If there is one thing from Korea that I really wish the UK would adopt more, it’s café culture. I’m not talking stopping in on the local Starbucks or Caffe Nero on the way to work, or the weekend chats that sometimes happen in a Costa. I’m talking a dedicated appreciation of independent cafés and coffee shops that Korea kinda has in spades. It is one of the reasons I fell in love with this country.
Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely seen an increase of independent eateries on my instagram feed – I think it’s pretty hard to peruse the app and not see someone somewhere taking a shot in front of Peggy Porschen’s wonderful exterior. But it’s not the same level.
I mean, Seoul boasts around 18,000 cafés alone, which gives it the top spot in cafés per capita worldwide. That does include the big chains too, but 18,000 cafés in Seoul alone. 18,000 operating at least.
Ca·fe cul·ture – a lifestyle characterized by regular social visits to cafés or coffeehouses, typically associated with European countries such as France or Italy.
Putting the typical associations of that definition aside, Seoul has really taken the phrase to heart and morphed it into something that is distinctly Korean.
If you search ‘서울카페’ / ‘홍대카페’ / ‘연남동카페’ / ‘망원카페’ / ”종로카페’ / ‘성수카페’ / ‘상수카페’ / just [location that you want] + 카페, and the less populated but more english friendly ‘seoulcafe’ / ‘hongdaecafe’ / ‘mangwoncafe’ hashtags, you can wade through thousands upon thousands of pictures on instagram of various cafés in Korea. From Seoul to Busan, you can find adorable little spots that are thriving despite the running joke that South Korea changes so fast it could give you whiplash.
(Seriously, half of the early places that I covered in The Food Series are gone, never to return, it’s sad.)
But the cafe scene seems to have somehow, on the whole, sidestepped the closure curse. There are cafes that popped up during my year abroad that are still going strong nearly six (wow) years later, due to the fact that cafe culture is so strong here. It’s honestly really wonderful to see – and, of course, take part in.
I guess the part that makes it distinctly Korean, is how ingrained it has become into the Korean lifestyle. How much of a necessity it has become – and not just in the way that caffeine is highly addicting.
You see, Korean culture hinges on the ‘group’ more than the ‘self’. In Korean language, the word for ‘me/my/mine/’ and ‘I’ does exist, but the collective is more often used. Not for things that are distinctly yours, such as names, but for other things shared by a group or community, or if many of those in a group or community posses the same/similar kind of thing 우리 ‘uri’ is used.
“Korean people use ‘uri’ when something is shared by a group or community, or when many members in a group or community possess the same or similar kind of thing “
For example, in English, you’d say ‘my country’, ‘my house’, or ‘my mum/mom’, but in Korean you say ‘우리 나라’ (uri nara – our country) , ‘우리 집’ (uri jib – our house) and ‘우리 엄마’ (uri eomma – our mum/mom). It signifies a shared connection with the Korean extended family – that Koreans are intended to ‘live together as one family‘.
So how does this play into the survival of café culture?
우리 perpetuates the collective, a construct that is central to Confucianism, the thread that runs through Korea’s history and shapes a lot of the current cultural norms. Even though it is slowly (slowly) changing, the group is still preferable to the singular; one of the reasons that 먹방 (meokbang/mukbang) became so popular before being released to the world, was that it is often awkward to eat alone in Korea, and so people would watch other people eat while eating themselves. Cafés are the perfect place to congregate in a low-pressure environment.
If the collective helps the survival, then the desire for a ‘third place’ perpetuates the need. A place that is not home or work, but ‘other’. Somewhere that is both comforting and relaxing, somewhere that is ‘healing’. It manifests in many ways, symbolic or literal, but with a 52 hour working week (cut from 68 hours in June of 2018), it’s not surprising that the average Korean is seeking a way to decompress.
It’s also not as simple, often, as ‘just getting a hobby’, or finding something fun to do at home. Property prices are no joke in Korea, Seoul especially, and trying to find a place with an inch of extra room is going to set you back a considerable sum of money. Money that most of the target demographic for cafés do not have.
(And before anyone says ‘well they should save that money instead of spending it!! Then they an afford a house!!!!’ – first of all, property in Korea is a convoluted hellscape that I have navigated and if you’re not living at home with your parents, or house sharing, places are small. Really, really small. And that’s with a deposit of the equivalent of $5000 + rent on top. Oh and utilities.)
So if you do manage to find a place and move out of your parents’ digs, it’s probably not going to have a lot of room to entertain one friend, let alone a group you’d like to hang out with. Or it’s probably not going to be large enough to allow your hobby of choice if it requires an centimetre of extra room. If that’s not the case, then you’re either extremely lucky, still living with your parents, or have a family of your own… which isn’t exactly ideal for times when you want to ‘escape’.
And that’s where cafés come in.
With so many places to choose from, how do these cafés even stay in business? Differentiation. Not the mathematics concept, but the process of becoming or making something different. Sure, at the crux of it all, they have the same base concept: serve customers coffee/tea/juice/cake, earn money. But capitalise on one specific theme or aspect, and that is how they stay in business when they’re not a scarily huge franchise.
You have your novelties: Korea is famous for its abundance of pet cafés, from dog and cat to raccoon and meerkat. There’s a sheep café, a bunny café, a reptile café, there used to be a parrot cafe but naver tells me that it shut.
If animals aren’t your thing, then there are also novelty themed cafés. A Harry Potter café opened recently, with a lot of fanfare. There’s Cafe Yeonnamdong 223-14 (YND223-14), which recently went viral for its 2D interior (can confirm the drinks are good, the owner is also lovely). The poop café is also a popular spot of tourists if you fancy having your drinks out of crockery that are small scale replicas of various bathroom fixtures.
You have your cafés with beautiful interiors, cafés with speciality cakes, multifunctional cafés Study cafés, book cafés, board game cafés, celebrity cafés, cafés that are purposefully set up with instagram and viral marketing in mind. Comic/book/character themed cafés, plant and flower cafés, country specific cafés, the list is somewhat endless.
You also have your cafés that are pared back to the point where they only serve a handful of items, your tiny cafés with barely any seating, and then those with pages and pages in their menus.
There is literally something for everyone.
It’s also pretty great that there are specific areas dedicated to the wonder that is Korean café culture, whole physical streets with different establishments to check out and support. And, to be honest, it’s fun to go and find a new place to experience.
The photos here are from Cafe Layered, a british style cafe/bakery that has two locations: one just outside of Anguk Station, the other in the popular cafe area of Yeonnamdong. The cakes here are really good if you’re looking for that british style cake – denser with far more body than the typical Korean style. Although I was a little thrown off by literal creamed butter on top of the Victoria Sponge…
So yup, if this super long post didn’t make it clear I think the whole concept of Korean café culture is fascinating, and it’s something that I really missed when I was last in the UK.
Let me know what you think – I haven’t been back in blighty for a while, is café culture becoming more of a thing?