I embraced the chaos at a 24-hour Korean spa

woo reviews: get past the awkwardness of being butt naked at a traditional Jjimjilbang and you’ll leave a renewed person

Woman at spa surrounded by fruits
Woman at spa surrounded by fruits

woo reviews: get past the awkwardness of being butt naked at a traditional Jjimjilbang and you’ll leave a renewed person

By Darshita Goyal14 Mar 2024
6 mins read time
6 mins read time

If you open my Google Maps, you’ll find pinned lists for every place I’ve been to as an adult: the foggy hill station in Southern India, the peppered islands in Vietnam, even “spontaneous” day trips from London. I like knowing where to go, what to eat, how to dress; I like being in control, especially when I’m away from home. So when Intrepid Travel, the global small group adventure travel company, invited me on a week-long press trip to South Korea, it was exciting (and unnerving) to have someone else – an expert (!) – plan a holiday for me.

You know what? I can go in blind, I told myself I promised not to scour the internet for niche cafes, vintage stores or where to get a colour analysis. So on day three, when we arrived in Jeonju, popular for its traditional Hanok Heritage Village, I was happily surprised by the quaint Korean houses, bibimbap markets and craft shops, quietly frozen in time while the rest of the city buzzed with 40-storey buildings and sparkly bridges.

I almost stopped to pat myself on the back. New motto: let life surprise you more. Along our walk through Jeonju city, Intrepid’s local tour guide Yong (a hilarious, earnest genius imo) pointed out a Jjimjilbang, a 24-hour Korean spa and bathing house, calling it a “unique, must-try experience.” So of course, I signed right up: if Dora the Explorer got a zen makeover she’d be me.

A woman in Korea making kimchi

After an early evening kimchi class, a couple of excited journos and I pulled up an Uber to Jeonju Hanok Spa. From the outside, it was giving corporate hotel, not a serene bathing house. The towering building had patchy posters of massage therapies plastered at its front – the only English in the signboard was 24H and 100%.. so we let our imaginations fill in the blanks.

To make matters more dubious, a TripAdvisor review said the spa was a “good place for budget backpackers”. Every rational thought in my brain was telling me to leave but before I could think about it too much (read: chicken out), we were at the front desk asking to book in hot baths and scrubs. The receptionist handed over locker slips, asked us to remove our footwear and go up to the eighth floor, segregated for people who identify as women. No idea what all the other floors were for.

The entrance at a Korean spa and bathing house

If you’re wondering what a Jjimjilbang is, stay with me. I could give you a straightforward explainer or…you could be slapped with pleasant shockers the way I was, spontaneity, life-on-edge and what not. When we arrived at the women’s floor, the waiting area was all colour and chaos, rather than the zen, muted beige haven I’d imagined. Clothing on hangers, snack trays with an assortment of jelly, candy and crisps, travel size toiletries for sale, hair brushes, hair dryers, even rollers were stacked on a counter.

The ladies manning it seemed marginally unhappy to have tourists in their sacred space. When we whipped out our translation app, you could see them rolling their eyes. Either way, with furious actions and basic muttering they managed to tell (yell at) us to get butt naked, put our clothes in a locker and enter the showers. No knickers, they insisted. That’s when it hit me, I’m going to be stripped down and tits out in a communal hot bath with a room full of strangers. But it was too late to back out, the cash was paid and the women waiting were impatient.

I grabbed a towel, only to realise it was tiny. When placed strategically it could maybe cover my nips and stomach. It felt stupid to be embarrassed about being naked in a room full of naked people. Through the trip, we’d noticed how South Korean culture could be conservative: in an ad for bras, the model – fully clothed – held the padded sports bra in her hands instead of wearing it.

But suddenly, I was in a different space. These women were nonchalant in their nudity, chatting about their day, their nails, what they had for lunch, all with their bums out – the guts of it all! Anyway, when I finally stepped into the bathing hall, the woman at the counter made sure I took a shower with soap and shampoo (she watched!) at one of the many open cubicles. Others around me sat on plastic stools, scrubbing their toes and armpits.

Once she was convinced I was clean, I was allowed into the heated pool. Every 20 seconds, I forced myself to stand up just a little, revealing a tiny bit of my naked body above the scorching hot water. Soon enough, I was pulled to the opposite section for my highly anticipated body scrub. Feeling a bit rogue, I let my towel – and guard – down and walked naked to the ahjumma (aunty) waiting by the plastic tables.

She made me lie down on my back, wrapped an exfoliating towel around her hands and began scrubbing every single inch of my body. With each scratch-scratch sound, I saw dead skin cells roll out like eraser dirt off me. Then the ahjumma filled a giant mug of hot water and threw it on the freshly rubbed spot before moving on to another crevice. Rinse and repeat.

The women were fascinated, maybe annoyed, by my tattoos (they’re illegal in Korea) but unlike fancy spas they didn’t pause at my stomach rolls, pigmentation or prickly body hair.

Lying there for 20 minutes, I reconsidered everything we learnt about spas in the Western world. There were no lavender oils, little tea cups of chamomile, mood lighting, soft touches or mellow music. It was dark and dingy, with the only sound being the furious splish-splash of the water, and it smelled like children’s soap. The masseuse wasn’t gentle, either, her palms were firm and arms built well enough to throw winning hands in a boxing ring.

But something about the sheer authenticity of it all made me feel relaxed and safe. It didn’t feel like the solitary or overly expensive endeavour that sometimes regular spas do. Knowing that there were others around me, just as naked and unbothered, waiting for their turn to be scrubbed down, felt comforting. The women were fascinated, maybe annoyed, by my tattoos (they’re illegal in Korea) but unlike fancy spas they didn’t pause at my stomach rolls, pigmentation or prickly body hair.

After the scrub, the ahjumma oiled my entire body (divine!) and asked me to take yet another shower. I got dressed up by the lockers, where you can rent a blow dryer and lotion from the counter, and walked out feeling good as new. My skin was as soft as a baby’s and as I touch it now – back to the dust and grime of the London tube – I swear there’s a remnant of that plushness somewhere.

A tiny part of me wants to find a traditional Jjimjilbang in the UK. Does it feel as liberating, rejuvenating and reassuring here? The rest of me wants to savour the memory of my special, spontaneous (for real) first time and leave it at that. The jury’s still out…

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