Why you should care
Because these Korean-style spas and bathhouses are proof that relaxation needn’t be antisocial.
As longtime Korean drama fans, my boyfriend and I knew that many series included at least one episode at the jimjilbang, or 24/7 spa and bathhouse. When we moved to LA last summer, our Korean friends told us that several were close by. Once our inner fangirls stopped squealing, we hopped on Yelp and found Wi Spa, a jimjilbang on the edge of Koreatown.
Wi Spa opened in 2009, more than a decade after jimjilbangs first emerged in Korea. At the time, many Korean homes didn’t have their own bathrooms. Today, jimjilbangs can be found on nearly every street corner in South Korea. While the most extravagant ones reflect the country’s newfound first-world wealth, they might also indulge nostalgia. And jimjilbangs have increasingly cropped up with the growth of Korean immigrant communities in the U.S. Besides the handful in Southern California, there are jimjilbangs in Atlanta; Queens, New York; Dallas and Las Vegas.
But don’t enter a jimjilbang expecting soft wind-chime music or private candlelit rooms. “Westerners consider relaxation as a cure that comes into their minds,” said Wi Spa manager Jonathan Suh. But in the jimjilbang, socializing itself is restorative. And although Wi Spa turns down its lights, jimjilbangs in Korea keep them on around the clock. “You’re having fun, spending time with family and friends. It’s a place where you go if you don’t want to sleep.”
After my boyfriend and I each paid for a $25 day pass — which didn’t include massages, facials or other services — the front desk attendants handed us our uniforms: yellow T-shirts and khaki shorts. We changed and entered a gymnasium-sized room filled with parents, grandparents and kids sprawled on vinyl mats. Some played on their laptops, while others flipped through comic books, snacking on roasted eggs. Couples and friends had heart-to-heart talks, their heads propped up on their hands. Heat radiated from the onyx floor, while TV screens played Two and a Half Men and Korean dramas, which added to the cozy, living-room-like vibe.
Wi Spa also includes a gym, computer room, children’s playroom and private massage rooms, and it used to hold karaoke contests. Other jimjilbangs have concert halls and even indoor golf ranges.
Most guests were Korean, but there were a few white locals and some European tourists. Suh says Westerners often learn about Wi Spa from their Korean friends, Groupon or Living Social.
Since it was already past 8:00 p.m., we hit the 24-hour restaurant, where we shared a bowl of cold beef soup, a rice-and-veggie dish called bibimbap, and spicy rice cakes. Other guests indulged in shaved ice topped with fruit and condensed milk.
Our bellies way past full, we waited a few minutes before stretching out in the sauna rooms, heated to varying temperatures and inlaid with salt, clay, jade or ice, each with purported health benefits. Glowing coals heated the bulgama — basically a giant clay oven — to 215 degrees Fahrenheit. I stepped gingerly over other guests lying down with their eyes closed, trying not to focus too much on the sighing and shifting inches away from me.
But any shyness I felt lying and sweating next to perfect strangers went out the window in the single-sex bathhouse, where nudity is a requirement. After showering, women took dips into pools of hot, lukewarm and ice-cold water. Matronly attendants in black lace bras and underwear gave scrubs and massages.
Like the common co-ed area upstairs, the bathhouse was a bonding experience. Two American women next to me complained about their boyfriends. Meanwhile, a Korean mother tried to coax her toddler into the shower, while her own mother made faces to soothe her crying.
Suh recalled his childhood trips to the bathhouses with his dad in Korea. “You don’t have any clothes on. You’re in a natural state, so you have nothing to hide,” he said. “It made me open myself up more to my dad.”
Drowsy and warm, I retrieved my belongings from my locker, passing mothers chatting and brushing their daughters’ hair as their little heads nodded off to sleep.
As someone with a wider personal bubble than most, I’ll need a few more visits to realize that, no, not everyone is staring at my nakedness. But even I can appreciate the restorative power of baring it all, if only in conversation.
The next time you want to de-stress, skip the hot stones and new age music, and head to the nearest jimjilbang to relax body, mind and modesty with a roomful of newly minted friends.