Three Days in a Jjimjilbang in Seoul

After we returned the bicycles, we ate dinner at a ramen restaurant around the corner and then set off to find Siloam Bulgama Sauna Spa, one of Seoul’s jjimjilbangs. Now that we were experienced jjimjilbang users with two nights under our belt, we planned to spend the rest of our nights in South Korea at Siloam. A lot of jjimjilbangs discourage people from staying multiple nights in a row, but we had read that Siloam allowed it and was one of the nicer jjimjilbangs in Seoul anyway. 

We took the subway to Chungjeongno stop on the green line and walked to Siloam. At the entrance desk we paid ₩34,000 to use the baths and stay for the night and were given a pair of pajamas, towels, and a ticket. We agreed to meet 45 minutes later on the other side and went into our respective locker rooms. In the locker room, we put our shoes in a shoe locker. We gave the shoe locker key to a person behind a desk who put our shoe locker key and ticket on a numbered shelf corresponding to a new locker key. We used the new key to lock all of our belongings including our big backpacks in a big locker, took off our clothes, and went downstairs to the baths. It took Jess a few minutes of wandering around the locker room naked to figure out that the baths were downstairs. Siloam is huge, and even the locker room is a bit of a maze. 

The baths here were really nice. The Koreans take their beauty regimens seriously, and there were many women seated on small stools in front of the showers scrubbing themselves with soap. Once you were clean, there were three main baths: a salt bath, a mugwort bath and a jade bath all at varying temperatures ranging between 102 degrees F and 108 degrees F. There was a large cold pool and two saunas, and a couple of luke warm Jacuzzi tubs. It was easy to spend 45 minutes here. 

When we were finished in the baths, we got dressed in our Siloam pajamas and went upstairs to the second floor to meet up. Jess found Eric sitting in a waiting area with his feet buried in a box of warm stones. Siloam has five floors, so we started out by exploring the whole place. The second floor has the main restaurant and a large hall where they host events from time to time.

The hottest sauna at Siloam

The third floor has some meeting rooms, which turned out to be good for yoga, a karaoke room, a gym, and a computer room. The fourth floor has a cafe serving espresso drinks and quick food like smoothies and sandwiches, massage chairs, and lots of sauna rooms. There are two cool rooms: the charcoal room and the forest bathing room which are 72 degrees and 77 degrees respectively. There are many warm rooms ranging from 122-140 degrees F all with different kinds of stones: Jade, salt, loess, etc which all claim to have different health benefits. There is a cold room, which has ice on the ceiling, and a very hot room (187 degrees). There are charging lockers where you can put your cellphone to be charged safely while you enjoy the saunas. 

Enjoying the cold room

It is very popular to drink sikhye (식혜), a fermented rice drink in the jjimjilbang, so we got one each and enjoyed it in between the saunas. Around 10:30pm, we went up to the 5th floor to find a place to sleep. 

On the 5th floor there are sleeping pods which look like small bunked compartments that you climb inside. Each night they are set up with a mat, a brick pillow, and a large towel. The towel is so large it can be used as a sheet underneath and on top of someone Jess’s size. There are separate men’s and women’s rooms of pods for as well as a communal area. Here we opted for two pods across the aisle from each other in the communal area. Even though there is an official sleeping floor, you can pretty much sleep anywhere you want, so some people choose the spots on the fourth floor near the saunas where the floor is warm. Others sleep outside the rows of sleeping compartments. 

A view into Eric’s sleeping pod

The next morning we got up and got coffee at the cafe. When Jess got the change back she was suddenly certain she was missing ₩50,000. She remembered counting the cash we had left at the ramen restaurant the night before since we needed to use it up over the next few days. At that point, she was pretty sure she had counted ₩178,000 and now she was down to ₩68,000 but there was no way we had spent ₩110,000 since dinner the night before. The more she thought about it, the more she was sure ₩50,000 had disappeared, and she started to convince herself she must have handed over a ₩50,000 note instead of a ₩5,000 note when she had paid for the sauna the night before. She couldn’t remember receiving the ₩1,000 change she should have received which made her all the more sure this was what happened. Always one to love solving mysteries, she insisted on asking at the front desk if it was possible she had overpaid the night before. Doing this through Google Translate was a challenging feat, but she did manage to get them to review the security camera footage. For some reason, they took Eric up to the security room to review it and left Jess waiting in the entrance lobby in her pajamas and bare feet. Unfortunately, the camera footage was not conclusive. The woman we had paid the night before came on shift at 1pm, and we were told to come back then to talk to her. Conveniently, we wanted to stay another night and needed to come back at 1pm to pay for a second night anyway.

We enjoyed a few extra minutes in the baths and saunas and then got dressed for the day. At 1pm, we stood in line to pay again, and when we got to the counter, the woman was very gruff. She seemed to be in a bad mood, and we decided not to try to start all over again with the ₩50,000 question. We paid for a second night, put our fresh pajamas and towels in our lockers, and then went out for the day.

Siloam was conveniently located just over a mile from some of the main tourist attractions in Seoul. We ventured out together on the first day.

Deoksugung Palace

Deoksugung PalaceEntrance fee:1,000 ($0.85) per person. The palace dates to the mid-13th century when it belonged to Grand Prince Wolson, King Seongjong’s older brother. It officially became a palace with the ascendance of Gwanghaegun to the throne a hundred years later. In the early 1900s, two Western-style buildings were built on the palace grounds (one pictured above). Shortly after we entered the palace, a changing of the guard ceremony began. It started with a procession through the palace grounds, which we followed, and led outside to the main square in front of the palace. The changing of the guard ceremony was very elaborate, and Eric was pretty sure it was too theatrical to be a realistic representation of the way the guards actually changed places.

Changing of the guard at Deoksugung Palace

Arirang FestivalFree. Coincidentally, the three-day cultural Arirang Festival was happening in Seoul while we were there and we stumbled upon the festivities in Gwanghwamun Square.

Arirang Festival parade

Random art displaysFree. This square was filled with these huge helium balloons. The tallest ones were bigger than Eric and they were really fun to play with.

Eric with massive balloon art installation

Gyeongbokgung PalaceEntrance fee: ₩3,000 ($2.53 per person). This is the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. It was originally built in 1395 and then destroyed by the Japanese in the 1500s and again in the early 20th Century after being reconstructed in 1867. The palace grounds are large and have lots of beautiful buildings with elaborate painted floral designs in bright colors.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

While we were walking around, Jess was trying to solve the mystery of the missing ₩50,000. She had tried to come at it from every angle – trying to remember what bills she had had, trying to calculate what bills she must have had given what she was left with, etc. By the end of the day, she was convinced the ₩50,000 could never have existed – as convinced of this as she had been only hours earlier that it had existed and was missing. It was a strange and confusing sequence of mental hurdles to have jumped over, but now it was done.

Eric was tired of sightseeing by the second day and opted to stay in the jjimjilbang all day; he would be inside for a straight 36 hours! In the morning, he had his first job interview by phone. He was in his Siloam pajamas sitting on the floor in one of the meeting rooms talking his way through a programming problem when the Siloam cleaning staff came in with the vacuum. He found a new spot in the computer room only to be chased away again by the vacuum! It was definitely one of the most unusual job interview experiences he has ever had. He spent the rest of the day programming, bathing, drinking coffee, chatting with a woman and her son from Boston, and eating. Jess liked the jjimjilbang well enough, but was perfectly happy to wander around outside in the sunshine for the afternoon.

Bukchon Hanok VillageFree. Jess wandered around this preserved Korean traditional village from 600 years ago admiring the beautiful buildings. The area was flooded with people, many in traditional Hanbok outfits.

Jogyesa Temple Chrysanthemum FestivalFree. This beautiful temple became the central temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in 1936. The Chrysanthemum Festival runs for roughly a month, and Jess just happened to catch the start of it. The temple grounds were filled with beautiful chrysanthemum displays in the shapes of animals and people. Even the Buddha statues were clothed in chrysanthemums!

Chrysanthemum Festival at Jogyesa Temple

Namdaemun MarketFree. The largest traditional market in Korea. In the morning, the area was filled with vendors selling clothing and trinkets. In the evening there were food stands everywhere. Jess got a delicious dumpling snack and then had to carry her cardboard tray full of soy sauce through the crowded market trying not to spill on anyone because somehow in this super clean country, there are no trash cans!

After her excursion, Jess returned around 8pm when the night rate at the jjimjilbang begins, spent some time relaxing in the baths, and then met Eric for dinner at the restaurant. While they were sitting there enjoying the meal, Jess noticed a very strange sight. A naked man had just walked up to the second floor! He must have gotten turned around in the locker room, and was just standing there without realizing everyone else was wearing clothes. When he suddenly realized he had made a mistake, he tried to cover himself with the tiny jjimjilbang towel and find somewhere to hide. Awkwardly, the nearest room to hide in was the children’s play area!! (Thankfully there were no children there at the time.) He got himself together and scurried back down the stairs with his tiny towel as loin cloth and the moment was over, leaving Jess and Eric giggling to themselves while they finished dinner.

We found the same cubbies open on the fifth floor for the third night in a row and curled up with our towels and pillow bricks for a final jjimjilbang night of sleep. Of 22 nights in South Korea, we had spent five of them sleeping on the floor in a public bath house and loved it! In the morning, we got our final coffees and said goodbye to Siloam to make our way to Incheon for our flight to Japan.

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