Hamam. Onsen. Sauna. Bath. To some, they are words associated with indulgence and luxury. To others though, they are reason for white-knuckled panic. For one main reason.
You have to get naked. In public.
Most Westerners freak out at the very thought of parading around in nothing but a birthday suit, myself initially included. The combination of nudity, a language barrier and not knowing the individual protocol makes many chuck these visits in the too hard basket, which isn’t surprising.
So, without further ado, I present you my guide to getting naked in public. What they’re all about, what to expect and what to bring. This is not by any means a definitive list, as it is limited to the places I have experienced myself.
Now all you’ll need to stress about is wandering about in the nuddy.
PUBLIC BATH (HUNGARY)
If you’re looking to start somewhere relatively easy, head to one of Budapest’s over-the-top public baths. There’s no nudity here, and if you’ve ever visited hot springs before back home, you’ll find this quite similar if not much more grand.
I myself am a big fan of the Széchenyi Bath, located just outside the city centre but easily accessible by metro line 1, just adjacent to the station of the same name. Standing outside, you can easily mistake this century-old building for a neo-baroque palace. Entering through the front doors, you find yourself in a reception area with cashiers on the far left and right. You’ll be given a armband which acts as your locker key and entrance token, move through to the turnstiles which take you into separate male and female change rooms. The women’s rooms are great, complete with hairdryers, always something I appreciate.
At the baths, you’re expected to wear bathers and bring your own towel. If you don’t have these on you, both can be bought or rented from the cashier desks. Thongs or flip flops (whatever you call them) are also a good idea for walking around the complex and using the showers. Bring your towel with you and leave it nearby as it’s mighty cold when you jump out, particularly in the outdoor pools.
Széchenyi has fifteen different baths (plus saunas, plunge pools and massage rooms) with temperatures varying from about 27-37 degrees, so very doable. It’s fun to pool-hop, but the one I recommend most is the big outdoor leisure pool. Here you’ll find all sorts of oddball characters, old men playing waterproof chess, jet streams and the possibility of just lying on your back and taking in the Budapest sky. I loved this place so much that I headed back the next night to do it all again.
Széchenyi Bath: XIV Állatkerti körút 11 Budapest, open every day from 6am to 10pm, up to HUF4000 with a discount after 7pm, massages from HUF4000
SAUNA (FINLAND AND THE BALTIC STATES)
I remember the first time I was presented with the quandary of public nudity. I was in Tallinn, Estonia and eager to clear out my clogged pores, cleanse my sun-damaged skin and soothe my aching feet that had taken me through a dozen or so countries. So I headed to a sauna.
The sauna, or ‘saun’ as it is called in Estonian, is normally attributed to the Finns, but its development also jumped over the Baltic Sea to Estonia and Latvia. When you look at where these countries are situated, it tends to make a bit of sense; these countries have bloody cold, dark winters. The earliest saunas were built out in the woods, dug out of slopes and heated by burning rocks. Today they’re a little more modern, but still serve the same purpose; they’re a way for friends and family to gather together and socialise, and, most importantly, keep warm during the freezing winters.
The sauna I was recommended by my hostel (Kalma Saun, Tallinn’s oldest) was outside the Old Town, in a quiet residential area on the opposite side of the train station. In true Caitlyn style, I got lost heading out there, which at least temporarily distracted me from the whole taking my clothes off thing.
I visited the sauna in the late afternoon in June, so it was relatively quiet. The woman at the desk spoke English, and also helped me by renting out a towel. The sauna here was divided into male and female sections (others which have only one sauna have male and female hours) so off I toddled to the lockers. Off everything came, which was a weird feeling. I put the towel around me to get a bit of a sense of comfort, and into the sauna I went.
If you’ve visited a sauna at home before, beware – Baltic saunas are much, much hotter. Typical temperatures are between 80 and 110 degrees. I think I was in the sauna for about ninety seconds before I headed out again. (Further details of my interesting experience can be found here.) Another difference is the tools which you’re given; tree branches are on offer and the Estonian woman I befriended used some of them to beat me on the back(!) If you’re not completely knocked out from culture shock, you finish off the experience by taking a dip in a cold pool just outside the sauna.
Kalma Saun: Vana-Kalamaja 9a Tallinn, open every day from 11am, women €6-8, men €8-9
HAMAM (TURKEY, THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA)
Probably the best known of all spa treatments the hamam (otherwise known as a Turkish bath) is a must in many Middle Eastern cities. My hamam experiences have been in Marrakech at Sultana Spa, and later in Istanbul at Süleymaniye Hamam; please note that these are not traditional hamams, but ones where mixed bathing is available.
The whole point of a hamam, the origins of which can be traced back to the days of the mighty Greeks and Romans, is to give yourself a bit of a clean. Historically they were the main place you’d ever have a bath, whereas now they supplement regular showers and baths taken on personal property.
Hamams differ not just by country, but by individual hamams. All of them generally consist of a few things; making you nice and hot (similar to a sauna), washing you off and then giving you a scrub. Massages often follow but this is not always the case.
Both Sultana Spa and the Süleymaniye Hamam cater almost exclusively to tourists. Paul and I ummed and ahhed about choosing them, worried that we might lose out by not having an authentic experience, but at the end of the day we were after relaxation and both of these places allowed us to book in together. If you’re going to sour your experience by feeling lonely and wanting the other person around, you may as well not do it at all, we figured. Do make sure you book in; pick ups are usually available although we were scruffy walk-ins on both occasions. Once a backpacker, always a backpacker.
After arriving, you’re ushered in firstly to undress. In Morocco we were given paper g-strings which are always worth a laugh; in Turkey we were expected to be a bit more modest and I was given a bikini. You can also bring your own of course. Towels are also provided, and in Turkey I was also given weird wooden peeptoe clogs which are close to impossible to walk around in properly.
This is where the experiences differed. In Morocco, we were both taken into a room with two long hot stone benches which we laid upon. Be aware that the stone is incredibly hot; I was a bit of a wuss and needed a towel underneath my feet. Attendants – always female – pour water all over you – we’re talking gallons of it, so close your eyes and mouth. The water isn’t particularly hot, but it is surprising. I’m pretty sure I had the giggles by this point.
You are then thoroughly massaged with different oils, salts and god knows what else, whilst all the while copious amounts of liquid are dumped on your unsuspecting body. My skin felt almost red raw by this point, and it was then when I was led to a plunge pool. You’re left in the pool for as long as you like, and food and drinks are also available.
Our time at Süleymaniye Hamam was somewhat different. Unlike Sultana Spa which is quite elegant and attached to an exclusive hotel that I could never afford, Süleymaniye is instead a sixteenth century structure built for the sultan himself, good old Süleyman the Magnificent. They loved this dude, and the buildings he commissioned during his time in the harem make Istanbul what it is today.
Even though Süleymaniye is extremely historic and a sight in itself, your experience is hampered slightly by the tourist trade. Most of the guests during our visit were Spanish – big, loud groups of them – and Paul was even addressed in Dutch. If you’re prepared for this, and can block this out, you’ll have a much better time.
Unlike at Sultana Spa, you are taken into a communal steam room at Süleymaniye. A large stone is situated in the centre of the room, which you can lie upon like a spoke of a wheel. Place your towel under you if you find the stone a little warm – I certainly did.
And then you relax. Lying on the stone, you can gaze up at the architectural masterpiece, marvelling at the very idea that you are bathing in the private chambers of a guy who ruled one of the most powerful empires in history. You’ll need something to distract you from the fact that it is very, very hot in this room. You’re left here for about forty-five minutes, which is just about as much as you can take. Wells are also positioned around the room for you to use to fill up a jug or dish and pour over yourself.
You are then ushered into a side room and given a similar massage and scrub to the one explained for Morocco. All attendants here are male. The experience is finished up with tea in a sitting room, of which the charge is additional.
Sultana Spa: Rue de la Kasbah Marrakech, open every day by appointment, from 250 dirhams
Süleymaniye Hamam: Mimar Sinan Caddesi 20 Istanbul, 10am-12am, €30 per person
Oh, onsen. So intimidating, but so worth it. You can’t find a more traditional place in Japan than a good old onsen, and they’re found everywhere in the country. However, if you’re really into your onsen then go no further than Beppu, on Japan’s southern Kyushu island.
Onsen are actually very similar to hot springs and baths found all over Australia, the US and western Europe. Some allow you to wear bathers and are therefore mixed, but I stress the ‘some’. The vast majority are birthday suit only, and single-sex.
Beppu is a great spot to try onsen. The hostel at which I stayed – Spa Hostel Khaosan – even had an onsen as well as the regular shower block. You come in here alone, so it’s a good way to ease into the naked stuff. Then Beppu is your oyster, and as well as conventional water baths, you can find sand baths, mud baths and steam baths here. And they’re pretty damn cheap, too.
In Japan, it’s best not to shrink about with a towel at the edge of a room. Everyone walks about freely, towel-less and hardly even blinks at another person. Head in, pay and grab a key on a rubber bracelet. Pop all your belongings inside your designated locker or basket and head to the showers or little stools next to water taps – it is very important to wash yourself before your onsen out of both politeness and to actually clean yourself before heading into the water. Make sure you also rinse off any soap before getting in the bath.
Note that tattoos are a no-no in onsens, no matter how small or discreet, though often you can get away with it.
I visited three different onsen in Beppu, and all three were different. The highlight was definitely Takegawara, established in the Meiji era. Takegawara is famous for its sand bath, as well as the traditional water bath. If you’re taking the sand bath, you will be given a yukata – a traditional robe – to put on after you have undressed. Make your way into the large hall, where both the male and female rooms open up on to. Here you will lie down on the sand, whilst an attendant shovels hot sand on you. You quite literally are buried alive. Afterwards (we’re talking twenty minutes under the sand, with only your head poking out) you head back to your quarters, where I quite literally dunked myself in the onsen. After the sand bath, the onsen actually felt cool on my skin.
I also visited Kitahama and Hyotan, both easily reachable in the centre of Beppu. Kitahama, as well as traditional onsens, also offers a mixed rotemburo (outdoor bath) overlooking Beppu’s beach. You’re able to wear your bathers in here, but not in any of the other baths. Hyotan’s quite a big place, with lots of different baths, a steam room, sauna and also a sand bath. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can easily spend days onsen-hopping.
Kitahama Onsen: 11-1 Kyomachi Beppu, open every day 10am-10pm, ¥500
Takegawara Onsen: 16-23 Motomachi Beppu, open every day 8am-9.30pm, ¥1,000
Hyotan Onsen: 159-2 Kannawa Beppu, open every day 8am-9pm, ¥700
I have no idea how to pronounce the Korean version of an onsen, but I can say is that these places certainly aren’t as traditional as their Japanese counterparts. Jjimjilbangs don’t only consist of baths and saunas, but massage rooms, sleeping rooms, restaurants, television rooms and even fish massage baths.
My experience of a jjimjilbang came in Busan, at the massive Hurshimchung Spa, said to be the largest in Asia. This place truly was huge. It’s a bit of a bugger to get to – it’s apparently just across the road from exit one of Oncheonjang metro station but I got mega lost here and had to get locals to help me out.
In Hurshimchung, you can walk around the jjimjilbang in a robe (as it’s mixed) but the sauna and spa area is segregated and therefore starkers only. Head on in, grab a key from the desk and use this to put away your belongings. Bring your own towel, but you can grab a robe for free in the changing area. Payment is at the end, as your key is scanned for any other services you may have purchased.
The real highlight of Hurshimchung for me was the different baths. I was suffering from the hangover to end all hangovers and let’s just say I was a bit perplexed when I was met with baths ranging from strawberry milk to grape, and champagne to cherry. It certainly did the trick though, and was a lot of fun. All of the baths have a little electronic sign which shows what temperature the bath is at – we’re talking 25-50 degrees so they do differ widely. I stayed away from the saunas after accidentally making my first choice the 110 degree option.
Hurshimchung isn’t touristy at all, but the place is tourist friendly. It’s a definite must if you ever find yourself in Busan, of all places.
Hurshimchung Spa: Oncheong-dong 137-7 Dongnae-gu Busan, open every day 5.30am-10pm, 7,900 won per person
‘MEGA’ BATH HOUSE (CHINA)
Throw all elements of tradition out the window when you enter a ‘mega’ bath house in China. I searched and searched for the right terminology, but there doesn’t seem to be any – probably because they’re part of the gaudy westernisation of China. Nonetheless, they’re lots of fun and you don’t need to get naked at all.
My introduction to the world of mega bath houses came at Queen Spa in Shenzhen. We caught a taxi here (all cab drivers in Shenzhen apparently know the place) and they dropped us back at the metro station afterwards, which connects up to Hong Kong. When you arrive you’ll be given a key token – use this for your locker and for paying for things – you pay at the end. A sort of pyjama outfit is given to you to change into, and you are then led into the lobby area, which is full of large armchairs equipped with personal televisions. It’s all very strange, but from here you can order all sorts of services – massages, drinks, you name it. You’re not confined to the chair – wander around to private cinema rooms, spas, and special treatment areas. You can easily spend all day here.
Queen Spa: Chunfeng Road Luoho Shenzhen, open 24 hours, entrance fee 98 RMB