There is a jjimjilbang (public bath house and sauna) at the base of Ansan mountain in Seoul, Korea. It’s located up a hill right before the entrance to Bongwon Temple, and if you go on through the temple grounds you can access the various mountain trails. The hike to the peak isn’t too strenuous but you’re rewarded with a pretty great view of the city, including Namsan tower and the Han River. There are jjimjilbangs a plenty around Seoul, but not many are nestled in the base of a mountain–this is why it’s special. The main building has all the recreational amenities you would find in any major jjimjilbang: the separate bath areas for men and women, a common area with a kids playroom, karaoke rooms, a little gym, a PC cafe, reading nook, restaurant, and apparently a screen golf net on the roof.
The actual saunas are outside, connected to the main building by a dirt floor space (where you can roast sweet potatoes and rice cakes) and sheltered by a very temporary-looking roof with rafters. There are three saunas of different temperatures–imagine pizza ovens big enough to house about a dozen people. They’re made from hwang-to (red clay, technically called loess) and heated with traditional furnaces burning cham-soot (charcoal made from burning oak), which apparently is a magical combination for healing properties. Hang around long enough and you’ll hear the ajummas (married women) talk about how regular sauna-ing here healed their various ailments. Opposite the row of saunas there’s also a red clay room where people sit around a charcoal fire pit on little wooden stumps.
But my favorite part is the outdoor lounge area accessed from between the main building and the saunas. Once you’ve had a good sweat session, you can step outside to cool off. There are several wooden platforms (backless, knee-height benches wide enough for people to lie on) situated right at the edge of the forest. Lying down on one of these platforms in faded orange pajamas, looking up at the sky through the trees with a cool sikhye (sweet rice drink) in hand, this is my favorite place.
For more pictures, here’s a link to the Traditional Oriental Forest Land’s English site and gallery. The name translated into English is super Konglish and I was hesitant to put it in the title because it sounds kind of spammy, but it’s also pretty accurate and kind of endearing. For more on the jjimjilbang experience, this Korea Times article has a good overview and actually mentions TOFL. I wish I could call it my secret spot in Seoul, but it’s pretty famous because of the above-mentioned healing properties and thus crawling with people young and old on the weekends.