One of the most salient aspects I've seen in South Korea so far is how diverse cafe culture is. You name it, there probably is a cafe for it. This includes:
- Cat cafes- In my two months here, I've been to three so far. My love of cat cafes all started when one of the kittens kneaded me (sign of affection!). Enamored by this phenomenon, I went to more cat cafes in search of kitten cuddles. These visits have not let me down.
- Dog cafes- Unfortunately, my experience at a dog cafe was not as pleasant. As soon as I entered the cafe, ~20 dogs barked at me and followed me around. Then, the one dog I attempted to pet tried to bite me. Eek!
- Sheep cafe- yes, this is a thing. I do plan to go sometime! I wonder who, how, and why someone decided to create a sheep cafe...
- Camping cafe- with tents, outdoor charcoal grill, and picnic tables, you can "go camping" in the heart of Seoul.
- Hello Kitty cafe- There are several Hello Kitty cafes scattered throughout Seoul, but I ended up going to the mother of all Hello Kitty Cafes. This place essentially is a house/shrine to Hello Kitty. Apparently there's a Hello Kitty Island in Korea as well.
- Poop cafe- Yes, this is also a thing. You can get your drink in a toilet shaped mug (←). They also have poop shaped pastries and scones!
- Mountaintop cafe- I recently went to a cafe nestled in the Bukhan mountains n the northern part of Seoul. The cafe was featured in multiple Korean dramas. With an idyllic view, the cafe was gorgeous.
It's been awesome visiting all these themed cafes. What's not been as ideal is the price of beverages. It's strange. I can get a roll of kimbap for less than 2,000 Won (~$1.50 ) but beverages at these cafes will be between 5,000 Won ($4.50) and 9,000 Won ($8.00). My average meal is cheaper than a cafe beverage. I guess the entire experience justifies the drink price...but still.
What strikes me the most is the novelty of the different types of cafe available to Seoul inhabitants. In my hometown (in Texas) Starbucks was kind of as good as it got. Granted, Philadelphia (where I went to college) had cool cafes, but there definitely is no comparison to the cafe culture in Seoul. I think the myriad of cafes relates to Seoul's population density as well as dessert/cafe culture.
With over 10 million inhabitants, Seoul is home to over half of all South Koreans. That's almost twice the population density of New York City...crazy. This means there is a lot of demand. Demand begets creativity, as cafe owners come up wth more and more innovative ideas to draw in customers.
I think another aspect that leads to a vibrant cafe culture is the cultural tendency to go "multiple rounds". Usually when you decide to catch up with friends in the U.S., you schedule a meeting for a designated amount of time (usually 1-2 hours). You go to a restaurant, eat, and then go your separate ways. I've found that in Korea, a meal with friend(s) will lead to multiple "rounds" (1 차, 2차, 3차, etc). Lunch usually translates into lunch (round 1) + dessert (round 2) + sometimes even coffee (round 3). Dinner can lead to multiple rounds: dinner (round 1) + drinks (round 2) + more food (round 3) + more drinks (round 4), etc). Yes, all these round add up financially. However, this phenomenon is conducive to building community (aka what is a an hour-long catch up session in the US usually translates at least 2 or 3 times the amount of time in Korea).
I've experienced this phenomenon in person with a Korean university student. I met up with someone who was volunteering to teach North Korean defectors. She reached out because we were both working with LiNK. Our dinner started at 5 PM. Several rounds later, we parted ways at 10 PM. This was someone I had just met, but in 5 hours we had talked about our life backgrounds, ambitions, South Korean politics, U.S. politics, cultural differences, romantic life, etc). What I enjoyed about this experience is that compared to social interactions in the US, I felt that I was able to have more meaningful conversation. Yes, there are instances in the US where you can really click with someone and a conversation can go for a long time, but at least in my daily life, this was not the norm. I feel like in Korea, spending time with friends is more about quality than quantity (really devoting a day to spending time with one or two friends vs. having multiple hour-long appointments with several friends in one day).
Seoul is a fast-paced city, not unlike major cities in the U.S. However, I think that cafe culture helps people slow down a bit and meaningfully connect with one other in an intentional way. I can dig it.