Coffee, tea and a taste of beautiful foolishnessOne old rap against Korea was that it was the land of expensive coffee ― three dollars and up a cup!
Thanks to Starbucks, this no longer sounds expensive to North Americans. But it was always a misunderstanding.
Coffee is actually inexpensive in Korea ― you get a good cup even from vending machines. When you pay three dollars, you are not buying coffee. You are buying the coffee shop.
The Korean coffee shop is a vacation in itself, everything in it selected to create atmosphere. It makes Seoul, despite its hustle, one of the easiest cities anywhere in which to get away from it all. Visiting a coffee shop is almost the essential Korean experience.
It all goes back to the ancient tradition of tea culture, the way of tea. Romantics, Beats and hippies, in their day, all were impressed by it. They loved its love of nature, which they thought they shared.
But there is little that’s natural about a Korean coffee shop, or a Korean tea garden. The decor is calculated, the music carefully chosen, the cups finely manufactured. This is not nature. This is multimedia art.
The Western idea of nature is the physical world apart from man. By contrast, every Korean landscape includes a human element: a hillside temple, an old man carrying a bundle on his back. Korean man is a part of, not apart from, his environment.
Western nature is also “a creative and regulative power ... operating in the material world” (Oxford English Dictionary). There is no such power in Korean nature. If there is order, man has put it there. Korean nature is chaos: an absence of meaning, not its hidden presence.
This is its joy: it’s perfectly meaningless, hence not worth worrying about. Korean coffee shops are natural in this way: they celebrate the ephemeral, the incidental. In the words of Okakura’s Book of Tea, their relaxation comes from “evanescence, and ... the beautiful foolishness of things.”
Coffee itself is beautiful because it is common and transitory: a routine ritual, gone in a few sips. It jars, to the Korean mind, to drink coffee in volume from a huge mug. This misses the point.
Any walk through Insadong is a pilgrimage along the way of tea. Shops bear names like I Wish to Throw a Flower: a celebration of seasonality, of routine change, stuffed with blossoms in season. Back to Heaven: nostalgia, love for all that is gone. Windswept Island: wind and water suggest flow and change.
Oh, Have You Come Such a Long Way?: the journey as synecdoche for change. Many coffee shops feature railroad tracks, implying the journey and things past. Western-themed coffee shops are sometimes done up as log cabins.
Halfway up Insa-dong, rounding a corner, is The School Bell Rings: Dang! Dang! Dang! The tolling of a school bell suggests the passage of time, but here it also evokes our common past, as schoolchildren, and reminds us it is gone. The past of pencils and of books, and of rhymes in the schoolyard, “The Schoolbell Rings” being a popular Korean one. A less momentous time, when little hung on any decision we might make.
Inside, we sit at school desks with textbooks inside. There is a blackboard, a dunce’s seat beside it. The menu is written on a ruler. Snacks are served in metal lunch boxes: star candy, Popeye biscuits, ramyeon ttang ― uncooked ramyeon, a favorite children s treat.
The past, good or bad, is gone. It is past help. Nothing we do can matter. Nothing to do, then, but relax with a nice cup of tea.
To visit Insa-dong, exit Chongno 3-ga station and walk west. Turn right just past Tapkol Park. The Schoolbell Rings: Dang! Dang! Dang! is about halfway up the street, in an alley on your right: green, with a school bell on the exterior wall.
by Stephen Roney