My life philosophy is collect experiences, not stuff. Yet with just one month left on my English teaching contract in Daegu South Korea, I still hadn’t ventured to a jjimjilbang.  A jjimjilbang has various places for you to indulge in hot tubs and saunas.  Sounds great right? Except in Korea you are expected to enjoy them naked.  And well my Western prudishness had a bit of an issue with this. I just wasn’t sure I could relax if I was in the buff.  However, deciding this was my last opportunity, I finally plucked up the fortitude to visit Elybaden Spa near Sangin in my last month.

high levels of anxiety en route

The luxurious Elybaden Spa in Sangin, Daegu takes up a whole city block.

As I set out for West Daegu, I feel rising levels of anxiety building.  It’s a trepidation that I don’t usually experience when I head into an unfamiliar scenario on my solo adventures.  My wholesale ignorance of Korean jjimjilbangs isn’t the only cause for the unease. It’s the daunting challenge of navigating this foreign-concept spa with a zero ability to speak Korean and doing it in the buff.

I focus on finding my way to the facility to reduce my anxiety levels, but quickly find myself standing in front of the five-story complex which occupies a whole street block. I stall my entry a little longer by stopping to pet the fluffy bunnies pinned up outside.  Rain is looming. I can no longer hold off the inevitable.

communicating when you don’t know the language

When the signage is all in a foreign language and you have to resort to pointing and gestures.

I courageously enter the main doors and face a registration desk flanked by entrance and exit turnstiles creating a barrier.  I grab a brochure – all in Korean – and gingerly walk up to a free attendant.  Between a mix of my best Konglish and the use of TPR (Total Physical Response), I sputter out ‘Annygoyahseo. Jjimjilbang, ne. Waterpark, ayeno.’ Her English is as advanced as my Korean, but she manages to understand that I only want entry to the sauna and not the combined ticket that includes the waterpark. I hand over my 12,000W and in return she presents me with a waterproof wristband, which I later learn is not only your locker keys, but also a charge-card allowing you to purchase food, drink, extra services and amenities without the need of carrying around cash.

Gaining confidence, I go through the turnstiles and meticulously follow what the women in front of me do. I’m directed to the shoe lockers on my right. I locate my designated number locker, remove my ballet pumps, and enter the segregated changing facilities. Inside, I hand over my paper ticket to an ajumma behind a desk of trail sized toiletries for sale and she provides me with two small hand towels and red shirt and shorts set. I scour the 1,000 lockers for number 825 which corresponds with my wristband. Found, I strip all my articles of clothing off and put them inside.  I feel overly exposed with nothing but my waterproof wristband for protection.

for obvious reasons, i have no photos to show!

Clutching my mustard colored hankie up to my chest like a child with its comfort blanket, I enter the vast jjimjilbang area stark naked. I expect the eyes of several hundred Korean women to instantly swivel and stare, but no one seems to mind the lone waygook. I take visual stock of the facilities. Dead centre are the bubbling hot pools registering temperatures between 40C and 43C. Along the back wall is a deep plunge pool with a heart-stopping 19C temperature posted. Occupying the left corner of the room are three saunas: a ‘Barley Stone’ lined cavern with a moderate temperature of 64C, a ‘Germanium Dry’ sauna boosting a scorching 70C, and a ‘Salt’ room. To the immediate left are stone slabs with ondol heating were several women slept.  And to the immediate right, five rows of seating bathing stations to wash afterwards.

I head for the hot pools first and find a chaise lounge-like seat with back jets.  I stare intently at the giant TV projecting news in Hangul.  Anything to keep me from accidentally staring where I shouldn’t. A curious toddler clambers into the pools and stares intently at me instead.  A blue straw projects from his mouth at 90 degree angle along the side of his head. He notices me noticing him and says ‘Snorkel,’ before dipping his head under the water and beginning to swim. His innocent presence helps me relax and I set out to explore.

I first head to the salt sauna where inside I find a large hollowed out tree stub full of salt granules.  I again follow the lead of the others and start rubbing the white granules on my legs.  Before long a very friendly anjumma gestures to scrub my back.  Hesitatingly I let her. Still feeling exposed, I quickly leave, rinse off and test the other two saunas After reaching boiling point, I next try the cold plunge pool, which is refreshingly pleasant after all that heat. I linger there for awhile, and notice how unselfconsciously the Koreans are chatting to each other as casually as girlfriends out for coffee.  At one point I spot, two older ladies uninhibitedly grabbing their belly fat and comparing. 

The clothed, co-ed space

The Elybaden Spa has extensive facilities in the co-ed section on 3F.

Suitably prune-fingered, I decide to exit the jjimjilbang area and explore the rest of the complex. Back in the changing area, I adorn my faded red shorts and t-shirt and follow the similarly dressed women barefoot back out to the lobby area to catch the elevator to the 3rd floor communal zone.  The lively co-ed space is being enjoyed by couples, families and girlfriends.  A survey of the floor reveals a plethora of entertainment options from a food court, coffee shop, mini narebangs, arcade games, a children’s play area, a large chill-out zone covered in mats, dark coves for sleeping, and to my delight two dozen massage chairs where you can indulge in a relaxing 15-minute roller pressure massage for a mere 2,000W.

In addition to the entertainment options, I soon discover a whole other clothed sauna section with temperatures ranging from 47C to 87C and even an ‘Ice Room’ to cool down in with chilling temperatures of 19C. I try them all out and decide my favorite is the ‘Salt Room’ which on this floor has soothing Himalayan rose-colored salt for walls where you lie down on rocks to mediate. The healing properties of this magical stone include reducing allergy and asthma symptoms; increasing energy; and improving mood and concentration. For me, it becomes one of the most relaxing areas in the complex.

By the time I leave, I chastise myself for not gaining the courage to visit sooner.  Jjimjilbangs seems a great way to spend a day either on your own or as friends, couples or a family.

Essential information for visitors

How to get there: Take the red line (Line 1) west to Sangin and go out via Exit #4. Walk straight 100feet and catch the 706 bus two stops.  Cross the street and head straight.  The spa is on the left hand corner and the entrance is on the left.

Location: 8-6 Sanginseo-ro, Sangin 3(sam)-dong, Dalseo-gu, Daegu

Cost: 12,000W for the sauna only for 12 hours.

Tips:  Whilst you can buy soap, shampoo and other toiletries on site, I would recommend bringing your own.