The concept of soaking, steaming, and relaxing with strangers in the nude might sound a little strange to Americans. But, really, the ritual is one that’s as old as time: The Greeks did it, the Romans did it, and many Mediterranean and Asian communities still do it.
These international bathing rituals — the Korean jimjilbang, the Turkish hammam, and the Japanese sento and osten — have recently made their way to the states via cutting-edge spas honoring ancient traditions, and are exposing U.S. women to the naked joy of the bathhouse experience.
But don’t think the bathhouse experience is simply about bathing — on the contrary, stepping away from your usual routine and allowing yourself the indulgence of distraction-free relaxation can have a profound impact on your stress levels, mental health, and spiritual connection.
Think about it this way: When you opt for a moment of self-care at home with a bath or hot shower, your life exists just beyond the bathroom door. You can hear the kids fighting, the dog barking, the phone ringing. Hell, you may even bring your cellphone into the bathtub with you (I’m totally guilty of this). Your mind is still consumed with your day-to-day tasks; and your body is likely still holding tension, waiting for the inevitable call of “Moooom!” to put an end to your “me time.”
At the bathhouse, however, you have a chance to completely check out, and more importantly, tune in. In each of the following experiences, your ties to the modern world — your clothes, your phone — are stored away in a locker, while you strip down in every sense of the word. Talking is discouraged, and quiet, soothing music lulls you into a meditative state of calm. What happens next is a cleansing experience for the mind, body, and soul.
Ahead, discover the time-honored tradition of the bathhouse… and rediscover yourself.
Jimjilbang, otherwise known as Korean spas, are the most prominent kind of bathhouse in the United States today. Urban areas like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, and Atlanta all boast at least one traditional Korean spa, and we predict more are on the way soon. The experience is low-key and low-pressure — the perfect introduction to bathhouse culture.
Each jimjilbang is different, but most include a few standard features: a communal hot tub (often spiked with healing Himalayan sea salt or skin-clearing mugwort tea), a cold pool (to jump in directly after, in order to stimulate circulation), a steam sauna, a dry sauna, and various heated rooms designed to draw toxins from the body — some using infrared light, some using crystals, some using clay.
Upon entering a jimjilbang, patrons are instructed to strip down — no bathing suits or underwear allowed — and are given cotton robes to wear instead. Showering is required before indulging in communal areas like the hot tub and saunas, but after that, the format of your experience is all up to you. Most Korean spas offer 24-hour access for a fee of $20 – $30, and you can hop from room to room and tub to pool at your leisure.
To take your Korean spa experience to the next level, opt for a Korean scrub. In the traditional treatment, an aesthetician will lay you down, naked, on a wet spa table and proceed to exfoliate every inch — and we mean every inch — of your body. An oil massage follows, leaving you with the softest skin imaginable.
Similar to the K-spa, the traditional Turkish hammam experience involves a series of baths, scrubs, and massages. If you’re in Los Angeles, the Raven Spa in Santa Monica is the place to go — at $165/90 minutes, their Turkish bath offering is highly personal and private.
It begins with a solo soak in a deep, gorgeous, clawfoot tub, where your aesthetician leaves you with a hot cup of Turkish tea to sip on while you relax. Alone in the dimly-lit room, the bath is a meditation of sorts — no phone, no clothes, no distractions. After about 20 minutes, your skin is sufficiently softened and ready for the scrub portion.
A Turkish scrub, while a little more gentle, is every bit as exfoliating as the Korean version. Afterwards, the technician washes your body, splashing you with buckets of warm water from your bath to carry away the dead skin cells left behind from the scrub. Next, you’re led to a massage table and treated to an hour-long massage that leaves your muscles as thoroughly relaxed as your mind. As a finishing touch, you slip into a fluffy Turkish robe (which you may consider buying off of the spa) to wear while you lounge, and are given a snack of orange slices to rehydrate and wake up the body.
Sento and Osten
The Japanese are known for two types of bathhouses: osten, which is a natural hot spring experience, and sento, which features hot tubs and pools heated with modern methods. Both are set up in pretty much the same way, though, and depending on where you go, the Japanese bathing experience can be super glamorous and private (upwards of $100/hour for treatments) or more utilitarian and communal ($30 for the day).
Either way, here’s what to expect: You’ll be nude, but are allowed to carry around a small towel if modesty is your thing. Showers are required at the beginning of the experience, and soap, shampoo, and conditioner are usually provided. From there, you can soak in various hot and cold pools of water at your leisure — some are lukewarm, some are uncomfortably hot, and some are freezing. Going back and forth between extreme temperatures is said to stimulate the circulatory and lymphatic systems of the body, resulting in overall health (not to mention seriously glowing skin).
In all three cultures, bathhouses are usually separated by gender, with a private section for men and a private section for women. Some, like Los Angeles’ Korean Wi Spa, have rooms that are open to all sexes — so why not take your significant other for a couples spa day unlike any other?
Whatever bathing experience you choose (and we highly recommend all three), the most profound part of the process will undoubtedly be the penetrating feeling of pure mindfulness you leave with — and the urge to come back as soon as possible.