Although iterations vary greatly across cultures, throughout most of history, and in most of the world, bathing has been a collective act.
In his article Why we need to bring back the art of communal bathing, Jamie Mackay wrote: “In ancient Asia, [communal bathing] was a religious ritual believed to have medical benefits related to the purification of the soul and body. For the Greeks, the baths were associated with self-expression, song, dance and sport, while in Rome they served as community centres, places to eat, exercise, read and debate politics.”
While communal bathing is still common in places like Japan, Sweden and Turkey, it has become increasingly rare in most of the modern world. Notwithstanding, in the just the last decade the communal bathhouse has begun to re-emerge in the United States.
There are six cultural designations: Korea’s jjimjilbang, Russia’s banya, Japan’s onsen, the Jewish mikveh, Turkish hamman, and finally the Finnish sauna; all of which are featured here at saunasplash.com.
The Korean jjimjilbang, which literally means “heated room”, is the most prevalent iteration found in the United States, and primarily in cities and towns that boast populations which are overtly dense or predominantly Korean. In the U.S., jjimjilbangs are more commonly referred to as Korean spas, or Korean saunas (in this article the terms will be used interchangeably).
The very first thing you will do upon entering a Korean spa, usually immediately after paying for admission, is remove your shoes. A small locker will be provided just for your shoes, and you will not need them again until your visit to the Korean sauna is over.
Upon paying for entry, most Korean spas will give you an electronic key attached to a wristband. These wristbands are water-proof, and will need to be with you at all times throughout your visit, as they will serve as both your locker key and your means of paying for meals and other spa-related services such as massage or body scrub. The most convenient way to wear these is around either the wrist or ankle.
Most Korean saunas offer both wet and dry areas that can be used for communal gathering or solitary relaxation. The “wet” area will be inside the gender-segregated locker rooms, which contain tubs of varying heat intensities, and one or more hot rooms (i.e., wet steam, dry sauna, or both). These tubs typically vary from about 38°C to about 42°C. Optimal soaking time is considered to be about 20 minutes, and it’s best to keep your heart above the water.
The wet area will also feature either a cold pool to hop in, or a single shower head which heaps on cold water by pulling a lever adjacent. Some Korean spas, such as I-Spa in Irving, California, have both.
The wet areas are gender-segregated, as full nudity is required in these areas, although you will be provided with a small towel to use however you wish. All Korean saunas require you to shower upon initially entering the wet area, and in between using any hot room and wet tub.
The dry areas contain “poultice” rooms, which are dry saunas that are each designed to serve a unique purpose in healing and rejuvenating the body. Examples of such include a salt brick sauna, red clay ball sauna, jade sauna, red clay room, fire room, ice room, charcoal room, etc. Such rooms are typically heated to between 50 and 90°C.
The dry area of a Korean spa will typically include a restaurant featuring both Korean and American fare, and an open space for resting, reading, or quietly conversing with friends. (Socializing is usually allowed at the Korean sauna, but speech should always be kept soft as many are there to seek restful solitude, which would be disturbed by loud conversation.) Some Korean spa may also have a play area to keep children entertained while adults converse.
The dry area of I-Spa, for example, features an open space that is made to look like an ancient Korean village, complete with a Buseoksa Temple, and a row of street lamps to give the feel of walking through an ancient Korean village at night.
The dry area of a Korean sauna is always co-ed, as uniforms (which are provided by the spa) are required to enter. As such, opposite gender couples who attend the sauna together must separate to enjoy the wet areas, but are able to meet back in the dry area to utilize the poultice rooms or grab a bite from the restaurant.
Though far less common, some Korean spa also contain alcoholic drinks bars. King Spa and Sauna in Dallas, for example, actually has a drink bar within a unique communal bath that is located in a co-ed (swimsuits required) area of the spa. This sauna also features an indoor water park for keeping the children entertained while the adults lounge.
There are usually additional spa services that can be purchased in both the wet and dry areas of the Korean sauna. In the dry area you might purchase a manicure, chair message, or foot reflexology; services that can be performed while in uniform. In the wet area you would purchase more intimate services, like a full body scrub, which requires nudity. Some spas have different packages to choose from, such as King Spa in Niles, Illinois; which features a standard body scrub for total body exfoliation, as well as a “King” scrub which includes the former coupled with a full body massage.
Whether you’re looking to enjoy a traditional Korean spa, or a different cultural iteration such as a Japanese onsen or Finnish sauna, saunasplash.com is your source both for locating, and learning to enjoy the art of communal relaxation!
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