Some Like It Very Hot: Relaxing in Korean Bathhouses

In South Korea, taking photographs of designated monuments after being ushered on and off tour buses all day could eventually become tedious for tourists. Shopping also might not have much merit when you are in expensive cities like Seoul, where the cost of living is the second highest in the world.

But for the more fearless budget traveler who dares to bathe naked with locals, one can spend a whole day relaxing, entertaining and mingling, for $10, at a "jjim-jil-bang," or Korean bathhouse.

They're not just a sauna and spa. These bathhouses are more like a mega-entertainment complex with fitness centers, swimming pools, barbecue gardens, cinema halls, indoor virtual-golf screens, Internet rooms and karaoke centers -- and that's only the basics.

But the real attraction is the variety of exotic sauna rooms solely designed to make you sweat. Igloo-shaped rooms heated with pine wood or charcoal kilns, pyramid rooms covered with natural jade, hinoki forest meditation rooms and rock-salt rooms offer promises of specific remedies such as improved blood circulation, stronger digestive systems or stronger "inner energy."

One of the biggest spas is the Dragon Hill Spa & Sports Korea Inc. Arriving guests are given uniform T-shirts and shorts upon check-in. The six-story building is often full to its 4,000-customer capacity during the weekends; it's a favorite for both the young and old.

During a recent visit, a group of middle-age women walked into a cavelike structure with a small, low entrance and sat covered with a jute blanket similar to potato sacks. The blanket protected them against the intense heat created by a hardwood charcoal kiln that can reach a mind-boggling 266 degrees.

After an hourlong gossip with sweat dripping down from their faces and bodies, one woman suggested moving to the next room, saying she'd heard it was good for detoxification.

So they headed into the "crystal salt room," where you can lie on your back on a floor covered with almost pebble-size rock salt. The edgy surface may be uncomfortable but the 100 percent pure salt, which is extracted after being subjected to 42 days of intense 1,800-degree heat, is supposed to penetrate your body, eventually purifying troubled skin and even, some say, preventing osteoporosis.

Korean Hot Saunas

Next came the "bijou room," which has a pyramid-shaped exterior and is covered inside with natural jade from the floor to the ceiling.

"It's like you're walking into an oven, but once you sit through it I can feel my muscles loosening," said Anna Dunn, 50, a British expat, who came with her friends on the recommendation of one of her husband's colleagues.

After this, it was on to the "yellow soil fire sweating sauna" complete with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. It certainly lives up to its name; you feel like you're sweating fire -- it is that hot.

To chill out after the intense heat, some lounge in the huge communal hall watching soap operas on the wall-mounted flat-screen TV's here and there.

For others, there is the alternative extreme, with the "stone ice warehouse" offering benches filled with frosted pipes and decorated with fake icicles and an ice-covered snowman.

Napping is another option in various themed rooms like the "lavender aroma sleeping room," where men and women sleep in rows on heated floors as floral scents are squirted every few minutes. Some couples huddle together and some can even be heard snoring.

Inside the "Hinoki meditation forest room," built with imported Japanese hinoki cypress known for its rich lemon scent, parents try to calm their hyperactive kids and coax them into meditation.

For Kim Min-Su, 39, and his pregnant wife, the place is a safe haven to spend a whole day with their three children.

"Korean homes are too small. Most of us live in apartments, so kids don't get a chance to run around," said Kim, while hushing the disgruntled kids "Plus, these days, there's so much crime against juveniles and I'm always worried because there are so many car accidents in this city. When we are here, we can just let them go."

The family-oriented concept of the Korean bathhouse features a Jamboree-style kids room with Nintendo rentals available for $1.50 an hour. Teenagers hang out at PC rooms with high-speed Internet access or try out the latest billboard songs in karaoke rooms. Young men and women strut about at the outdoor heated swimming pool.

Free magic shows are performed twice a day, and for ones looking for privacy in the dark, they can walk into a free cinema for the latest movies that they can watch lying down on the heated floor.

Bathhouses Offer Affordable Facials

Women can take special traditional beauty sessions in rooms like the "threading room," where a lady using two forefingers removes barely visible facial hair with a thread.

"It makes me look younger and I can see a difference when I put my makeup on after this," said Hong Eun-Ja, 62, who comes once a month.

With the cheap price and around-the-clock business hours, "jjim-jil-bang" is also a good, cheap dating spot for couples.

"This place feels like home and we don't have to drive around one dating place to another, just to be together," said Yang Doo-Hwan, 27, lying on his stomach reading an adult comic book with his girlfriend. "It's one-stop service for everything."

Next to the couple, giggling girls put facial masks on each other while they lie on the floor in the middle of the communal room.

For foreigners, the whole concept of the bathhouses, most of which have several restaurants and snack bars, might appear odd at first glance.

"People just lie down, lie about in public. We don't do that in Europe," said Sally Robinson, 46, who came for the first time with her friends. "The most amazing thing is the range of ages here, from grandmothers to babies, all enjoying the same place. It's actually nice that whole families can just hang out together all day."

The real cultural shock, though, could be the gender-segregated wet spa area.

"It takes a few trips here to get used to walking around naked," said Linda Leadbitter, 50, of Great Britain. "And you never see your own grandmother naked in my country."

Roaming stripped in the women's only spa is natural to Koreans and scrubbing backs for each other is common.

"We grew up going to public baths like this twice a month, " said Yang In-Soon, 57, who poured a bucket of water onto her 82-year-old mother sitting on a low plastic chair in front of rows of open shower booths. "You bond with your mother, your daughter and your friends by sharing the trip."

She continued scrubbing her mother's buttocks with the traditional green exfoliating mitt.

Budget Scrubs and Massage

For a more thorough beauty scrub, the popular way is to ask a professional scrubber.

For foreigners, it could be a daunting experience as you lie completely naked on a table covered with plastic vinyl. Then the "ajummas" -- a Korean term for middle-age women -- in black bras and underwear scrub you from head to toe, at times tossing you around like meat on a butcher's table.

"It is every single inch of your body, scrubbing with something that looks like a Brillo pad," Leadbitter said. "I clung to the table thinking I'm at a slaughterhouse. And then I opened my eyes, I see the bed covered in black dead skin. I've never seen anything like it."

Her friend Rica Abbott, 45, nodded in empathy and added, "But you come out feeling blessed and a whole lot younger."

The scrub is $2, including head massage and shampoo. For an extra fee, the ajummas, in their distinctively rough style, offer an oil massage to tone and moisturize the skin.