Jjimjilbang: Sanctuaries of winter warmth in South Korea
SEOUL —The freezing temperatures may make some want to climb into bed and snuggle deep under the covers, but for Koreans it is time to lay their backs on heated floors.
The ideal place is a jjimjilbang, a Korean-style sauna that incorporates two traditional heating systems. The “ondol” — heated floors — and “gama” — heated kilns akin to typical sauna rooms — offer comfort in the cold weather.
The origin of jjimjilbang can be traced back to the Joseon era. The first mention of a jjimjilbang is found in the Annals of King Sejong. It recorded that during the 15th century, doctors were selected and sent to hanjeungso, similar to today’s jjimjilbang, as well as a private medical clinic. The room was heated by fire and water was sprinkled on the floor for added humidity.
Modern jjimjilbang are in city neighborhoods, and are generally accessible and affordable. They are usually coupled with public baths, common rest areas with heated floors and multiple heated kilns. Some fancier establishments include outdoor swimming pools, nail salons, movie theaters and entertainment areas.
It is hardly surprising that most Koreans have been to a jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbang provide space where people of all ages can hang out together, have a healthy sweat and unwind at a relaxing pace.
“We wanted to provide a healing place using the traditional Korean heating system,” said Choi Hyoung-jun, marketing director of Dragon Hill Spa located in Yongsan, central Seoul. Dragon Hill Spa attracts more than 4,000 people a day on weekends in the winter. “It’s a great place to experience our traditional ways to stay warm in winter by oneself or with a group of people.”
Visitors, taking off their shoes at the entrance, are instantly greeted by a warm floor with the temperature set at 36.5 degrees Celsius.
Changing in to cotton pajamas, customers can experience several sauna rooms or visit common rooms where they can gather to watch TV, sit on massage chairs and hang out.
People are often seen chatting over kiln-cooked eggs and Korean rice drink “sikhye” – iconic jjimjilbang refreshments.
“Our children don’t eat snacks that are healthy when we are at home, but when we come to ‘jjimjilbang,’ they enjoy lying down on the warm floor eating eggs and traditional drinks instead of chips and soda,” said Shin Sung-won from Seoul. “It’s great to get children to hang around healthy in the winter by sweating out some toxins in the gama and enjoying healthy food.”
Mostly sitting around on the floor, groups of people ranging from kids to the elderly gather and chat.
Besides enjoying the warmth of the floor, visitors who want extra heat can enter sauna rooms with temperatures typically set at 50 degrees Celsius or higher. Sweating on the heated stone is usually followed by a cold cup of sikhye.
“It feels as if all my stress evaporates in the heat when I stay in a gama, especially those over 50 C,” said Kim Jae-wook, a 20-year old student living in Seoul. “When I feel sluggish, I come to jjimjilbang with my friends to sweat out toxins and feel warm. Even if it is snowing outside, it’s always warm here.”
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