South Korea: What it's like to experience jjimjilbang, a popular bath house

There's nothing delicate about a body scrub at a jjimjilbang, the South Korean institution which is a cross between a traditional bath house and a Western-style spa. I'm learning this first-hand at Seoul's Siloam Sauna, one of several Korean-style spas I'm going to try across the country.

Though it may sound like a spot of pampering, in practice a scrub is a vigorous (and occasionally painful) procedure – the masseur turns me one way then the other, scraping me down ruthlessly with a roughened cloth. This is followed by a forceful shoulder massage. Nothing about this experience is elegant, but it gets the job done; I feel as though he's removed kilos of skin and afterwards I float around the premises in a highly relaxed state.

It helps, of course, that I've had a thorough soaking before the scrub. The key feature of Siloam, situated just west of Seoul's main railway station, is its hot baths, filled with pure aquifer water from the bedrock 300 metres below.

The baths in a jjimjilbang are segregated by gender, and here the men's baths are in a big open room, practical rather than decorative. In the centre are shower stations, at which you're required to thoroughly wash before taking a bath.

Along the walls are baths of various types and temperatures, ranging in heat from just below body temperature to a few degrees above. Each contains a different element intended to target an element of health: jade, salt, soil, charcoal.

The least appealing bath here is a murky brown from mugwort extract, though I assume it's healthy. There are two saunas, too, at one of which you're encouraged to rub yourself with coarse salt from a bucket ("Good for the skin", explains a sign).

This bath area is full of naked men, because that's the rule – no clothing allowed. At least not until you move on to the communal areas, where men and women mingle in pyjama-like shirts and shorts.

ENTERTAINMENT COMPLEXES

As relaxing as the baths are, they're only one element of a jjimjilbang. The big spas such as Siloam are 24-hour, multi-storey complexes with food and entertainment, along with a series of scented sauna rooms scented with additives.

They also have sleeping rooms where you can doze on a futon-like mattress; the perfect place to crash if you've missed the last train to your hotel.

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 The multi-purpose nature of a jjimjilbang is what marks it out as a South Korean experience. To visit one is to dip into a cultural practice that's a defining feature of the country, and you're guaranteed to share it with Koreans.

Surprisingly, visiting such a place is a relative recent activity. For centuries, Korea had a tradition of kiln-fired saunas known as hanjeung. In the early 20th century, Japanese influence led to the rise of public bath houses known as mogyoktang, which popularised the body scrub. Then in the 1990s, elements of Western spas such as massage treatments were added, along with entertainment and dining. The jjimjilbang was born.

Siloam is an example of a big-city version, spread over six levels: with spaces for baths, saunas, massage, food, movies, table tennis, a gym, internet terminals, a barber, and a place to sleep. There's even a second sleeping room dedicated to snorers, which seems thorough.

After I finish with its baths, I don my beige pyjamas and head for the restaurant on level two. With some hesitation I order a sundubu jjigae from the menu, and end up with a spicy stew of tofu, vegetables and chilli paste, served with a range of small side dishes. It's excellent, and great after-bath value at just $10.

Siloam Sauna, Jungnim-Ro, Jung-gu, Seoul. Day entry $13, see siloamsauna.com

ENTER THE DRAGON SPA

Across the tracks and further south near the Han River stands Dragon Hill Spa. As with Siloam, it's vast and tourist-friendly, but still very Korean.

Dragon Hill is even bigger than its rival, covering eight floors from the video gaming zone in the basement to the garden on the roof. In between lies a vast array of treatment and amusement options, some of them mildly baffling.

Glancing over the busy directory, I can find on just one level a "fire-sweating bathroom", a "crystal shining salt room", and a "pyramid spirit experience room". That last one probably relates to the pyramid I see on level one, with a bust of  a pharaoh in front of it.

Options on other floors include outdoor baths, a garden cinema, sleeping rooms, a swimming pool and a fitness club. A caption next to the last of these mentions horse-riding, though I can't see  where that's possible.

That's a mystery for another time. For now I'm happy to soak in the baths, then lie with a book on the heated floors of a big communal room. All around me are groups of friends and family members, chatting, eating, sleeping and playing arcade games next to the snack bar. It's a fun vibe. If I lived in Seoul, this would be my address at weekends.

Dragon Hill Spa, Hangangno 3-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Day entry $15, see dragonhillspa.com

OLD-FASHIONED BATHING

In Seoul's cosmopolitan entertainment district, Itaewon Land is an old-school jjimjilbang, It looms high above the eateries of the busy main street, Itaewon-ro, up a steep flight of wooden stairs.

I arrive at the top, slightly breathless, to find a stone-clad entrance with a traditional tiled roof and curved eaves. At the door is a cut-out of a bowing attendant, next to a sign promising services from scrubs to tarot readings.

Entry here is less expensive, and the facilities are slightly worn. Rather than the sparkling array of choices offered by its rivals, this place offers a basic set of baths, along with saunas, some treatment options, and space in which to relax. There's not much English signage here, though the reception staff speak it well enough.

Part of the attraction of this jjimjilbang is its location, convenient to accommodation and varied nightlife. After my bath I relax on a mat in the rest area, then head out to enjoy a beer at one of the district's many bars.

Itaewon Land, 34 Usadan-ro 14-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Day entry $10.

SPA WITH A VIEW

Heading south to the busy port city of Busan, I take a long walk along the promenade above Haeundae Beach to reach my last jjimjilbang: Hill Spa. As the name suggests, it's in a hilly well-to-do district back from the shore, and by the time I reach it on foot I feel as though I've earned my dose of relaxation.

This is a classy place with some of the modern gleam of a Western spa, offering a simple cafe and restaurant along with various rest areas and treatments.

The hot baths have been placed next to large windows facing seaward, so you can sit and soak with an expansive view of the Korea Strait. The vista is even better from the rest area on the roof. That view – with all its possibilities as you gaze across the water in the direction of Japan – is Hill Spa's highlight.

17-7 Dalmaji-gil 117beon-gil, Jung-dong, Haeundae, Busan. Day entry $15, see hillspa.ivyro.net

TRIP NOTES

Tim Richards travelled as a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

MORE

traveller.com.au/south-korea

visitkorea.org.au

FLY

Asiana Airlines flies daily between Sydney and Seoul, and has code-share connections with Qantas. See flyasiana.com

High-speed trains link Seoul to Busan. See letskorail.com

STAY

Novotel Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun Hotel offers ultra-modern accommodation with a view, in Seoul's design district. From $165 per night. See accorhotels.com

Novotel Ambassador Busan is located in Busan's lively entertainment hub, adjacent to Haeundae Beach. From $125 per night. See accorhotels.com

SOAK

Hill Spa, 17-7 Dalmaji-gil 117beon-gil, Jung-dong, Busan. Day entry $15.

FIVE MORE KOREAN SPAS

SPA LEI

This Seoul jjimjilbang is for women only, with eastern European decor and a range of treatments.

Cresyn Building, Gangnam-daero 107-gil, Seoul.

THE SPA IN GARDEN 5

Located within a Seoul shopping mall (Garden 5) this spa has a library, dedicated movie theatre and atrium view.

10 Chungmin-ro, Munjeong-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul.

SPA LAND CENTUM CITY

A vast facility within Busan's Shinsegae Centum City shopping mall, containing 22 spas and 13 themed saunas.

35 Centumnam-daero, U-dong, Haeundae, Busan.

HAEUNDAE SPA CENTRE

In a convenient location for the tourist zone of Haeundae Beach.

16 Jungdong 2-ro, Haeundae-gu, Busan.

WI SPA

This jimjilbang is not in Asia at all, but in Los Angeles' thriving Koreatown district. It offers all the classic Korean spa facilities, in a California setting. See wispausa.com

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