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Basic Sauna Etiquette in Korea

By Kelli Donigan

For visitors to Korea, one of the best experiences in Korea that you can try is going to the sauna. It is something that is an integral part of Korean culture. Going to the sauna can be a relaxing sanctuary; a haven away from home, and a collective place to gather and gossip.
Saunas in Korea compared to the West are much cheaper and more ubiquitous. Going to a sauna can be a rather overwhelming if not daunting experience especially for the first-time visitor. Like any other public facility, there are some basic etiquette mannerisms that follow, and knowing them in advance will make you feel less clumsy and less-like a foreigner.
Basic etiquette or manners can go a long way especially if you can’t communicate very well in a foreign country. Here is some basic etiquette when visiting a sauna, which are quite simple. However, with keen observation and a few test trials, you get the hang of things.



Before Going to the Sauna or Mogyoktang: Getting Prepared!


1. Bring your own toiletries.

    Regulars who come to the sauna come with their own basket of toiletries-

    shampoo, conditioner, soap, body or face cleanser, and most importantly

    a Korean essential toiletry called ‘ddae,’  a scrubber which you use to take

    off the dead layers of skin on your body.

    This comes in different colors- green, yellow or red and each one has

    a different degree of roughness. Some also bring a carton of milk, which

    they apply on their face. Milk is supposedly good for your skin.

    If you can, it’s good to prepare your own toiletries

    but if not, you can buy them there.


2. Public Nudity-having the courage to do it and/or face it.

    First, don’t freak out or panic. This is not exactly like going to your local

    pool or health club, where you can wear your bathing suit or have your

    own personal shower with a curtain, but rather just the opposite.

    But once you overcome your shyness or self-consciousness,

    you’ll find this quite an enjoyable, liberating experience.


3. Allow yourself plenty of time.

   When you arrive, you should leave time at the door. This is a place to

    relieve stress and tension- unhurriedly.

    Two or three hours is adequate time, which gives you enough time

    to scrub, soak in the hot and cold tubs, and sit in the steam rooms or

    take a nap. A good time to go is on the weekends, relatively early in

    the mornings. It may be a bit crowded but you’ll feel refreshed and

    ready to start your day.


* Too much time in the sauna has adverse side affects such as fainting or dehydration than normal because of the hot temperatures, your skin develops dry patches or becomes prune-like.



At the Sauna:

  1. In general, two small towels are given to you;

     one is for you to take in the sauna, either to wrap your hair in or to sit in the hot or wet sauna. The other one, you should save, for drying off BEFORE going to the changing room. Make sure to  dry off well when you go back into the changing room because if you're really wet and track water in the changing room, the cleaning ajummas get angry.


  2. Wash your stool and washbasin before using them, and

      again after you are done.


  3. Shower or scrub before entering the hot, steam rooms or

      hot and cold pools of water.


  4. Save your spot.

     When you’re done washing and want to move from your stool or washbasin, make sure to leave your stuff where you wash, that way your place is “saved” and no one will take it, but it’s not  always a guarantee.


  5. Try putting some salt on your body inside the salt rooms.

      Salt is supposed to help detoxify you, which actually increases the heat of your body and used as a scrub to loosen the dead skin. Don’t apply salt to your face or near your eyes and use in moderation.


  6. Rinse with cold water by pouring a bowl of cold water over you first when you leave the hot, dry room or hot, wet room, and then enter the cold pool. If can be too much of a shock to your body system if you don’t do this.


7. Try scrubbing your neighbor’s back if asked (mostly in reference to women).

Sometimes, someone may ask you to scrub their back since it’s difficult to reach and scrub by yourself. In this case, the polite thing is to accept. It is also considered polite to have the favor returned. At this time, if you like, you can have your back scrubbed, but you may refuse.


If it’s your first time, just give it a try. You’ll be amazed at how many dead layers of skin peel off your back. Lastly, observe closely your surroundings, you’ll learn a lot more subtle etiquette than the general rules posted. Don’t worry too much whether you are doing something wrong or not because Koreans will generously tell you what you’re doing wrong. You may even have some who will help you out and show you. You’ll perhaps even make a sauna buddy while you’re there.


* Special thanks to Semone Sutherland for contributing her tips as well.

Date 01.17.2007

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