We were given a few days of vacation during the first week of February for the Korean New Year (based on the lunar calendar, like China) and found ourselves at a bit of a loose end. We actually got Wednesday to Friday off plus the weekend as usual so we had quite a bit of time on our hands. Most Koreans used the time to visit their families (despite the Government asking people not to travel domestically due to the foot and mouth outbreak here) or, like the resident foreigners, to go travelling abroad for a few days. Unfortunately, we didn't realise we had the time off so hadn't made any plans. It was still icy cold in Korea then and we'd just got back from sunny Thailand so we did debate making a last minute attempt to get somewhere warm like Taiwan or even Okinawa.
However, we eventually came to our senses (and checked our bank balances!) and decided to stay put, relax at home on the main day of celebrations (the Thursday) when everything was closed and explore Seoul on the Friday while it was a bit quieter. On that Friday, we met our friend Dean in Seoul and went to the Dragon Hill Spa for our first jjimjilbang (Korean sauna) experience. The jjimjilbang is a unique (and very Korean) experience and can't really be compared to anything I've ever experienced back home. Jjimjilbangs are basically public bathhouses that are segregated by sex with a floor for mean and one for women and contain a variety of hot and cold pools, showers, dry saunas and massage tables. Most of them also have a unisex area on a different floor where you can buy snacks and drinks and watch TV. You can even stay for the night which is cheap but apparently a bit uncomfortable as you're given a sleeping mat to lay on the ondol-heated floor with and a block of wood for a pillow and you're in a room with lots of other people, most of whom don't bother switching their phones off all night. We've not tried this form of accommodation yet as it sounds a bit too basic and a good double bedroom in a love motel is so cheap here but if I was strapped for cash I would certainly consider it.
The entrance to the Dragon Hill Spa. (Care of the Dragon Hill Spa website - unfortunately I didn't get any of my own photos of the spa as I didn't have the guts to bring a camera in there! All photos are from other websites.)
Most jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours a day and you can find them everywhere in Korea. Some of them are very small and only have the most basic services but some, like the Dragon Hill Spa we went to, are huge and very lavish. The Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan, Seoul, is one of the most well known spas in Korea and the most luxurious. We decided to go to this one in particular because it is bigger and they're used to having foreign guests. In fact, the Dragon Hill Spa has 7 floors of bathing fun, relaxation and entertainment, including the usual hot and cold pools, jacuzzis, saunas and showers in the men's and women's sections plus various napping/sleeping areas, a PC room, a video room, a decent sized arcade games room, an outdoor swimming pool, a food court, a kiddie's soft indoor play area, a cinema, a rooftop barbecue and garden area and even an indoor golf range. It was amusingly over the top in it's interior design with several huge pyramid shaped saunas in the unisex area giving it a cheesy Las Vegas feel and Dean told us it was more expensive than the usual jjimjilbang but I thought it was still pretty cheap at around 10,000 won (about 5 British pounds or $10) for the entrance fee. The entrance fee covered unlimited use of all the jacuzzis, pools, saunas, showers and lockers. You had to pay extra for things like snacks and drinks, the arcade games, massages, beauty treatments and the cinema.
The outdoor swimming pool - swimming costumes/ trunks are required! (Dragon Hill Spa website)
The reception area of the spa. It was very grand if a little cheesy looking.(Dragon Hill spa website)
The back of the spa looking over the swimming pool. Looks a bit like a hotel. (Dragon Hill spa website)
We walked through the doors of the Dragon Hill Spa feeling rather apprehensive (at least Rowan and I were because it was our first time - Dean's already a pro at jjimjilbang-ing it up). The thing that worries most foreigners about the Korean spa experience is the public nudity. Yep, that's right, you have to leave your modesty/inhibitions/ good old British reserve at the door when you go to the jjimjilbang as you spend over half your time there sans clothes. If you're a foreigner in Korea you soon get used to Koreans staring at you a lot of the time and even pointing at you in the more rural areas where they're not used to seeing "waygooks" (foreigners - lierally "aliens") so having to face the possibility of that happening in a spa when you don't have any clothes on is kind of unnerving to say the least. I've heard some funny stories from Westerners who've been to jjimjilbangs and suddenly found themselves the centre of attention surrounded by curious "adjumas" (literally means older married woman but usually refers to a particular type of Korean lady, the ones over 40 with garish clothing, tight perms and a propensity to shove and fight their way to the front of line regardless of who or what might be in their way - follow this link for an amusing intro on the adjuma stereotype http://boxofjalapenos.blogspot.com/2008/04/adjuma-alert.html). In that story, the adjumas were fascinated as they'd not seen a foreign woman naked before and started calling her Pamela Anderson. I've also heard funny/ horror stories of foreign teachers going for a relaxing soak at their local jjimjilbang only to be confronted, in the nude bathing areas, by their students who were there with their families. I certainly wouldn't want to meet any of my students in that state - I know it's cultural but that's just too weird!
Anyway, we gathered our courage and went to the front desk to pay our admission fees. We were each given a set of oversized, grey shorts and a t-shirt (to wear in the unisex areas), two small towels (the size of a Western hand towel) and a key/ fob on a wristband which was used both to lock/unlock your shoe and clothes lockers and as a payment system, like a credit card, that could be swiped when you purchased things inside the the spa so you didn't have to carry your money around with you. The wristband thing was useful and, along with one of your towels and your toiletries, it was the only thing you really had to take around with you inside the spa. The first step, once we got past the front desk, was to take our shoes off and put them in one of the small lockers. As this jjimjilbang had separate floors for men and women I had to say my goodbyes to Dean and Rowan after this. They went up to the men's saunas on the 6th floor and I took the elevator up to the women's changing area on the 3rd. As soon as I stepped out of the elevator I was in the women's changing rooms and was confronted with scores of women, girls and a few little boys (there with their mothers I think) in various states of undress. I think I almost immediately broke into a cold sweat - the burden of being British I guess! I had been briefed by Dean on the required jjimjilbang etiquette so I knew roughly what I was supposed to be doing. First, I found my designated locker among the many rows of lockers in the changing areas whilst caught in the eternal dilemma of how best not to stare at anyone without just ending up staring at the floor and walking into a post or something.
I eventually pulled myself together and deposited all my belongings (and clothes) in my locker and armed with my 2 tiny towels, a bag of toiletries and my wristband I followed some Korean ladies downstairs to the women's spa area on the 2nd floor. This is the area with all the hot and cold pools, jacuzzis and massage tables. The first thing you have to do before you can use any of those things is to have a shower and properly scrubs yourself down. It's very poor form to use any of the pools without first having washed yourself properly which is understandable considering they're public. After a thorough wash, I found a little corner to stash my toiletries bag and my towels and went to explore the many pools. There were several hot tubs set at temperatures varying from pleasantly warm to being-boiled-alive hot and some of them had herbs or salts added to them that were supposed to help with various ailments. There was also a freezing cold pool that I braved a couple of times. It was a real shock to the system after the hot pools but the change from one to the other is supposed to be good for your circulation I think though that could be total nonsense. There was also a long bath filled with loads of really powerful jets that was separated into 5 individual all-body massage baths by metal handrails. It was pretty funny watching an unsuspecting adjuma jump into one of them and then freak out when the jets came on.
The functional cold water bath in the women's section. It really was very cold. (Dragon Hill spa website)
The indoor pools were really nice and relaxing, they weren't too crowded and there were so many of them to try. Even more fun though were the outdoor pools. There was one large, lukewarm pool filled to waist height that usually had a few kids swimming and playing around in it and then a few (I think there were 6) small, hot, jacuzzi pools each imbibed with a different herb or health salt. I can't remember them all now but there was definitely one mugwort and one ginseng pool and a natural rock seawater bath that seemed very popular with the Korean ladies. The outdoor pools were probably my favourite part of the bathing areas. It was pretty amazing sitting around in the hot tubs in the middle of February when it was still icy cold under the wintry Seoul sky. After trying the indoor and outdoor pools I gave the Finnish-style sauna room a go. It was made entirely of wood and was extremely hot. I only lasted a few minutes in there before I had to get out as the heat was so intense. There were other health therapy rooms in the women's section which I didn't have the time to try including a mud pack room and the Emperor's Sitz Hip room. I had a quick peek in the Emperor's Sitz Hip room as I had read about it on the visitkorea website and I was intrigued to know what it looked like. According to that website, the room is filled with wooden small chairs, each with a hole in the middle that you have to sit on. Steam infused with a variety of herbs rises up through the holes and seeps "into the skin and womb". Apparently the steam "removes body wastes and stimulates blood circulation" and is also "good for various feminine maladies and skincare". Sadly, I had to go meet the boys in the unisex area so didn't have time to get my womb cleansed or whatever it does as you need 50 minutes to do that therapy and it costs an additional 12,000 won (7 quid or $12).
The outdoor natural rock seawater pool. (Dragon Hill Spa website)
The Emperor Sitz Hips Room with its little chairs with holes in and its womb cleansing steam. (letsvisitasia.com)
Next, I went back to my locker and changed into my hugely stylish grey shorts and t-shirt and made my way down to the unisex area on the 1st floor to meet Rowan and Dean. The first thing we did was to check out the arcade games. I teamed up with Rowan to take on the bad guys in Time Crisis 2 and discovered I had a talent for air hockey. As with everything else, you paid for the games by swiping your wristband - useful but dangerous for your bank balance. Once we'd had our fill of shoot 'em ups and sports based games we went to get something to eat. The snack bar was a bit limited (no crisps!) and pricey but had the standard jjimjilbang fare (smoked boiled eggs and sikhye, a traditional sweet rice drink) and ice cream, dried squid and soft drinks. We grabbed some ice cream and chocolate and grabbed ourselves a spot to sit on the heated floor. In this area, there were large plasma screen TVs to watch and several automatic massage chairs that cost about 2,000 won for 10 minutes (just over 2 quid or $2) up against the walls. Lots of people were siting or lying on the warm floor, relaxing with their families and friends, reading, watching TV or just napping. There were a lot of couples sitting together as apparently the jjimjilbang is a popular place to come out on a date and this floor is the area to meet up with your significant other after the pools.
People relaxing on the heated floors in the unisex area on the 1st floor. (Flickr)
After eating, we went to explore the various sauna rooms. There were at least 8 hot rooms and one cold room to try out. There were a couple of hot saunas built in the shape of Egyptian pyramids, 2 or 3 rooms built out of bricks that looked like those traditional wood fire ovens you bake pizzas in (and felt like it too, they were so hot) and a room made completely out of salt, even the bricks were salt. The rooms heated by the traditional oak wood charcoal kiln were nice, dark, warm and relaxing and they smelt lovely as well. Most of the sauna rooms were pretty packed though and we were pretty hungry by this point and keen to go out for some dinner so we didn't stick around in this area for long. After having a quick look at the snowman in the ice room (which resembled the inside of a freezer) we went back to our separate changing rooms, got changed, collected our belongings from our lockers and dumped our spa outfit in one of the clothes hampers. Back at the front desk, it was just a case of collecting our shoes and paying for anything we had bought on our wristbands (including all those arcade games!).
A couple chilling out in the ice room. (NY times)
The outside of the ice room was also made of ice. (NY times)
The pyramid sauna chambers. Gotta love the mummies in the background too. (NY times)
People slowly roasting themselves in one of the hot rooms. (Dragon Hill spa website)
I think this is one of the rooms made entirely of salt, even the bricks. (NY Times)
Two of the salt brick saunas built in the shape of pizza ovens or kilns. (NY times)
Overall, I think we both really enjoyed the our time at the Dragon Hill Spa despite the horror of public nudity! The facilities were amazing, all clean and new and I found that I actually got stared at less in the bathing areas than I usually do walking down the street in Gwangju though perhaps that was because I wasn't wearing my trusty Russian furry hat with the earflaps while I was in the spa like I do in Gwangju in the winter! There were actually quite a few Westerners at the spa too so I didn't feel like I stood out too much. Once you get down into the bathing areas the whole no clothes thin g isn't so bad. It is a bit unnerving up in the changing/locker rooms though as some people a re fully dressed as they have just arrived or are just leaving, some people are in their grey gym outfit and others are undressed on their way to or back from the baths. It doesn't help that there is a counter/desk in the changing room where you can purchase shampoo, face packs and other toiletries if you don't have your own that is staffed by a fully dressed, uniformed member of staff. Still, it's not so bad, you just need to be brave and realise that everyone else is in the same position. Rowan and Dean said that there weren't any outdoor pools in the men's section which was a shame as I thought that was the best bit of the whole spa.
I definitely want to go back soon and I might even work up the courage to try a different, more traditional jjimjilbang soon despite the heightened risk of being stared at. I definitely won't be going to my local Gwangju jjimjilbang anytime this century though. I just can't bear the thought of running into one of my students in the pools - "Hello Sop-ee teachaa!!"
If you're in Seoul and fancy checking out the Dragon Hill Spa take subway line 1 to Yongsan and walk out exit 1 and you should be able to see it about 250 metres away on your right. The sign is in English and it's next to a large wedding convention hall.