Archives for posts with tag: coffee

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Before I went to Seoul last week for a visa run, I knew absolutely nothing about the city or Korean culture in general. I really only had one goal for my trip: go to a cat cafe.

I had read a couple of articles about the animal cafe phenomenon in Tokyo, as well as this post about a cat cafe in Oakland, California. Apparently, the idea developed in Taipei and spread to other urban areas across Asia where most people lack the space to keep their own cats (or other pets). The concept seems like heaven on earth: imagine sitting in a cozy cafe, with a purring cat in your lap, a mug of coffee in your hand, and free wifi all around! Okay, it may not seem like heaven to everyone. You have to really, really, like cats.

I had never heard of a cat cafe in China,* so I figured that my trip to Seoul would be my chance to experience the magic. I just had to cross my fingers that I’d be able to find one.

*I’ve since found out that both Beijing and Shanghai have cat cafes! But I didn’t know about them at the time.

Luck was on my side when I passed a sign for a cat cafe almost the moment I arrived in Seoul. I was staying in an awesome guesthouse (non-sponsored shout out to UBT!) in Hongdae, a vibrant, lively neighborhood located near Hongik University. If you ever find yourself in Seoul, Hongdae is the place to go for bars, clubs, public art, cheap accessory shops, and themed cafes of all varieties.

I made a mental note of the cat cafe sign, and decided to come back on my last full afternoon in Seoul. I would be doing a half-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone that morning, and I thought the cat cafe would make a fittingly surreal contrast.

On the appointed day, I bee-lined it back to Hongdae and followed the cat cafe signs…only to find that the cafe was closed, in willful defiance of the business hours printed on the door. I peered through the window where I could see a gray cat perched on a scratching post, just out of reach behind the glass.

Dejected, I used the free wifi from a neighboring hair salon to search for another cat cafe in Hongdae. The first result suggested Tom’s Cat, a cafe near the university gate that was apparently popular with foreigners. Filled with renewed hope, I wandered around and got lost several times before I eventually found the sign for Tom’s Cat—located in a building that was clearly undergoing a massive renovation. Sadly, Tom’s Cat is no more.

About to give up, I decided to look up one more cafe I’d seen online. This one was called Cat’s Attic (although I think this was the Korean name; the English just said “Hello Cat”). For detailed directions and lots of cute kitty pictures, check out this post.

I followed the directions and there it was, the bright yellow sign beckoning me inside like the pearly gates.

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Once inside, I was instructed to take off my shoes and put on some plastic flip-flops, then wash my hands with hand sanitizer. They had a poster on the wall with profiles of all the different cats, but sadly I couldn’t read this because it was all in Korean. I was handed a card with rules for how to interact peacefully and safely with the cats.

From what I have heard, all of this is considered standard procedure at cat cafes around the world.

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As for the actual “cafe” part, this works differently at different establishments. Some cat cafes charge per beverage like an ordinary coffee shop, while others charge by the hour. This particular cat cafe charged a flat cover fee of 8000 KRW (about $8), which included one drink from the menu and unlimited time in the cafe. This might seem steep for an ordinary beverage, but I figured it was worth it both for the experience, and because it covered the cost of caring for the cats.

It was very warm inside—probably for the cats’ comfort—so I decided to order an iced green tea latte. They drew a cat on it with chocolate syrup.

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Despite the heat, the air in the cafe felt very fresh due to several fans and air conditioners positioned around the room. It was also sparkling clean, without a hint of cat smell.

I picked a table by the wall and sat down to take in the scene. The walls were covered with shelves, scratching posts, and cozy cubbyholes, several of which were occupied. The chairs had little cat hammocks hanging underneath. I even noticed some flat platforms affixed a few inches below the ceiling for the cats to explore. It was hard to know how many cats there were, since many were hiding, but I would guess 15-20.

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After sitting for a while and drinking my latte, the owner came over to me carrying a big piece of flowery fabric, which she draped over my lap. I had no idea what was going on. Then she selected a cat who was curled up on a shelf on the wall, picked him up, and placed him abruptly into my lap. The cat barely even registered the disruption; he just curled back up and continued sleeping.

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Eventually, the cat woke up and jumped off (or maybe I was getting restless and gently nudged him, who knows). In the center of the room was a big gym mat where several customers were sitting and playing with the cats, and I went over to join them. This was where the social cats gathered, and there were lots of them: big, long-haired white ones, an orange one with short stubby ears, and a playful calico who started attacking this one girl’s trench coat with remarkable vigor. I noticed that the vast majority of customers were girls—in fact, I only saw two boys, and both looked like their girlfriends had dragged them in against their will. I realized that the flowery fabric I had been given was actually a long skirt, and that several of the girls were wearing them over their clothes to protect against shedding. There were a few foreigners in the mix too, including the owner of the aforementioned trench coat, who was Australian.

One of the more noteworthy cats was this little guy:

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I grew up with some very ugly cats (RIP Hobie), but this guy honestly out-uglied anything I’d ever seen before. In addition to lacking whiskers and generally looking like a plucked chicken, he also felt very, strangely, warm to the touch. But he was clearly a sweetheart, and he sought me out twice to sit on my lap.

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Here are a few pictures of the other cats, in case that last picture gives you nightmares.

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Although Cat’s Attic had a lot of cats in a pretty small space, I was happy to see that they all seemed clean and healthy, and that they had plenty of hidden spaces to retreat to when they wanted to get away from people.

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While Cat’s Attic exists purely for entertainment, I have heard of some inspiring places—particularly in the US—that operate as animal shelters as well. Meow Parlour in New York, for example, takes in rescue cats and encourages customers to adopt.

This doesn’t mean that classic cat cafes like Cat’s Attic aren’t worth a visit, however; if they can bring some joy to cat-less city dwellers, then cat cafes are making the world a better place! That said, I might need to start planning a trip to New York…

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I haven’t written about food in a long time, mostly because our meals in the Laohegou nature reserve get pretty monotonous after a while. I know I shouldn’t complain, since our food is actually quite good (not to mention free, plus I don’t have to cook it myself)…but I still find myself craving some variety now and then.

Luckily, last week I went to Seoul for my visa run (aka mandatory vacation)! Here are a few of the more noteworthy things I gorged on in South Korea:

1. Churros

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I am ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about South Korea when I bought my tickets to Seoul and set off on a visa run. So what was my first impression of the country when I poked my head out of the metro for the first time? Man, these people like churros. This wasn’t quite what I expected, but seriously—they sell churros everywhere! Street Churros, Mr. Churro, Churro 101…the streets are dotted with little shops selling long sticks of Mexican-style fried dough, coated in cinnamon sugar and accompanied by your choice of dipping sauces and toppings. Most of the churros were made to order, pulled hot from the fryer and handed to you in a paper cone. It took a lot of restraint for me not to order sixteen churros a day and never eat anything else. But I’m glad I saved room for some of Seoul’s other offerings, such as…

2. The Thunder Bomb

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Just look at this beauty! Sweet milk ice cream underneath a fluffy beard of interesting-colored cotton candy, topped with a little white chocolate lightening bolt. How could I resist? Served up by the science lab-themed ice cream shop Remicone, the Thunder Bomb is apparently super trendy right now. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Although it didn’t taste quite as good as it looked—the cotton candy had a weird minty flavor that wasn’t my favorite—the contrast of textures between the warm, fuzzy “thunder” and the smooth, cold ice cream was very satisfying.

3. Bingsu

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Continuing in the “cold sweet” category, this traditional Korean dessert consists of a massive pile of fluffy shaved ice served with sweet toppings such as red bean paste (patbingsu), mango, or other delectable things. These desserts are tasty and extremely photogenic—but often quite expensive, as I found out only after ordering the mango bingsu pictured above. It cost 10,800 won, or about $10.80! Oh well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that experiencing new places is much more fun and relaxing when you don’t worry too much about money. Although this goes against my frugal nature, sometimes it’s better to just shrug your shoulders and fork over a few extra dollars for an experience you’ll remember forever. Since I spend very little money in my day-to-day life in Laohegou, I figure this bingsu was worth it!

4. Coffee

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Okay, this isn’t really food, but since I consumed more coffee than anything else during my time in Seoul, I’m going to count it anyway. Besides churros, one of my first impressions of South Korean culture was that people really like their coffee. They sell coffee everywhere! You can find it in subway stations, themed cafes, dessert shops, and even at the more traditional Korean restaurants. They’ve got American chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, Korean chains like Caffé Bene and Tom N Tom’s Coffee, plus adorable little independent coffee shops on every corner. Over my 3+ days in Seoul, I had coffee in several of the aforementioned chains, as well as in a traditional dessert shop, a cat café, a nature-themed café with live sheep outside, and a subway vending machine (it only cost forty cents!) Similar to China, I found that many of Seoul’s coffee shops did not open until 11am or even later; in both countries, it seems that coffee is seen more as an afternoon luxury than an early morning necessity. But I also noticed that some of the subway coffee shops were open during morning rush hour, and they seemed to be doing very steady business, so maybe this is changing in Korea.

5. Kimchi

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You didn’t think I’d forget about kimchi, did you? This pickly side dish is emblematic of Korean culture, and a great source of local pride. Seoul even has an entire museum dedicated to the many varieties and preparations of kimchi. While I did not make it to the museum, I did eat a fair amount of kimchi in the form of kimchi fried rice (bokumbap). It was so delicious I ate it two days in a row (from two different restaurants). Both times, the bokumbap came with several little side dishes containing…more kimchi! Woohoo!

Unfortunately, my time in Seoul was far too short for me to really explore the full range of Korean cuisine. I also sabotaged my chances by eating too many desserts (see: almost every item on this list), thus leaving little room for anything else. Maybe I was feeling sugar-deprived from spending so long in rural China! In any case, it’s back to spicy stir-fries and rice for me—at least until my next visa run.