Throughout much of the 20th century, Korea was an impoverished country, and only wealthy families had their own bathing facilities. So, the majority of households relied on communal bathhouses for their weekly soap-up. The practice became a ritual: Men looked after their sons on one side of the bathhouse; women cared for their daughters on the other. Everyone roamed naked (and without self-consciousness), basic white towel in hand. Parents and elders took this opportunity to scrub themselves and their charges clean—thus the rigorous Korean scrub-down was born (see Rigorous Ritual, page 94 of June Issue).
To this day, the jimjilbang, or “heated bath,” remains at the center of Korean social life. In Seoul, some modern spas are 10 stories tall, with each floor devoted to a different activity: soaking in hot and cold baths or whirlpools; lying on towels spread out on heated marble, tile or wood floors in 105-degree rooms; watching big-screen TVs in a boisterous relaxation area; and supping on bulgogi (barbecured meat) and kimchee (spiced, fermented vegetables) in the spa’s house restaurant.
“People come to a Korean spa to rest, socialize and re-energize,” says Niki Han Schwartz, owner of Tikkun Holistic Spa in Santa Monica, California. “They come seeking a haven, a place to heal and enjoy themselves.”
In Los Angeles’s Koreatown, one of the world’s largest concentrations of Koreans outside Asia, spas have sprung up on practically every corner, and a mammoth 100,000-square-foot spa is reputedly in the works.
“It’s a lifestyle for Koreans and most of them have a membership so they can go four or five times a week,” says Schwartz. “They don’t go there for treatments; they go to squat by the pools and scrub themselves. It’s also a place to meet with friends. Some women will spend eight hours a day there, gathering with friends and having a meal.”
Unlike Americans who might only draw a scented bath or seek out a Jacuzzi on vacations or special occasions, tub-soaking remains a weekly ritual for Koreans. In a Korean traditional spa, expect to find community tubs—that’s right, everyone of one gender naked in one big tub—at temperatures that range from hotter-than-hot to Arctic cold. Hot tubs gradually increase in temperature to allow the body to acclimate to the heat and ultimately relax the muscles, induce sweat and dilate the pores, which allows toxins to drain. This is generally followed by a plunge into the cold pool to jolt the body’s circulation and close the pores, thereby sealing in the minerals and nutrients absorbed from the hot bath.