South Koreans have a secret and they don’t even realise it. With cheap motels and dorm beds in Seoul impossible to find for less than 15,000 won ($15) per person, perhaps it’s worth embracing the naked masses in search of a better option.
Of course, it turns out that the nudity is well worth it. The bathhouses, or “jimjilbangs” as they are known in Korea, are public spas that include saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, cold tubs, a multitude of showering facilities and normally gym equipment and a restaurant too.
The only catch, as you may have guessed by now, is that the public bathing part of this equation involves you getting your kit off. There are no private facilities at all and full frontal is a continuous and unavoidable part of the experience.
So why would this be the accommodation option of choice?
The answer is, it’s not! Many westerners and even Koreans associate staying at the “Jimjilbang” as a shared sleeping experience. Although some spas only have this option, a few of them have some better choices… like Itaewon land in central Seoul:
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Although standards and prices vary across Seoul, we are focusing here on one specific spa: Iteawon land, right in the centre of Seoul. At this location we negotiated a private double room with a fan for 30,000 won (US$27) per night – discounted from 35,000 won.
It’s hard to find a clean double bed at all for that price in Seoul and we also get the full spa facilities included, 24 hours!
If you are a solo traveller they also have “capsule” style accommodation for 10,000won. This also includes a climate controlled room and a power point and privacy curtain in your capsule. You will be sharing the room with a lot of other people though. Private single rooms from about 20,000 won.
It’s not all about nudity
Nudity in the segregated bath areas is compulsory, however, at Itaewon Land, they sell special underwear for the ladies to protect their modesty… This is not something you would expect to see Korean women wearing, so we figured it is just because the spa is located in a popular tourist district.
For the guys it is definitely a “tackle out”situation.
Elsewhere in the spa you get to wear your provided “spa suit” (pictured left) and mix with members of the opposite sex – splendid!
Towels and soap are provided. The manager, Lee, speaks good English, the other reception staff speak enough to get by. There is even a washing machine on the 4th floor that you can use for free!
It’s less than 5 minutes walk to the subway and the spa is surrounded by pubs and bars: From cheaper side street cafes and traditional Korean food to mainstream brand restaurants and craft beer pubs.
You can also book this spa in advance on AirBnB profile, but for a slightly higher price.
Dispelling some myths and revealing others
Although the baths and dorm rooms are gender segregated, the upstairs saunas, private bedrooms and restaurants at Itaewon Land are not. These stipulations can vary at other spas, sometimes shared facilities are not available, so ask before you pay!
You don’t have to sleep on the floor in a big public room. Although some spas do not have dorms or private rooms, some do, so it is worth checking before choosing where to stay. Even with dorms, many Koreans choose to sleep on the floor, that is their choice.
A typical function for the jimjilbangs is for drunk Koreans to turn up late and sleep for cheap in the dorm or on the floor. Unlike western countries, acting like a dickhead when drunk is not tolerated. If you politely tell them to shut up they will likely do so without a fuss.
For some westerners, public nudity on this scale may be intimidating. Firstly… When in Rome! Secondly, nudity is so typical in Korean spas that if you just stroll in like everyone else and don’t act self conscious, it’s unlikely you will even be paid that much attention – unless you are hung like Goliath of course! This caused me some problems…
We didn’t take any photos inside the bathhouse because everyone was naked and we thought it would be a little inappropriate… More photos can be seen on the companies’ AirBnB profile, minus the nakedness.
Itaewon Land is not the most modern spa in Korea, by a long way… But it is acceptably hygienic, the price and location are hard to beat and as one of the older spas it is not as busy, so squeezing cheek to cheek into a jacuzzi (you know the cheeks I mean) is easily avoided.
Having dorms and private rooms is great, if only more jimjilbangs provided these! However, it is still budget accommodation so all of the usual things that arise at this price point are possible… Slightly shabby rooms, musty smell in some rooms etc. But all in all its a higher standard than your bargain basement “Love Motels” and many other budget accommodation across Asia that we have stayed in!
Note: Although this is the cheapest commercial accommodation we could find, there are a few double rooms on AirBnB that are cheaper – they are all homestays though. We love homestay but not everyone does.