightseeing and sweating during a heatwave were followed by sleepless nights spent eating and carousing. By the time the train pulled into Busan, I was exhausted, dehydrated, covered in swollen mosquito bites, and in physical pain from smashing my knees into a table during a drunken escapade.
Thankfully, my guesthouse, the delightful Busan L’ete, was located minutes from the subway and from the beach. It was quiet, and the owner had left the windows open so the sea breeze could blow in. I breathed deep. The big city sure had been fun, but I needed this. I needed relaxation. I needed restoration.
I needed to go to a jjimjilbang.
A jjimjilbang is a Korean spa. Readers of this blog will know that I am obsessed with global bathing and spa culture. I’ve been to bath houses in Hungary, hamams in Turkey, and countless onsens and sentos since moving to Japan. So for me, a visit to a jjimjilbang was high on the list of must-do activities in Korea.
I’ve always been a frugal person, so living in the United States, I simply assumed that a visit to a spa was just something I couldn’t afford, never mind the physical and mental health benefits. But in my travels and life abroad, I’ve discovered that in many places, such things are considered a necessity rather than a luxury, and as a result are much more affordable. Because these services are public, there is an added social element as well. I realize a lot of Westerners are squeamish about the idea of being naked around a bunch of strangers (though usually of the same gender) but I actually think this is a good thing. When you are naked with a bunch of other people of all different shapes, sizes, and ages, it takes away some of the stigma and shame associated with nudity and can give a more healthy and realistic body image to young people.
My jjimjilbang of choice was Spa Land, located in the Shinsegae Centum City shopping mall, an upscale labyrinth of a shopping complex that actually has the Guinness record for being the largest in the world. At ₩15,000 for 4 hours (roughly $13), Spa Land is not as cheap as other jjimjilbangs, but the name does it justice: relaxing inside its walls feels like you’ve entered another world.
The first thing you must do when entering a jjimjilbang is take off your shoes and place them into a shoe locker. Korea, like many parts of Asia, is a big “shoes off” culture, and you can expect to remove your shoes at spas, religious sites like temples, and some traditional restaurants as well as guesthouses.
When paying the admission fee, you will be provided with an electronic locker key on a wristband, two towels, and a pair of shorts and t-shirt to wear in the mixed-gender areas. This is one of the things I love about jjimjilbangs: everything you need is provided for you. From here you can proceed to the men’s or women’s locker room and find the locker that corresponds to your key.
I like to follow this order at a jjimjilbang: sweat, rest, soak. At the locker room, I changed into my Spa Land shorts and t-shirt and, taking nothing but my locker key and one of the towels, went to go find the saunas. If you like, you can take your phone or a book to entertain yourself while you sweat, but I personally like to simply zen out. I entered a serene, light-filled courtyard and was floored. The spas I’d been to before had been much smaller, containing only a smattering of choices. With 13 different saunas on two different levels, Spa Land trumped my previous assumptions about Korean spas. Throughout the main hall, there was also a cafe, several tranquil ponds and fountains, and lounges upon which sprawled some very relaxed-looking Koreans.
I busied myself trying out the myriad of different saunas. Some were historically inspired, such as the Roman Room, Hamam Room, and literally-named, slightly disorienting Pyramid Room. Some were more abstract concepts for de-stressing, like the Wave Light Room and the Body Sound Room. I didn’t really get the point of these, but they were still nice to hang out in. Some utilized various materials known for detoxification, like the Salt Room and Yellow Ocher Room. My favorite room, the Charcoal Room, was constructed like a domed hut with a circular opening in the ceiling and walls lined with burnt wood. Lying on my back with a wooden block under my head, sweating and breathing in the hot, slightly smokey air, I started to feel myself coming back to life.
In addition to all of these hot and warm saunas, there was also an Ice Room, a much-needed place to cool off between sweats. My only criticism of Spa Land is that there could have been more ice rooms. As the only place to cool down between 13 hot and warm saunas, it got very crowded.
After trying at least 10 different saunas, I needed a rest. I bought a smoothie from the cafe and plopped down on one of the lounges to chill. Making purchases inside a jjimjilbang is ridiculously convenient. You simply charge the item or service to your electronic locker key, and pay the balance when leaving. If you would like to treat yourself to a spa service such as a facial, massage, or one of the famous Korean body scrubs, you can charge that to your locker key as well. Spa Land has 2 such spas within the spa that offer these services.
After I’d had my fill of sweating and resting, it was time for a good soak. I left the mixed-gender area and headed back to the women’s locker room, where I undressed and left everything behind but my locker key.
Before getting into the baths at a jjimjilbang, it’s important that you shower first. This might sound counter intuitive to Westerners, but think about it: now that you’ve gotten all sweaty and grimy are you really going to get into a communal bath full of pure, mineral-enriched water and contaminate it for everyone else? Shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are all provided for your shower, and they are usually pretty good quality too. Spa Land also gives you a pink, scrubby washcloth to use as well.
In the bath area, Spa Land once again exceeded my expectations. Not only was there a variety of temperatures to choose from (warm, hot, and a freezing cold plunge pool) but there were also two different kinds of water to choose from: sodium bicarbonate (the Beauty Bath) and sodium chloride (the Health Bath). In addition, there was even an outdoor pool that mimicked the experience of soaking in a natural spring in the mountains.
I tried all 8 baths, bouncing back and forth between various temperatures and minerals until I was good and cooked. I dried off, changed and made use of the hair dryers, brushes, and skin and hair products at the beauty stations in the changing room. No convenience has been forgotten.
I returned my locker key and paid my balance, and left Spa Land feeling much more like myself. I had a wander through the gigantic Centum City mall, but left quickly once I checked some prices and realized how expensive everything was.
I was definitely back to my cheap, frugal self.