Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jjimjilbang: Sleeping in a Korean bathhouse

After our Mexican dinner Saturday night we headed to a 24-hour jjimjilbang for the night -- a Korean public bathhouse.  While there are many heated baths and saunas inside, most jjimjilbangs also have a restaurant/snack bar, TVs, exercise rooms, PC bang (computer room), and sleeping quarters.  Families might go there to hang out on the weekend, while many others go to relax.

Since most jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours and the entrance costs 6,000 - 10,000 KRW, some people stay out late in the city and then to to a jjimjilbang to sleep until morning.  We did not have a crazy night out in Seoul, but we did plan ahead of time to sleep at the jjimjilbang.

Dragon Hill Spa and Resort

We went to Dragon Hill Spa and Resort in Yongsan.  I didn't realize until now, but looking at the brochure it says that Dragon Hill Spa is "the largest spa in Korea with 2,3140 square meters of space and 7 stories!"  We arrived around midnight and paid 13,000 KRW ($12.40) to enter.  Upon paying you're handed a t-shirt, shorts, two small towels, and a numbered key to wear around your wrist.

Next you take off your shoes and walk through the shoe lockers until you find your number.  Unlock, insert shoes, lock.  If you are with a mixed-gender group, at this point you'll have to separate to go to the men's/women's locker rooms.

The women's locker room had much bigger lockers to store everything you brought with -- there's space for your winter coat, backpack, and more!  We did not put on the spa clothes yet though, because we wanted to check out the baths.  Clothes of any sort are not allowed in the baths.  I've read that the reasoning is twofold: first, the hot temperatures in the baths and saunas could cause chemicals to leak out of the clothing and secondly, people may be covering up a disease.

The showers, baths, and steam rooms were downstairs, so at first it felt kind of funny to be walking around this building, up and down stairs naked, but soon it felt "normal".  Keep in mind that it's also past midnight, and I usually go to bed at 10:30, so I'm slowly becoming a sleepy zombie and nothing feels real anyway.


When we walked in the door to the baths, my skin was greeted by warm and humid air.  Everything in this room was wet.  It was a big, open space.  There was a wall of shower heads to the right, and different baths along the lefthand wall.  In the middle were two rows of women seated at sinks, scrubbing at their skin with some version of a loofah.

Everyone must shower before entering a bath / steam room.  We showered, then went into some baths.  The baths were all above ground, tiled, and about the depth of a hot tub.  The temperature of each bath was displayed in big red numbers on the wall.  Each bath had a sign saying what it was good for.  Ashley and I tried out the cold bath for a minute after our first hot one.  Only a minute then I was out.

Then we went into the two steam rooms that were against the far wall.  If it hadn't been for the spa day with my sister and grandma in Baden-Baden, Germany two summers ago, my only time in a sauna would have been at a hotel with my grandparents when I was young.  I've found that I rather enjoy saunas - the sweat dripping down your skin as you're completely suffocated by the warm air (in a good way).

Then we turned the corner and saw the body scrub zone.  The cheapest body scrub was 25,000 KRW, so we all figured why not, and headed over to the tables.  The great (and perhaps dangerous) thing about jjimjilbangs is that you can buy things with your key/wrist band, then pay the bill when you leave.  Genius!  I guess it would be pretty inconvenient to have to carry money around with you in the spa... perhaps impossible in the baths.

Body scrub

The Korean scrubbing ladies were wearing swimsuit bottoms and sports bra-ish tops.  I lied down naked on the wet table and this Korean woman dumps a warm bucket of water on me, then starts scrubbing my skin with a -- well, picture those plastic things you use to scrub dishes.  Kind of like that, but scratchier.

Plastic dish scrubbers

She scrubbed every inch of my body: under the arms, behind the ears, the face and neck, my chest, butt -- every inch I tell you!  Then she dumped another warm bucket of water on me to rinse off all the dead skin she had scraped up.  And then she scrubbed every inch again with a different scrub (felt the same).  From time to time she would say something to me, I'd have no idea what, then realize she wanted me to move. I'd flip from one side to the next until I got it right. Sometimes arms were up over my head, sometimes legs were up, folded, and sometimes I was lying on my stomach, other times back or sides.

Although it felt like I could have been lying on a massage table, the scrub was not relaxing in the least bit.  After the last warm-bucket rinse, my Korean lady sat me up on the table, slapped my back a few times, then had me put my head where my feet had just been.  She proceeded to shampoo my hair, which again - could have been relaxing but was not.  She was rough and would often pick up my head to scrub then let it fall down.  I found the whole thing quite comical.  Rinse and boom, just like that I was done.  I wasn't sure if I was done at first, because all the other girls were still at their tables, but as soon as my lady handed me my key bracelet and glasses I knew it was over.

I was surprised by how short it was -- I don't think the scrub could have been any longer than 10 minutes.  I'm sure my skin is now probably the softest it's been in a while, but I don't really pay attention to my skin ever.  So the scrub was an experience I'm glad I now have, but one I won't be repeating.  (I could be wrong, but I think I've heard you're only supposed to do that type of deep scrub once a year or something anyways).

Sleeping rooms

It was nearing 2 a.m. at this point and Reca needed to get some sleep.  So we showered and went back upstairs, putting on the spa uniforms.  It took us a while to find the right sleeping room, but I ended up in a women's sleeping room on the sixth floor.  Since it was so late (or early), all of the mats in the small room were taken.  There were two rows of mats against either wall, and since they were all full, we awkwardly lied perpendicular in the middle, by people's feet.

I had brought my winter coat with me, so at least I had something to lie on instead of directly on the wooden floor.  It didn't help much, but it was something.  Let me just say that my body was not made to sleep on hard floors.  I'd doze out, then wake up, doze out, wake up.  It got colder at one point, and was hard to sleep without anything covering me, since I was using my coat to lie on.  I'd hear someone's phone or alarm go off, or see people coming in and out of the dark room.  When I opened my eyes again around 7:00 and actually looked around, I realized there were now many vacant mats (with little square blocks to be used as a "pillow").  I moved to a mat and pillow block, which was 10x better than the floor (though nothing like a bed or a sleeping bag even.)

When I woke up at 9, there were only two other women in the room.  They were not my friends.  Whoops!  I was in a half-asleep, tired zombie state all morning, but I quickly found my friends in the dressing room, getting ready to leave. We put on our regular clothes, got our shoes from the shoe lockers, and paid our wristband balances before leaving.

We'd all like to spend another day at the spa, but not stay over night.  One of the best parts about the spa was being warm.  Most of us are cold at school every day, and it's cold outside everywhere, so the warmth of the spa was really nice.  There was also a ton more that we didn't have time to explore inside the spa, such as the cinema, fitness club, healing zone, cafeteria, and game zone, to name a few.

I think jjimjilbangs are a neat part of Korean culture, and I'm glad the jjimjilbang is no longer a mystery to me.  I look forward to my next spa day!


What: Dragon Hill Spa
Where: 40, Hangang-daero 21na-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 용산구 한강대로21나길 40 (한강로3가)
Metro: Yongsan Station (Exit 1)
Hours: Open 24 hours!
Price (adult): Daytime - W10,000, Nights/Weekends - W12,000
• • •


  1. I've been there! Ahhh it was awesome. I went by myself and had the most relaxing me-time night, ever. :)

    1. Did you stay the night? Ah, I should go back by myself some time for a me-day -- that sounds amazing!

  2. Just have a quick question about the spa. Can u skip the wash (nude part- if u have your period) and go straight to common area

    1. Yes, you certainly can! Just put on the spa clothes in the changing room and then head to any of the other rooms/floors.

  3. Would like to check if the spa is able to stow a check in size luggage if I am coming from the airport as I am sure the normal lockers wouldn't be able to fit the bigger luggage

    1. I can't say for certain, but I have heard that many jjimjilbangs will store bigger luggage behind the front desk or in a separate room. Dragon Hill is a well-known, bigger spa, so I'd think they must get visitors with luggage quite frequently.

      Worst case scenario, you could store it in the luggage storage lockers in the metro station, which is super close to the spa. But if I were going back with luggage, I would actually take it with me first and see if there's somewhere to store it in this spa.