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Bathhouse Basics (7): The Naeng Tang (Cold Pool 냉탕)

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Basics by 노강호 on August 30, 2010

The naeng tang (냉탕)

If there is one pool, usually the biggest, you are guaranteed to find at every bathhouse (목욕탕), it is the naeng tang (cold pool – 냉탕). Naeng tang are also often the deepest pool in bathhouses, usually  as deep as an average adult’s waist and with the pool length, long enough to be able to swim in.

The cold pool (냉탕)


In summer, they are wonderfully refreshing and for many bathhouse goers, moving between a hot sauna or hot pool to the cold pool is a great sensation. Lounging in the cold pool on a hot summer’s day, before you exit the bathhouse complex to ‘powder’ and dress, will help delay the inevitable onset of sweating.

The temperature of naeng tang pools tend to vary between establishments though this is probably more noticeable in summer. Many bathhouse pools and sauna display their associated temperatures but this is not so common with naeng tang. Throughout the hot summer the cold pools are busy and their size and depth means they are often the playground of boys and even university students.


My favourite pool

In mid-winter however, the fact they are freezing means getting into one can require Spartan constitution;   they are cold enough to knock the breath out of your lungs. Often the pool has a large shower which can be turned on by an adjacent button and which is powerful enough to massage your back and shoulders. Its force takes a little getting used to.

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© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouse Basics 6: The Wooden Pillow (mok-ch'im – 목침)

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Basics by 노강호 on August 4, 2010

Rest your weary head on a wooden pillow (목침)

The wooden head rest (pillow) is a common site in bathhouses and jjimjilbang. Obviously, a cotton pillow in a sauna would be a little grotty as laying your head on the sweat of the previous user isn’t very appealing. Hence the mok-ch’im (목침). Though they look quite uncomfortable, it is surprising how quickly you can adapt to them and for a little snooze they are perfect.

Bathhouse and jjimjilbang head rests are usually standard blocks made out of a hardwood and very often made from hinoki cypress, however, they do come in a range of other designs and can cost over 40.000 Won. More expensive mok-ch’im can be made to measure.

Various wooden pillow (order link)


'Tailor made' mok ch'im.

The antithesis of my memory foam pillow

Okay, they may not be everyone’s idea of a comfortable, but many years ago I learnt to sleep on the floor – without a mattress. When you body has learnt to sleep in positions which distribute your weight evenly across your body, which takes a few months, and which can be transited between subconsciously, sleeping on the floor is amazingly comfortable, far more so than a bed! Maybe the wooden pillow just needs perseverance!



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© Nick Elwood 2010. This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouse Basics 5. A 'Handbag' or 'Shopping Basket?'

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Basics by 노강호 on July 14, 2010

Bathhouse floors are always slippery and a danger to move over quickly unless you’re under 10 years of age and impervious to falling over on hard surfaces. Hence, besides being naked, you’re compelled to walk in a manner looking like you’ve just been buggered; don’t worry, having been forced into wearing open back sandals, bath slippers and flip-flops for most of their lives, the geisha gait, that nancy little shuffle of a walk, is how many Korean men and boys walk both in and out of the bathhouse.

A typical bathhouse bag

To increase your incredulity even more, why not adorn yourself with a bathhouse ‘handbag’ or a bathhouse ‘shopping basket.’ Both are used to hold you shampoo, hair conditioner and shaving kit etc, and are ideal tan ideal accoutrement to take into the bathhouse complex with you.

The bathhouse ‘handbag,’ which is waterproof, comes in various designs and colours, mine is pink and has never raised an eyebrow. The ‘handbag’ can be carried openly, adorning your mincy walk, or carried  discreetly in a larger sports bag. In the monsoon season and summer months the bag can sometimes get moldy so it is necessary to dry it out occasionally and a regular session in the washing machine will give it an additional clean.

A camper version

"Hello Sailor!"

The bathhouse 'basket'

The bathhouse ‘shopping basket’ seems to be more popular among women and is  frequently seen being carried to or from the bathhouse. I can’t recall seeing a man carrying one. Likewise, they are not all that common in the male bathhouse but being open, they are easily aired and if you own a separate small locker in a bathhouse, they will easily fit inside.

I keep deodorant, pumice stone, shampoo, mouthwash, toothbrush, shaving gel and razor in mine and as I hire a small locker in my jjimjilbang-bathhouse, (3000 won a month), I leave this permanently on the premises. Though I’ve rarely seen men using ‘baskets,’ most either having ‘handbags’ or simply carry items individually, no one has paid it any attention. I use a deodorizer in my locker during summer just to remove any damp odours. If I visit another bathhouse I use my pink ‘handbag.’

If you feel self-conscious during the ‘walk-of-shame,’ that is the transition from where you undress to the bathhouse complex,  both ‘baskets’ and ‘handbags’ are ideal to faff about in which helps take your mind off the fact you’re naked and the center of attention.

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© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouse Basics 4. The Bucket Seat

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Basics by 노강호 on June 10, 2010

I have seen only a handful of westerners in bathhouses though if I were in downtown Seoul I’d probably see more but one thing I have yet to see is a waygukin sitting on a bucket seat!

A Bathhouse 'bucket' seat.

In orange

These are simple plastic seats the size of a bucket and on which you sit at the sit down shower units. Bathhouses always have stand up shower units and rows of sit down facilities. Initially, I avoided sitting as I felt the squat position required undignified but you quickly adjust. Koreans often spray the shower over the top of them before sitting and often, once they have finished using them. Some Koreans also sit on the floor especially when cleaning their feet.

Bathhouse sit down shower units

Sitting on the floor is also common

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Bathhouse Basics 3: The Italy Towel

The Italy Towel. (이타리 타월)

Other than water, the Italy towel is probably the most universal item in a bathhouse and in some quarters, “Korea Design Heritage 2008,” has been ranked as number 5 among items over the last 50 years, which have defined Korea.  Apparently, Gil Pil-gon who ran a textile factory in Pusan, discovered the cloths’ ex-foliating properties in a piece of  fabric imported from Italy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Defining icons, food delivery boxes, Nong-Shin ramyon and the Italy Towel.

Though available in a range of colours, the predominant colour is ‘silver,’ which is actually the green one.  In addition, they all seem to be made by the same company, BC Choi and hence, the towels, manufactured in Korea, are 100% Korean! Like sandpaper, Italy Towels come in different gradients and these are denoted by the colour. ‘Pink is the least abrasive, followed by ‘silver’ (green) with the most abrasive and capable of removing the deepest ingrained grime, being yellow.

Other colours are manufactured, including red. The green one is actually described as 'silver.'

Italy towels are not to be confused with the larger version cloth which is also supplied in a bathhouse and which is usually red.

The larger, and milder, ex-foliating cloth

What typifies the Italy Towel is its size. My hand barely fits into it. The cloth is used to scrub the skin, usually in one direction, top to bottom and in straight lines and if used effectively a line of gray, dead skin is produced. The towel is fairly abrasive and needs to be used with caution on the face. Minimal soap is used in order to maximise the towel’s abrasive quality. Koreans will scrub their entire body with this cloth in a process which can last well over an hour.

If anyone accompanies you to the bathhouse, a friend or relative, it is natural for you to scrub each-other’s back. Usually you sit behind the person whose back you a rubbing,  though people sometimes stand. For men, that your ‘partners’ dick is dangling in you face is no  more of an issue than any other part of their body. Between men, one of the defining features of a ‘go-ch’u-ch’ingu’ (고추 친구),  literally translated as a  ‘penis friend,’ basically a close friend, is that penises are ‘acknowledged’ rather than  shunned with fear. It is this tacit, sometimes even verbalised  ‘acknowledgment’ which helps define a close, male relationship.  In the western male, heterosexual psyche, a penis is threatening and  ‘acknowledging’ your male friend has ‘one,’ seeing ‘it,’ talking about ‘it,’ and even being too close ‘it,’   have  the potential to terrify.  It is not at all uncommon to see a row of school boys or students all sat in a chain as they have their backs scrubbed while scrubbing the back of the person in front. Between family members the towel is used  much more intimately and again, it is  very common to see parents and children mutually scrubbing each other’s entire body. This is not restricted to small children.  Mutual cleaning and the intimacy involved are an expression of the concept of ‘skinship.’

How often one should use the Italy Towel is a personal preference. If used frequently, the process can rub-away body hair – though I wouldn’t recommend this as a method of waxing. Some Koreans use it every few days, others once a week. Perhaps the best guide is simply whether or not you have a layer of skin which needs removing. I use a pumice stone on my feet regularly and if no skin is being removed I stop the process – this is perhaps the best guide to using the Italy Towel.

I have noticed that you can scrub yourself meticulously and regularly with the larger, less abrasive towel, the one usually provided free in all bathhouses, and that this does not remove dead skin with the effect of the Italy Towel. I was very surprised when after a period of not using an Italy Towel, a friend scrubbed my back and arms and then made a joke about how dirty I was. It is surprising what that little towel removes.

Unlike the larger cloth and towels for drying, the Italy Towel has to be purchased, costing about 1000 Won. I usually keep one for months at a time and have even seen the odd person use ones discarded in the used towel bin.

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Bathhouse Basics 2 – The Jjimjilbang (찜질방)

Posted in bathhouse and jjimjilbang culture, bathhouse Basics by 노강호 on May 11, 2010

'25 hour' JJimjilbang (찜질방) Song-so, Daegu.

Jjimjilbang (찜질방) – while bathhouses often provide predominantly water related ‘entertainment,  jjimjilbangs provide a space where  families and friends, regardless of gender, can intermingle. There is no English term for a  jjimjilbang and as they contain saunas and adjoining bathhouses, they are often conflated with ‘saunas,’ ‘bathhouses’ or ‘spas.’ In practice, they are very different.

Common to all jjimjilbang are clothing,  ondol heating (underground), large sleeping areas, an adjoining bathhouse and a broad range of entertainment. Television are conveniently located, PC rooms, children play areas, a variety of  dry saunas using various minerals, mud or salt rooms, ice rooms, restaurants, libraries, refreshments and in some cases cinemas. Massage chairs, are fairly common and are coin-operated.  There are usually other features to provide both comfort and visual appeal – large tree trunks, for example, on which you can sit or play, and various levels of floor decking. Blankets are available in abundance. The size of establishments varies but very often can accommodate several thousand people and like the bathhouses, jjimjilpang may have restricted hours and or a days closure a week, or be open 24 hours.

When you purchase your ticket at the booth and you ask for the jjimjilpang you will be given some form of costume, sometimes a gown or t-shirt and shorts. Usually these are emblazoned with the establishments logo and the may be colour coordinated, one of my local jjimjilbang provides blue for men, pink women and yellow for children.

A selection of jjimjilbang photos giving you an insight into the range of facilities and individual establishment ambiances.

A group outing


An ice room

Busy and buzzing


Early morning - weekday

With a library

Weekends and holidays are usually busy (spot the beer cans!)

It has to be a drama!


Mother's meeting




Even the kids can 'chill.'

Main jjimjilbang area with numerous side sauna, ice rooms etc.

Jjimjilbang uniformity

Colour coordinated

Crash out - wherever!

A children's play room

Bathhouse Basics 1 – What is a bathhouse? (목욕탕)

Aquatic Symphony

Bathhouse (목욕탕) – exactly as the name suggests. Simply a place to wash. However, while some establishments are not much more than a place to administer yourself a thorough scrub down, others offer the chance to wallow in luxurious ambiance. The range is broad and bathhouses often have their own distinct atmosphere shaded by the time you visit. What you will find common to all  are: nudity,  segregation by sex,  places to shower, both standing and sitting and a number of pools. This is the most basic I have experienced. Others will have a number of adjoining ‘rooms’ containing various saunas, steam rooms, ice rooms (어름방), salt saunas, yellow mud sauna (황토방) sleeping rooms, and a place to be scrubbed down by an attendant. Once again, the variation is extensive. Pools vary in size and number and like the various ‘rooms’ often utilise specific minerals which are believed to promote good health. The most common are probably hot pools (열탕 – yeol-tang), warm pools (온탕 – on-tang),  cold pools (냉탕 – naeng tang) but I have also bathed in pools of gold and saunaed in silver. Baths may contain herbs, or green tea or be built with health inducing minerals. In addition, some bathhouses have heated areas around the pools where it is possible to take a nap and these may be heated by ondol (온돌) heating (underground heating) or by infra-red lights.

Changing rooms


In the bathing area, bathhouses often have:

conveniently located televisions

various types of massage

soap, towel, body clothes, toothpaste

a large stone on which to eradicate hard skin

In the changing area:

sofas, television

a room in which to dry and preen yourself

toothbrushes, shampoo, Italy towels, hair conditioner

socks, underwear, ties

soft drinks, some snacks, especially smoked eggs

In the steam room of the Kayasan Hotel Bathhouse

A typical seated shower area

Grouped around the bathhouse (목욕탕):

barber, hairdresser

shoe shine facility

shoe repair facility

a sports complex or some exercise facilities

a jjimjilbang (찜질방)

In the pools

Some may have outside areas or indeed, be located in outdoor settings. Finally, some establishments have limited opening hours while others are open twenty-four hours.

Variations are extensive and endless!

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© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.