Traditional bathhouses are an essential part of Korean culture. Literally, ‘heated rooms’, these jjimjilbangs are where local families, mothers and daughters, and fathers with their sons go to relax, catch up on all the latest news, gossip and engage in a whole host of health and beauty rituals that go far beyond a quick soak. Of course, for some, there are also the basic obstacles of awkwardness that inevitably accompany a visit to such a place, but the basic philosophy of the practice of communal togetherness and personal cleanliness is quite endearing.
There are many bathhouses located throughout Cheonan, and most are open 24/7. If you decide to spend the night there, you must be out by 5 AM. For this article, I will highlight my favorite local jjimjilbang (bathhouse) Caracara, which is located just a few minutes away from my apartment and from the main entrance to the Korean Nazareth University (KNU). The address is 1561 Ssangyong-dong, Seobuk-gu, Cheonan; it is open 24 hours and it is always busy. The staff at Caracara are awesome and very helpful. The first time I went there, an ajumma (older woman) literally shared her hot coffee with me and made me feel so welcomed. Do not worry about looking confused, since the staff there will literally grab you by the hand and show you what you need to do. Caracara has been open since December 2, 2002. You can get to Caracara very easily by taking public transportation. From the express bus terminal, you can take bus 1, 12, or 14, and the buses all stop just a few minutes away from the bathhouse. It is only two stops away from the Cheonan light rail station, so just get off at the Nazareth, Ssangyong stop and walk about 10 minutes to the bathhouse.
Caracara is located in a small alley along with other businesses, and you can take the stairs or the elevator down one floor, walk through the doors, pay 7000 won at the front desk, and the clerk will give you a ticket along with two to three small towels. The ticket will have your locker number on it, so take that ticket to your designated section. The jjimjilbangs are separated by gender, (and the clerk should point you in the right direction). Leave your shoes in the locker and then take the same key inside, find your locker and store all of your personal belongings there. Make sure to keep your key with you at all time; you can either put it on your wrist or wear it on your ankle. If you want to take advantage of their other services, like an oil massage or a body scrub, you will have to pay for those once you are inside the bath area. In that case, your key number will get printed on a receipt and when your turn comes, your number will be called.
This weekend I decided to take myself to my local jjimjilbang, Caracara. Since it was a Saturday, the place was packed with families. At first, I was a little hesitant because I was definitely the odd one out and I was alone. This was not my first time at this particular jjimjilbang, but it always feels a little awkward being naked around strangers. This time I decided to put my fears aside and treat myself to the full jjimjilbang experience and to get the famous scrub down by the no-nonsense ajumma. I had read some horror stories and didn’t really know what to expect, but I really loved the whole experience. I had a sweet ajumma with strong arms, and she did not miss a spot on my body. The scrubbing mitt felt like sandpaper going over my body, but eventually, you forget the pain. The whole process takes about 30-45 minutes, and afterward, you will feel like a whole new person. I never knew I had so much dead skin! Do not worry about the language barrier, as the ajummas use hand gestures to give directions.
I first fell in love with bathhouses when I was in Morocco, my host mother took me to one and I was hooked. The Korean bathhouses, however, are very different in that they offer so much more.
It is a must that you wash before getting into the baths. There will be rows of washing stations and piles of plastic stools; grab one, take a seat and pick a faucet. There will be soap provided, but I prefer to bring my own favorite washing products. You will need to bring your own shampoo and conditioner, (most convenience stores in Korea sell little single-use packets of various toiletries; and the jjimjilbang usually sells them, as well). You don’t have to wash your hair, but if you don’t and it’s long, make sure to tie it up so it doesn’t trail in the bath. Once you’re nice and clean, head to the tubs. You will usually find a variety of temperatures, from about 38°C (not too hot) to about 42°C (pretty hot), and also a cold tub. It’s very important to pay attention to how your body responds to the different temperatures, so don’t just jump from hot to cold, as your body may go into shock, so slowly let your body get acclimatized to the different temperatures, and make sure you stay hydrated.
Koreans and Korean women, in particular, are fanatic about exfoliation, and you’ll see them giving themselves long and hearty scrubs (you can also buy scrubbing towels and mitts at the jjimjilbangs). If you really want to opt for the whole jjimjilbang experience, I highly recommend that you get a professional scrub (called seshin). In one corner of the bathing area, there will be a few plastic tables womanned by ajummas in lacy underwear (or by men on the men’s side) wielding scrubbing mitts. They’re generally merciless, but you will never have smoother skin in your life. This should definitely be done after soaking for a bit, so the steam from the baths can soften your skin. A scrub usually costs 20,000-30,000 won.
Being in the buff
The most uncomfortable part of the experience for a lot of first-timers is being naked among strangers. We, Westerners, are not used to walking around or hanging around in the nude in front of other people. But for Koreans, this is a normal part of visiting a jjimjilbang, and you are unlikely to be given a second glance by anyone. You can use your towel to strategically cover yourself as you walk around (the towels are small though, so this isn’t easy; I suggest bringing your own big towel from home). You shouldn’t bring it into the water though, and you’ll want to keep it dry enough that you can towel off before heading back to the changing room. I just always wrap my hair with the small towel and enjoy my soak.
The best way to learn the culture of a country is to do what the locals do; you will never go wrong, you will gain an- insight into how the locals live and, if nothing else, at least you will have smooth skin.