Korea was full of new experiences; and our Korean spa experience was no exception. I would be at a ‘jjimjilbang’ every day, or at least every week, if I lived in Korea. A jjimjilbang is essentially a large, public bathhouse (gender-separated) furnished with hot tubs, showers, saunas and massage tables. Every spa offers unique features; however, there are often snack bars, ondol-heated flooring for lounging and sleeping, wide-screen TVs, exercise rooms, ice rooms, heated salt rooms, and even sleeping quarters. Most jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours and are a popular weekend getaway for Korean families. During the week, it’s common for business men to stay overnight after either working or drinking late. *The one we visited is one of the only ones in Korea that closes at midnight and has no sleeping quarters.
Our spa day was spent at Spa Land in Shinsegae Centum City Mall in Busan. Spa Land consists of 22 spas fed by two different kinds of all-natural spring water, 13 themed saunas, and an open-air foot spa. The maximum occupancy is a whopping 1,500 people!
The entrance is nondescript and almost hidden inside Shinsegae Department Store; we never would have found it without knowing what we were looking for. Lucky for us, a friend had recommended this hidden gem and we weren’t leaving Busan without trying it. The spa is open from 6:00 to 24:00 and your entrance ticket allows you to stay four hours.
Upon arrival, after paying, you first go to the shoe lockers and remove you shoes (shoes-off is a strictly enforced policy embedded into Korean culture). You grab your electronic key-wristband from the shoe locker which doubles as your clothes locker key and as currency for drinks or food (no need to carry around money). After dropping off your shoes, pick up your outfit which is to be worn in uni-sex areas. I believe you are supposed to fold your towel into a ‘jjimibang hat’ like the model below but I never quite figured it out!
Dan and I agreed to meet in 15 minutes after getting changed at the first meeting point – Spa Land is massive and it’s surprisingly easy to loose someone in one of the many rooms, especially since such a large portion is gender-separated.
As soon as I walked into the woman’s bathing area I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of naked Korean women, confidently strutting around. Being used to North American women who quickly change behind a closed door or with a towel draped around them, I was in semi-shock. I honestly felt strange being dressed and quickly stripped off my clothes attempting to not self-consciously cover parts of my body.
With the 15 minutes I had before meeting Dan, I did a quick circle through the woman’s area assessing how much time I would need there. The first thing that amazed me were the multiple powder rooms equipped with everything you could possibly need: face toner and creams; body cream; hair gel and spray; hair combs and brushes, sterilized in UV light containers; q-tips and more. There were vending machines for drinks and a few items I couldn’t identify. I barely had time to glance at the actual bathing area – so more on that later.
Once outside, you find yourself in an architecturally pleasing building with a hundred foot ceiling, huge windows covered with gorgeous steel arches. Dan and I spent the next hour exploring. We moved quickly between areas and saunas as we wanted to see (and try) it all – we spent five to ten minutes in almost every sauna as we worked to identify our favourites.
Usually I dislike walking anywhere barefoot, especially such public areas, but the floors here were unbelievably clean and it didn’t bother me in the slightest. The entire place was spotless and looked like it was brand new, opened yesterday. The care that goes into maintaining the place was astounding.
Each sauna has as sign posted with a short explanation and temperature reading which helped us to know what we were getting ourselves into!
The varying temperatures are helpful when trying to find your preferred relaxing temperature (everyone is different, including Dan and I). I was astounded at how much the rooms varied not only in temperature but also in style and feel, there was definitely something for everybody!
Many of the sauna themes are based on traditional Korean medicinal concepts. purposes and many of the descriptions were so great that I couldn’t help but copy them out here. Anything in quotes is what the description posted at the door of the sauna read, word for word.
Yellow Orcher Room, 65.6°C: “The high quality ocher used in this room was produced in Icheon. Applying yellow ocher mortar, it was designed to maximize the effects of yellow ocher. The far infrared rays emitted by yellow ocher stabilizes brain waves, and is effective in keeping your mental health. It can also neutralize poisons, fight bacteria and stop bleeding.”
*This was my favourite room and I didn’t even realize all the healing power it had*
Salt Room, 50.5°C: This facility uses world-famous rough salt stones from the Himalayas. Salt enables our skin to be healthy while removing body wastes. It also removes skin horns and relieves various skin diseases. Promoting blood circulation, it is also efficient in increasing immunity” *I also loved this room*
Hammam Room, 36.6°C: “This room reproduces the old Hammam public bath of Turkey in a modern concept. Turkey Hammam is a traditional bath method in Europe succeeding from the old bath of Rome. Experience the medium temperature of a traditional European bath. It is also effective in discharging body wastes from your skin and increases immunity.
SEV Room, 37.9°C: “As a patented technology in Korea, Japan, the US and EU, it compounds natural ore and metal to generate electron. Emitting these electrons to your body it helps your tired body to quickly recover by activating cell function while promoting metabolism.”
Ice Room, 13.7 °C: “This room reduces your body heat that increases while at a high-temperature steam sauna. It makes your skin poles shrink and discharge body wastes. This is an effective beauty care regimen and promotes blood circulation.”
If there were other people in a sauna, I respected their privacy and didn’t take any pictures; thus, I have no photos from the following rooms.
Fomentation Room (Bulgama), 71.5°C: “Thanks to the plentiful far-infrared rays emitted by the yellow ocher fomentation stones, experience its various beneficial effects. For a healthier you, use the fomentation room and the ice room alternatively.”
Pyramid Room, 53.9°C: “Designed at a tilt angle of 52 degrees to absorb universal energy at maximum, it is designed for you to experience a mysterious atmosphere in a pyramid space.”
Wave Dream Room, 40.1°C: “With technology relating to relaxation facilities in Europe, wave dream reflects water wave to the ceiling generating continuous wave movement. It provides an atmosphere akin to staying in the deep sea for a fantastic experience. This helps you meditate and mentally relax. It also helps you release city life stress.”
Body Sound Room, 38.8°C: “The floor of this room was designed applying the principle of bone conduction system. Experience an even and restful sound. Meditate and rest with natural sounds surrounding you. This spaces releases stress from the complicated everyday city life.“
Near the cafe-bar downstairs was an open area with wooden head pillows and heated flooring. While some were napping in the corner, others were sitting with friends cracking hard-boiled eggs open to snack on (supposedly it’s a thing while you’re at the jjimjilbang).
In addition to all of these indoor rooms, there is an outdoor foot bath area. We were sitting outside just as the sun was setting and the lighting and ambiance were perfect. The temperature of the water varies in the pools from scorching hot to freezing cold. You can walk through them and the bottom is made to imitate walking on pebbles which is ‘good for health’. Dan and I both grabbed one of the quilted jackets at the entrance which we were thankful for.
On the second floor there are more resting areas – including a room full of private chairs with individual TV’s and headphone jacks, relaxation and quiet rooms, a restaurant, and a few massage chairs.
While I brought my phone along and tried to get as many pictures as possible (usually when we had the room to ourselves and no one was looking), I have no photos from the bathing area for obvious reasons. The following photo is the only one of the bathing areas on google photos and used dozens of times on various pages.
Next to the entrance of the bathing area from the locker room, there are stacks of pink thin loofah-like ‘things’ that resemble sandpaper. Since I noticed every single women in the shower area was holding one, I grabbed one too. At this point you will have a full view of the bathing area and notice that not one person is wearing anything to cover their bodies, I doubt you would be allowed in if you were. There is also a sign that reads “No tattoos, drunks or people with infectious skin diseases.” Although I did notice a woman with a small tattoo about to enter as I was leaving – I have no idea if someone asked her to leave.
Around the corner is another entrance to a separate area and a whiteboard with prices (descriptions in Korean). The women who work there are clothed in a black bra and panties. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were selling. As I later realized/learned, these women were ‘ddemiri’ (scrub mistresses) and that’s where you go if you want someone else to scrub you down with the pink sandpaper towel. The intense Korean cleaning process, called ‘seshin’ entrails soaking the body in hot water and rubbing it with a the previously described ‘towel’ to rid the body of all the dirt and layers of dead skin that occur naturally. The process has been described as both rejuvenating and painful, although I’m leaning towards ‘painful’. I watched in the open shower area as many mothers were putting their unhappy teenage daughters through this process.
There’s about 40 sit down showers and a dozen standing showers; all showers are stocked with shampoo and body wash. There were countless women with an entire bucket of toiletries, although I honestly have no idea why they needed so many different bottles for. Every single person was scrubbing themselves harder than I had ever imagined possible. Trying to watch people and imitate them to ensure I was following the proper protocols was made slightly difficult by the fact that everyone was stark naked. I mean, staring is awkward enough when people are clothed. Let’s just say I did my best.
The gorgeously designed women’s washing and bathing area has a dozen or so naturally-fed hot springs at it’s centre. Once again, the water in each pool is a slightly different temperature, allowing you to move from hot to warm. There are two types of hot spring water used: sodium chloride (said to benefit the muscles and joints, as well help cure sickness), and sodium bicarbonate (said to improve beauty of the skin). *Due to the increased concentration of salts in the water, your skin absorbs less water and thus you can stay in longer before you start to prune up. There is one massaging tub with individual enclaves where you can adjust the pressure of the water bubbles, one cool tub (25°C) and one cold tub (18°C). Aside from the pools there are two Finnish saunas and an outdoor area with two naturally fed hot spring pools (the outdoor area is covered from public view). The outdoor pools were amazing and both were fed by a waterfall of streaming hot water which you could dip under. (Dan was jealous to hear about the outdoor spa in the women’s area as there wasn’t one in the men’s; although he said the men have a private Roman Sauna.)
After over an hour enjoying the hot springs and cleaning ourselves, Dan and I met up for another round of saunas. Before our four hours were up we returned again to the bathing area for one more dip in the hot spring water! That evening we both felt incredibly relaxed and cleaner-than-clean; honestly, I have never felt so clean in my life before.
Now you might be wondering how we could afford to go to this amazing place on our small travel budget – did we have to splurge and go over budget for the day? Nope: four hours of access to the facilities cost a mere ₩15,000 won ($13 USD)!