Sweating It Out in Korea

A first-person account of the rituals Koreans go through to detox, rejuvenate, scrub down—all while socializing.

The public bathhouse has always been an integral part of Korean culture. The jjimjilbang ("steam room," loosely translated), as it is called, is a place to catch up on gossip as you soak, sweat, exfoliate, and purify. When you first step into the men’s or women’s locker room, it could seem a bit odd, with all those bodies sauntering around naked, no inhibitions. Enter the sauna and there are some people relaxing in whirlpools with temperatures from frigid to scalding; others are showering while sitting on tiny plastic stools, washing one another’s backs. Many are sweating profusely in one of the grottolike steam rooms. And then there are those lying on the padded plastic beds, shedding a layer of skin—you can literally see clumps of epidermis—via the traditional body exfoliation treatment done by a professional…scrubber.

In Korea I started going when I was eight, and I loved it. I usually tagged along with my mother, aunt, and cousin Jieun. She and I would play Water Angels in one of the ice-cold tubs, having a blast in what we imagined as our own water park, while our mothers urged us to sit still and get clean.

In recent years the jjimjilbang has become a spot to do all of the above and also, well, just hang out—with many entertainment options on hand. In addition to the segregated wet saunas, the typical jjimjilbang has coed areas (you wear the provided uniform: a loose T-shirt and shorts, usually salmon-colored) where you and friends or family can relax and sweat out toxins in your choice of steam room. You can also get massages and facials, watch TV and DVDs, do yoga, play video games, read, surf the Web, eat, do karaoke, and even sleep—all for an admissions fee of about $7. (There are separate rooms for these activities; I’ve even heard of places with a special sleeping space for snorers only.) jjimjilbangs, most of which are open 24 hours, have basically transformed into full-out community centers. In fact, they are quite popular date venues as well.

Why, you might ask, would anyone want to hang out here with strangers when you could do the same things in the privacy of your home? Well, jjimjilbangs certainly wouldn’t be so sought after by this health-obsessed nation if there wasn’t some well-being aspect to them. The steam rooms—ranging from the bul han jeung mak (fire kiln) to hwangto ssoot (yellow loess soil) to ssook (mugwort)—are all meant to detoxify the body and aid with, say, metabolism, fatigue, body aches, antiaging, stress, circulation, and fertility. The most commonly seen bul han jeung mak is heated with burning pine or oak wood, with temperatures usually around 800 degrees. You’re given a burlap sack to sit on and you may notice a bowl of eggs in a corner, left to boil in the heat (which you can then eat). Jade, ceramic, charcoal, yellow loess soil, and amethyst are often used to build the structures as these substances are believed to possess health benefits. The water in the different whirlpools of the segregated facilities is infused with unique ingredients as well: green tea to enhance skin, Korean rice wine for stamina, traditional herbs such as ginseng for overall health, sulfur to help heart conditions.

The Korean body scrub, which some locals get every two weeks, is nearly life changing. You lie on a plastic bed while the professional scrubber uses a somewhat abrasive mitten to slough off dull and dead skin after you’ve softened it by soaking or steaming. The process isn’t exactly pleasant. You’re tossed and turned and put in various positions so every inch of skin can be reached. After a few minutes you’ll start to notice small rolled gray clumps everywhere. That would be your skin. The candor of the scrubber—whom you’d call an ahjooma, the generic Korean term for any middle-aged or older woman; in the men’s section you’d have a male, or ahjushi—is part of the experience.

On my last visit the ahjooma gasped and asked loudly, "When’s the last time you got this grime taken off?" Mortified, I tried to explain that I live in the States so I try to wait until my annual trips to Korea. She shook her head, muttering that my session would take a while (these treatments aren’t by the hour; they last until there’s no more "grime" to come off). Mortification and all, the refreshed feeling at the end is almost indescribable, after those dead cells, mixed with sweat, pollution, and who knows what else, are stripped off. The skin is baby-soft and, when wet, it actually squeaks with cleanliness. Plus you feel several pounds lighter. And the whole thing only costs about $15—here it’s around $100.

For the uninhibited, King Sauna in Palisades Park, New Jersey, about an hour from Manhattan, offers the full Korean spa experience (admission, $35; scrub, $45; kingsaunausa.com). New York’s Aura Wellness does the body scrub in a private setting ($90–$110; spaaura.com).

Homegrown Skincare

The Korea-based AmorePacific, which opened its U.S. flagship spa and store in SoHo in 2003, creates high-end skincare products with green tea as a key component. Not surprising, since AmorePacific is the only skincare company that produces its own green tea, on Jeju Island off the coast of Korea, and has a research center dedicated to studying the plant. (It even has its own cafés, O’Sulluc, in Seoul, which serves green tea drinks and desserts.)

Last September the company debuted the antiaging Time Response Pure Essence 100 Skin Renewal Serum ($500; neimanmarcus.com), with 100 healing botanicals for ultimate skin rejuvenation. It uses eight elements of the green tea plant—from flower oil to EGCG—which is handpicked during specific times of the harvest to ensure the best quality. To feel the line’s amazing effects, book the Halla Green Tea Xperience treatment at the SoHo spa ($250; 212-966-0400; amorepacific.com).