Lan: Hello Minhwa! Welcome to VOV’s Cultural Rendezvous!
Minhwa: Hi! Thank you for having me.
Lan: As mentioned in our intro, Jjimjilbang is an important part of contemporary Korean culture. What is the origin of this sauna?
Minhwa: Well, saunas are known to be invented in Finland, and in Korea we developed our own style in the late 20th century. The exact origin of jjinjilbang is not known, other than a rumour that it started by charcoal burners to relieve fatigue. Before the spread of jjimjilbang, Korea in the Choseun Dynasty developed a heating system called "hanjeungmak," which is understood as the original form of jjimjilbang. Compared to it, Korean jjimjilbang culture that we’re trying to talk about now is more recent. From what I remember, Jjimjilbang has been widespread in Korea since about twenty to thirty years ago.
If we decode the word "jjimjilbang," "Jjimjil (찜질)" is "heating," while "bang (방)" stands for "a room." So, jjimjilbang can be understood as "a room where you can be heated."
Lan: What services are offered at the sauna?
Minhwa: Jjimjilbang provides not only places to sleep but also bath/shower, buy and eat snacks, watch TV and more. There is a variety of services offered in Jjimjilbang and its services and fees vary by places. If you go to the one in a large mall, it would be very expensive. Still, the most common ones are less than 10,000 won (1 USD) per entrance, so jjimjilbangs are considered as cheap places to stay. That’s the reason why it attracts a lot of people including foreigners.
Lan: Well, it sounds like a great place to stay overnight and get to know the local people!
Minhwa: That’s true. Anyone can enter and stay a night with low entrance fee, and short-term travellers utilize this place as an alternative to hotels. Also, not only the travellers visit the place; there are many locals visiting jjimjilbang. Even if they live around the area, they come to simply relax or socialize with neighbors.
Lan: I'm really interested in the food you said is available at the sauna. What can you eat there?
Minhwa: One of the most popular food in jjimjilbang is men ban seukgye ran, which is stone-plate cooked egg (men ban seukgye ran, 맨반석계란). I recommend you to have it when your body is heated up right after using the sauna. It's the best if you have it with a cold drink called "sikhey (식혜)," which is sweet rice drink. After you’ve got the chance to try out that combination, you would finally be able to understand why the locals visit here for relaxation.
Lan: Wow! That’s so interesting, I’d love to visit in the future. But I guess the pandemic has had an effect on Jjimjilbang business, hasn’t it?
Minhwa: Yes, the spread of COVID-19 has a large influence on the jjimjilbang businesses. Actually, the number of visitors to jjimjilbang dropped with people's awareness of social distancing. According to one of the articles I read earlier, about 108 places in Seoul shutdown in 2021, which is about 2.5 times the number from 2019. Nevertheless, the prospect for the jjimjilbang business has become a little brighter recently with the complete removal of the social distancing rules last month. Hopefully things will get better so that more people can come and enjoy our sauna.
Lan: I hope so too. Do you have any advice for foreigners who would like to experience Jjimjilbang for the first time?
Minhwa: Oh… One thing that the first jjimjilbang visitors may be surprised about is showing their naked bodies to other people. While you can use most of the facilities and enter the heating rooms with the distributed jjimjikbang clothes, it is a must to take off all clothes when entering the bath and the massage rooms. This may be something that the first-time visitors are not used to, but it's a rule that is perceived as a natural thing to do in Korean public baths.
Lan: Thank you very much Minhwa for joining our show and sharing many interesting things about Korean sauna with us today!
Minhwa: Thank you once again for having me! I hope this talk helped our jjimjikbang to be known in your country.