In some countries, spas are a rare indulgence. In Korean culture, though, they’re essential to the social scene.
And there’s plenty of variety. Some South Korean spas – or jim jil bang – are tranquil and soothing, like Spa Land at Centum City in Busan (the architecture there is also stunning). Other spas are a displaced section of a Las Vegas casino that’s collided with a World Wrestling Entertainment-style road show. You’ll find common themes and etiquette expectations no matter where you wind up, though. Something else cool: It’s easy to find cheap spa breaks, as low as $15 U.S., to lounge around for a few hours.
Let’s run through what a South Korean spa is like:
There’s typically a front desk area. You’ll pay your fee and get a key, some slippers and a robe/pullover sort of thing. If you’re with a person of the opposite gender, this is where you head to separate locker rooms. Keep that key with you at all times: You also use it to buy food and drink. It tallies your purchases electronically, and you settle up at the end. It beats toting your wallet around with you, too. Yes, Korean culture can be pretty hi-tech!
The Locker Rooms
This is where a lot of Americans might have trouble – the nudity here is pretty explicit … typical for Korean culture, but some travelers might find it odd. First you shower, then head (still naked) into the steam room, the hot tubs and the saunas. Westerners like me might also scratch their heads over some of the local showering customs: Apparently, a lot of Koreans prefer to shower seated. That explains the low shower heads in the hotels!
The Common Area
Done with the saunas? Put on the spa garb the front desk people issued during check-in. Meet your opposite-gender friend(s), and hit the many relaxing rooms. Like what?
There are several rooms common to South Korean spas, each of which have a different flavor and purpose. This post sums up the characteristics of the jim jil bang pretty nicely. One of the most interesting rooms was pyramid shaped, which I associate more with Egyptian culture than Korean culture.
Do your homework when choosing a South Korean spa. Some frown upon children, while others welcome them. Korean culture can be pretty sedate, but sometimes it embraces the noise. The adults-only establishments, though, will be quieter. Whichever you prefer, there’s something for everyone. But know what you’re getting into.