If somebody told you that taking a sauna could be entertainment, would you believe it?
When you hear the word ‘sauna,’ you usually imagine steam or dry saunas where males
and females are separated and enjoy hot air naked on the chair.
However, if you go to Korea, you would find a unique type of sauna called jimjilbang.
Not only will you find males, females and children wear uniformed T-shirts and short
pants in the common area, but you will see them lying down on the floor sweating. As a
family and resting space, jimjilbang is a popular weekend entertainment for Korean
families to relax.
There are different types of saunas, massage and skin scrub services, restaurants and
exercise rooms inside a facility. In some stores, karaoke or Internet are also offered.
While Korean-style sauna is relatively popular in the U.S., there has been only one
jimjilbang in Canada, located in Vancouver until this year.
Yun-Tak Gwon, the owner of LG Construction, was motivated to build a jimjilbang by
the success of jimjilbang business in Korea and requests from other Korean residents in
“Toronto’s winter is long and really cold,” Gwon said. “As many Korean people live in
Toronto, they’ve been longing for a jimjilbang for several decades.”
Gwon started his research on Korean-style sauna five years ago. As an engineer
specializing in floor heating and experience in running a construction company for 17
years, he became confident he could deal with the technical issues in the process of
constructing sauna facilities.
Starting a jimjilbang business, Gwon says, people have to fulfill at least three conditions.
“Besides money and engineering knowledge about techniques, you also need guts to start
a Korean sauna business as no one ever tried it before in Toronto.
“Among the Korean community in Toronto, many people want to begin this business.
However, they are afraid it will go bankrupt or it will not work out well because it’s not a
small business. But I am brave enough to start it.”
Gwon and his son Byung Jae, a manager of LG Construction, began to look for a location
for jimjilbang three years ago. Needing a huge space, they faced several hardships.
It took two years of research to find its current location.
“We were looking at the Yonge and Finch area first because lots of Korean people live
there. But in that area, we weren’t able to get anything close to what we were required.
So we had to move to Dufferin,” Byung Jae said.
The building has approximately 17,000 sq. feet with an affordable lease near Dufferin
“This location is still close to the Yonge and Finch area. That’s where our customers are
As Canadian construction law is different from Korean, they were forced to change the
fire system, heating system and even the sprinkler system from the traditional set-up.
“In Korea, everything is heated under the floor inside the sauna. But we cannot do that
here. Also in Korea, a sprinkler system is not required in the sauna room. Here we have
to install sprinkler,” Byung Jae said.
It took a month to finish the investigation and get some special stones � crystal, brown
jade, clay and germanium � imported from Korea. These are important materials that are
embedded into the wall of each sauna room.
As those materials were uncommon in Canada, Byung Jae and his father were questioned
by Canadian customs about how Korean style sauna utilized these stones inside the
“The type of stones we used on the wall is known to give positive energy,” Byung Jae
said. “It’s good for your body. Scientifically it’s not proven but Korean people believe
Gwon says it was originally planned to open in August 2007. After the delay, Seoul
Garden Jimjilbang was opened on Feb. 12. As in Korea, they offer massage and skin
scrub services, shower and baths, foods and drinks, and six sauna rooms with different
The temperatures of the rooms range from the lowest 40 degrees C to the highest over 80
degrees C. Customers choose one room and lie down on the floor under which hot tubing
is embedded. After a few minutes, they move to another room. They can relax and
perspire in the warmth created by the heated stones in each room.
Chong Lee, a senior customer, says hot temperature makes you sweat and accelerates
your blood circulation. It also heals skin problems, back pain, or diabetes.
“After you enjoy sauna, your body and mentality can be totally fresh and relaxed. I think
sauna is the most reasonable leisure for people who have stress in their daily life,” Lee
Jeong-Hye Ham, one of the senior customers, missed jimjilbang since she immigrated to
Canada 14 years ago. She regularly visits there once every two weeks and enjoys sauna.
“I really like this sauna. They should’ve built it much earlier.
“This is totally like the ones in Korea. Although there are dry saunas in Canada, they are
totally different from jimjilbang. Jimjilbang is more like a place to relax by lying, sitting
or talking with friends,” Ham said.
The only aspect she is not satisfied is that customers need a vehicle to get there. Ham
says as it is far from the subway station, many of her senior friends cannot come to
jimjilbang without a car.
“As many seniors want to come here in the morning, I hope they will offer a shuttle bus
or transportation from subways. Then, everyone can come easily.”
However, Gwon says in addition to lease problems, the requirement of a huge parking
space makes it difficult to choose locations where transportation is convenient.
“Also, if we use a shuttle bus, the insurance fee will be more expensive. I cannot afford
A high entrance fee is another issue. While the store reduced its price from $25 to $20 per
person on March 1, some customers complain that it is still quite expensive compared to
“If it costs $10 to $15, students like me can go there often,” said Yu-sun Ok, an
international student from Korea. “Massage and skin scrub are also high-priced. Because
I know those prices in Korea are cheaper, I don’t want to pay so much money for them.”
On the other hand, Byung Jae says, based on the size of the market and numbers of
jimjilbang, people should not compare Toronto and Korea.
“In Korea, we have a bigger market and there are so many saunas offering different
services with cheap prices. It’s more commercialized. However, the Korean community
in Toronto is really small and there is only one jimjilbang in Toronto,” Byung Jae said.
“Two months after opening, our business is still slow but the numbers are escalating little
by little. We have advertised in Korean and Chinese media. It is also known through
word of mouth among Japanese customers,” Byung Jae added.
Despite their efforts, 80 per cent of its customers are still Koreans. Lee points out the
difficulty of understand Korean-style sauna as a reason why people in the other cultures
do not visit there.
“Only Koreans know what jimjilbang is all about. But people who experience jimjilbang
will know its advantages soon. I believe probably in three to five years, this business will
be more successful,” Lee said.
Gwon plans to create two other saunas in Mississauga and Markham for Chinese people.
He believes that informing other nationalities about jimjilbang’s positive aspects is his
obligation as a Korean.
“Korean sauna will be a new experience for them. So if they reach our culture little by
little, jimjilbang, our healthy culture, will be easily accepted.”