Ever walked down the street in China and came across a huge fancy building, with some golden pillars surrounding it, and perhaps some well-dressed guards at the entrance, and a few luxury cars parked out front?
Chances are you have passed by a typical Chinese bathhouse or hot spring.
Image: Time Out Beijing
Bathhouse’s are a very common pastime for Chinese, as a place to relax, get a healthy shower, or just to hang out with friends. It is more common in the northern regions of China, especially during the long cold winters. But many can be found in other regions as well.
Most Westerners might not be used to this sort of place or activity, and may even feel awkward to go in (it is somewhat different than saunas/spas seen in the West). But by shying away from such places, they are missing out on a great experience, as once the initial awkwardness is gone, going for a shower in a public bathhouse is something you will want to fit into your weekly schedule!
Image: China Whisper
Like going to the gym for exercise, or to a bar to let loose, bathhouses are a common social activity, which can be done with family, friends, or your significant other.
But what do you do exactly once you are inside? Where do you go, and how do you not get lost?
Public shower venues in China are often very large and luxurious in appearance, and will have many service workers ready to assist with anything. The sanitation of most places also appears to be very high, so you can be rest assured you will leave feeling fresh and clean.
Image: China Whisper
Upon entering, you will usually be given a bracelet with a chip inside, or a key, that will be used to access your locker, and also to pay for everything later on (payment is always at the end), so don’t lose the bracelet!
You will then remove your shoes and head on to the locker and shower area. Your shoes will be kept and returned later by the workers at the entrance. Unlike shower rooms in gyms or saunas in the West, here your locker and shower area are very pleasant, and designed for comfort.
Once you arrive to your locker, you may proceed to remove all clothing and head on to the shower (slippers will always be provided). Essentially, you do not need to bring anything with you (such as extra clothes, slippers, toiletries), as everything will be provided.
Almost every venue will have a number of shampoos and body washes to choose from, and will supply other cosmetics as well. The shower area will usually contain also a small pool with warmed “spring” water for relaxing in, but is of course gender specific. If you do not wish to stay in your gender’s area, and want to move on to the common area where everyone can hang out, then you may go dry off, and put on some comfortable PJ’s, (again, supplied freely by the venue, normally where the towels are stacked).
After wearing your PJ’s, you may enter the common area, (usually on a different floor) referred to as “XiuXiTing” （休息厅）. Depending on the venue, this area will normally be quite large, including a comfortable quiet and dark rest-area with reclining chairs equipped with personal televisions, a small restaurant or bar, massage rooms, and a variety of saunas.
Some places may also have swimming pools, game rooms, and even KTVs inside. You can freely explore and find a comfortable place to sit and talk, or order some tea or beverages and head on to the hot room. Again, you will use your bracelet to pay for things, and also for locking/unlocking mini-lockers spread out throughout the rest area, for storing your valuables in, if going inside the sauna or swimming.
Important Note: Bathhouse’s can also be a nice place to spend a night in, and can be a cheaper and more fun alternative to a hotel room. Spending the night, however, or even staying for a few hours close to or after midnight, will require you to show your ID, so keep that in mind. Having said that, spending the night there after a night out drinking, is an excellent choice for waking up feeling more refreshed and relaxed.
Once you have had enough, the journey back is as simple as the way in. You will enter back into your shower area, and have a quick shower before getting dressed and heading off. At the checkout, you will just need to hand in your bracelet and pay for whatever you spent. (You are not required to buy anything once inside, so you may only pay for the entrance ticket, which is normally very cheap).
Getting over the initial awkwardness of the experience may take a few times. Foreigners are not a common sight in such places, so as always, there may be some stares, or some initiated conversations. Be relaxed and open, and if you are lost or confused (which can very easily happen), just ask one of the many service workers hanging around.
You will find that after some time, you will be anxiously waiting for a chance to go back, maybe for just a quick shower and a meal, or for spending the whole day relaxing!