No going back to normal for Korea's bathhouses, jjimjilbang
A public bathhouse that survived for decades in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, is closing its doors.
“We are truly grateful to all the customers who visited until now,” read a farewell message on the entrance door on Saturday.
“That bathhouse was like a sarangbang in the neighborhood, or a space where people come to unwind and engage,” said one merchant who works nearby. “It’s sad to see the place close just after the Covid-19 crisis.”
Businesses across the board are recovering from the pandemic, but one type — the public bath — sustained such damage that it's proven fatal in the case of many establishments.
Public bathhouses and the more elaborate jjimjilbang, which have saunas and resting areas, are a vital part of Korean culture. Yet due to difficulties ventilating such enclosed spaces, keeping distances between customers and requiring face masks, they were classified as "high-risk facilities" under the government's social distancing regulations. Some regions like Busan and Goyang closed all public baths for a certain period during the pandemic after infection clusters were traced to them.
Those rules were completely lifted in April, but bathhouses are still struggling, with many customers still feel nervous about visiting.
“The number of visitors who came today can be counted on the fingers,” said one bathhouse employee in Seongnam’s Bundang District, a veteran of the industry for more than 20 years. "The sauna industry has either gone bust or is dying in Korea."
The Ministry of the Interior and Safety says more than 760 bathhouses and jjimjilbang shut down from March 22, 2020 — when the first social distancing restrictions were implemented — through this month.
One 65-year-old who has been running a public bathhouse for years in Suwon, Gyeonggi, was doing his part-time job on Saturday instead of sitting at the counter.
“There are no customers anyway, and since it's so hard to make a living, I'm doing something else instead,” the owner said.
The bathhouse may be giving way to a new concept: single-person bathing salons, where facilities are set up for one customer only.
Koreans are sharing reviews of such private bathing salons on social media. “I got a full-body scrub for the first time in two and-a-half years after the Covid-19 pandemic, and it was totally worth the cost of 59,000 won ($45) for a 60-minute session,” read one post.
Each room inside a single-person bathing salon is equipped with a changing room, a bathtub, a massage bed and a shower booth. The customer takes a soak in the tub, after which a professional sesinsa (sauna attendant) does a body scrub to get rid of dead skin. Once the scrubbing is done, the customer takes a shower and gets changed in the changing room.
Hotels in Wolmun Hot Springs in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, have rooms equipped with individual hot spring bath tubs, and they are mostly fully booked on weekends.
“There are many single or family visitors coming every weekend as they can enjoy hot spring baths individually inside the room,” said a hotel employee.
BY CHAE HYE-SEON, SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]