The last time I returned to Toronto, I had the chance to visit my first Korean sauna, Seoul Zimzilbang, with a friend of mine. Unfortunately photos weren’t allowed inside the sauna – for obvious reasons – but I thought I should share my experience, and offer some more information to those of you that, like me, don’t know much about this Korean pastime.
Keeping up appearances is extremely important in Korean culture, hence why its beauty industry continues to expand and thrive. You may already be familiar with Korean skincare, makeup and pampering products, but the Korean sauna experience offers a more intimate look at Korean society. It’s a popular way for Koreans to de-stress, as well as maintain that picture-perfect complexion. According to Jodi Kantor of The New York Times, who in 2014 wrote a piece titled A Look at Korea’s Culture From the Bathhouse, zimzilbang’s also shed light on another, more honest aspect of Korean culture. “The facilities are generally clean but rarely posh,” she claims, “and often filled with passed-out bodies — living, snoring symbols of a country so overworked that it switched from a six- to a five-day workweek only a decade ago.”
The most famous spa in Seoul is called Dragon Hill Spa, which offers 7 floors of luxurious comfort and relaxation, as well as a movie theatre/PC room in the basement. Pictured above is the “lobby” or main room, a co-ed space for visitors to purchase snacks and just generally zen-out. From saunas, to outdoor baths, to massage rooms, swimming pools and a fitness club, Dragon Hill provides every possible comfort to those who seek a “healthy lifestyle”. Upon entry you can stay for up to 12 hours. Most facilities also offer heavy massages and rigorous body scrubs for ultimate skin rejuvenation.
Seoul Zimzilbang in Toronto is open 24 hours, seven days a week. It offers seven different mineral sauna rooms, with temperatures ranging from about 40°C to 100°C. My advice to you would be to work your way up to the hottest room very gradually – moving at all in 100°C feels like your skin is about to melt off. My friend and I started sweating in two seconds, both regretting the “we have to last at least five minutes” deal we’d made before entering. Meanwhile, an elderly Korean man was lying on the floor in there with a mat, apparently unfazed by the heat and watching a Korean reality show on his phone while sweating his butt off. He’d been in there for at least fifteen minutes. I wanted to applaud. We also spent a good ten minutes ourselves trying to figure out how to do that Princess Leia-inspired head towel look that everyone seemed to have (see below).
They also sell traditional Korean food, from sikhye to – no joke – probably the most authentic red bean 팥빙수 (patbingsu) I’ve ever had. At this particular sauna, you get a numbered wristband at the entrance, which you use to both unlock your locker and pay for any food/services you purchase during your stay. They charge it all to your number when you leave. Like a traditional Korean zimzilbang, they also provide “sweat clothes” for you to wear inside the facilities, so no, you aren’t allowed to just sit around naked/in towels.
I’d recommend the experience to anyone who wants a taste of traditional Korean culture, or just needs a bit of R&R. The heated, calming atmosphere is relaxing, without a doubt. I can’t wait to visit Korea and try an authentic sauna overseas. Have you ever been to one? I’d love to hear about it! Feel free to share your experience in the comments.