VISIT ASIA. GET NAKED, SWEAT, REPEAT
The health benefits of a sauna are many. Saunas help open the pores of the skin and release toxins. Warm steam helps the flow of blood and relieves joints and muscle aches. You will leave looking and feeling refreshed, relaxed and ready to hit the town again.
No trip to Asia is complete without visiting a sauna. So, experiencing rooms full of (mostly) old, naked Asian men, or women, is not what inspired you to buy that expensive ticket over here? You’re feeling a bit of unease about stripping bare and flapping around, perhaps protected by only a little towel? Well, we’ll try to help you get your toes wet with confidence:
1) ALL Asian saunas from Tokyo to Vientiane will require you to disrobe and shower before sampling the sauna rooms or hot tubs. So, first you will lock your shoes away, then your clothes and belongings (don’t bring much cash or valuables) in a separate locker in the next room. Then, grab a little towlie and walk into the shower facility. Sit on a bucket (yes, rest your boys on there), use the community soap and wash that dirt off yourself before you contaminate others. Bacteria will multiply quickly in hot, wet places, so be sure to scrub all your crannies. You shouldn’t need me to direct you to those.
2) Start with the dry sauna and sweat out last weekend’s bender for 10-15 minutes. Your first sweat will be the thickest and slimiest
3) Get out of the sauna and take a shower to wash that nastiness off
4) Stretch and walk around
5) Try a cold tub
6) Get back in the sauna for another 10-15 minute round. You’ll find your sweat to be thinning and, as it runs down your face, tasting less like soju, sake, baijo, etc.
7) Repeat until you feel like putty
8) Retire to a common room with a good book
Each country has its own sauna nomenclature and tradition. We can direct you to a few sweaty destinations:
Japanese call them ‘onsens’. Japan is volcanically active and the resulting hot spring culture is a strong part of their tradition. Onsen are a large part of tourism in the countryside and most Japanese neighborhoods offer some kind of an urban sauna as well. Admission generally ranges from $8 at neighborhood facilities to $30 and up at posher places. Bathers will use a small towel to cover up their stuff. Please be aware that tattoos both large and small will get you banned from the onsen in Japan, as these carry heavy connotations with organized crime.
Perhaps no other Asian country celebrates the sauna as much as South Korea. The “jjimjilbang”, as it’s entire facility- including PC rooms, karaoke, restaurants, massage, barbershops and movie rooms- is called, is often five or six floors tall and can take a day to navigate. Separate-sex facilities are totally naked and free, while unisex facilities will offer some kind of unflattering pajamas for you to enjoy. Hard-boiled eggs with salt and pepper are a must-try. Most jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours, most likely so drunk men don’t have to go home and face their wives. You can take advantage of this by grabbing a tatami mat and getting a decent night’s sleep for around 8,000won ($7). In cities with no hostels, this is an excellent budget option.
Though not as obviously accessible as Korean or Japanese saunas, most large Taiwanese cities will offer some kind sauna, swimming and exercise facility, with admission ranging from $4-10. The quality is usually excellent. Ask a friendly local and you can get directions. Additionally, Taiwan offers many excellent outdoor hot springs, some of which will require you to check into a hotel facility to enjoy, but many also offer public bathing areas that vary in allure. Try Guanziling Hot Springs, in the foothills near Chia-yi, for an excellent mud bath with expansive views.
Ask a local as to which place is legit, as so many places claiming to be a “sauna” may just be a front for a brothel or an underground gay meeting place. We’ve heard stories about safety concerns in these places. Also, Vietnam and Hong Kong seem attract a similar clientele to their ‘sauna’ facilities.
Chinese cities, with recreational facilities not yet matching those in Korea and Japan, do not have a strong sauna culture. Anyone who’s been to Chongqing or Hangzhou in the summer knows that there is often enough heat here to begin with anyway. One exception is Harbin, in northeast China, which offers hundreds of saunas in which to beat the winter freeze. Facilities and rules are pretty similar to Korea and Japan, though cleanliness is hit or miss.
You have no reason to be stressed-out in Laos. Even Sam Kinison could keep his voice down in this, the most relaxing of Asian destinations. If you do need to unwind at the end of the day, perhaps after a long, stressful Mekong sunset, you can sample the “flower saunas” here. You will be offered a complimentary red herbal tea and then encouraged to enter a tapestried-off sauna room, rich with the scent of bamboo and lemongrass. It’s refreshing and invigorating. Admission to saunas generally costs $1, while massages are offered up at $4-$5. Many saunas also offer a coffee scrub, which women have traditionally used to tear off their skin. Enjoy.