The best traditional bathhouses across the globe—and how they perform the art of cleansing.
Written By Jess Basser Sanders
The words “communal bathing” may strike fear into the hearts of those accustomed to taking their daily showers in solitude. In many corners of the globe, however, not only is this shared (and often fully nude) experience common, it is also an important social ritual. From the hot springs of Japan to the hammams of Turkey and Morocco, Korean bathhouses, and sweltering Russian banyas, every bath culture comes with its own glow-inducing benefits. And, of course, its own traditions. Navigating the specifics can be overwhelming (do you rinse off first? swimsuit or stark naked?), so The Violet Files has compiled a primer on the best places to get a taste of these ancient traditions, and the corresponding etiquette for each.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: RUSSIA
A steam-heavy option, banyas have long been a weekly cold-battling tradition in frigid Russian winters. With links to traditional medicine and shamanic practices, a banya combines co-ed social gatherings of family and friends with sauna, plunges into cold water, and, if you’re lucky, being whacked with birch and eucalyptus leaves. Benefits are said to include elimination of toxins, increased circulation, loosening of muscles, and glowing skin.
WHERE TO GO
South Kensington Club, a tony private club with a country club feel in the heart of upper-crust London. Its banya is the perfect mix of authenticity and luxury. 38-42 Harrington Road, London, England SW7 3nd; +44 203 006 6868
James Larkin, South Kensington Club’s banya expert, swears by the practice: “Time in the banya has a similar effect to re-booting a computer.” Treatments begin in the sauna room, with wooden benches arranged around a wooden box piled with heated stones. The banchik (a specialized therapist) pours an herbal infusion onto the stones, releasing a relaxing mountain of steam, which he or she moves around the room using a veniki, a warmed bunch of birch and eucalyptus leaves. Pores open, muscles relax, and gossip is shared. Next, the banchik uses the veniki to brush and tap the skin, further relaxing muscles and lending aromatherapy benefits. Plunges in icy water are alternated with veniki brushing and more stints in the sauna. No need to get nude; this is more of a swimsuit affair. Larkin calls it “proper Russian meditation. It helps you to switch off for a moment and then gently restarts you so that each aspect of the body and mind falls back into the right perspective.”
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: KOREA
A key part of life in Korea is the gender-segregated bathhouses on every block. The jjimjilbang are spots for getting together with friends. Patrons disrobe, then move between hot tubs, cold tubs, and wet saunas and are scrubbed within an inch of their lives.
WHERE TO GO
Hotel Prima in Cheongdam-dong, the Beverly Hills of Seoul, is a regular stop for Alicia Yoon, founder and CEO of Korean beauty site Peach & Lily, on her frequent trips to the city. 536 Dosan-daero, Cheongdam-dong Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Korea; +82 2 6006 9114
During this entirely nude affair, jjimjilbang follows a pretty simple formula. “There will be a bath area with hot tubs and cold tubs that you go in and out of, as well as an oven-hot wet sauna in a separate room,” says Yoon. The main event is the scrub, where, lined up on canvas beds in the main bathing room, you’ll give yourself over to one of the lingerie-clad ladies, whose often-diminutive stature belies their strength. Using a thin exfoliating mitt, they soap you up and scrub everywhere (“I mean everywhere!” says Yoon) for anywhere from a half-hour to an hour, depending on just how much dead skin they encounter. After a hose-down, you’ll be offered freshly sliced cucumber for your eyes before a (not-entirely-relaxing) massage using anything from milk to yogurt to sesame oil. The experience can be a full-day affair, with all different types of saunas and tubs available. Hotel Prima has an outdoor section on the roof that Yoon likens to bathing in the middle of the woods.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: TURKEY
With roots in Turkey and a presence all over the Muslim world, hammams (the name refers to both the venue and the treatment) have been perfected to an art form in Morocco and are a prime attraction for the country’s many tourists.
Another steamy bathing meeting place, hammams can be found all over Morocco, and are integral to local culture. Large tiled rooms are heated and humid, separated by sex and ideal for sweat-inducing lounging and serious scrubbing. Historically an important gathering spot, especially for women, hammams continue to be a weekly haunt for many Moroccans to meet family and friends. They’ll pick up a bucket and some of the country’s famous black eucalyptus soap on their way in and proceed to gossip, relax and scrub each other down. Tourists are more likely to encounter the extravagant option—a specialized exfoliation session with a kessala, a rigorously trained expert in the art of hammam.
WHERE TO GO
Beldi Country Club, Marrakech, a quiet oasis set in the middle of a citrus grove just 10 minutes outside the bustle of the city, is the go-to venue for visiting fashion and beauty insiders (including The Violet Files). Beldi combines a sense of luxury with an eco-conscious approach—herbs come from the property’s gardens, water is solar heated, and products are organic. Km 6, Route de Barrage, Cherifia, Marrakech, Morocco; + 212 5 24 38 39 50
Set at the back of this serene, rambling resort is a traditional domed hammam with two intimate single-sex bathing areas. This isn’t the moment to be shy, as you will need to strip naked before heading into the hot and steamy tiled room (they can give you a sort of disposable loincloth, but once the water hits you it’s virtually useless). Inside, your kessala will promptly scrub you with the traditional black soap and an exfoliating glove. Don’t be alarmed by the layers of gray skin that come off, as you’ll be rinsed and slathered in an orange blossom moisturizer that will leave you with the softest skin possible. Once finished, you’ll be wrapped in a robe, escorted to an airy (co-ed) lounge, and plied with traditional mint tea.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: JAPAN
Public bathing is a central part of Japanese culture, and there’s no more luxurious way to take part than at a hot spring, or onsen, in the picturesque countryside. With active and inactive volcanoes to feed the springs scattered throughout the country, onsen are easy to find. While onsen began as necessity (traditionally, the springs were the only place to wash), they have become one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions.
WHERE TO GO
Beniya Mukayu, a ryokan (bed-and-breakfast) nestled among the trees in Yamashiro Onsen, south of Kanazawa, was a favorite of The Violet Files on a recent trip to Japan. Yamashiro has long been famed for its healing waters, having been established by Gyoki priests in the 8th century. Trija Siripipat, guest relations manager at the ryokan, notes that onsen in the area are known to help beautify skin, improve blood circulation, and relieve nerve pain and rheumatism. 55-1-3 Yamashiro Onsen, Kaga, Ishikawa 922-0242, Japan; +81 (0) 761 77 1340
It’s all about the great outdoors. While most onsen, Beniya Mukayu included, have indoor pools, the true hot spring experience should be in the open air. Once again, you’ll be going the full monty (bathing areas are separated by sex), so strip down and cover up your tattoos (if any are visible, you’ll likely be banned from the baths) before taking a seat at the hand-held showers and rinsing off. Now feel free to dip in the outdoor pool of alkaline hot spring water, feel its healing powers, and do little else.
VIOLET GREY has a file on everything from
the genius of Pat McGrath to
the best eyelash curler in the world.
HOW TO SPA
No world tours on the horizon? The Streicher Sisters advise on the best techniques to transform your bathroom into your own private spa.