Seoul’s Soothe Operators

In the overworked South Korean city, people will take sleep and relaxation where they can get it.  
Seoul’s Soothe Operators 2
The Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul is an almost 11-kilometre long recreational space for locals. Photo by: Gw. Nam/ Moment/ Getty Images

Normally I detest relaxing on holidays. It feels utterly decadent and wholly pointless; a rebuke to great cities and what they contain. What is the purpose of going to a new place to just sip tea in a cafe or imbibe beer on a hammock? (Never mind, don’t answer that.)

In Seoul I stuck to my natural instincts at first, and barnstormed through the city like a politician on a campaign trail. But after three days of a conference and three days of sightseeing, I succumbed to the national malaise: chronic tiredness. I was ready to succumb to the national craze: a visit to a “relaxation cafe”.

On a balmy autumn day, I found myself staring at a moustache on the third floor of a building in downtown Seoul. This was the cheerful moustache of the Mr Healing logo, a chain with dozens of branches sprinkled throughout the city and representing part of the country’s sleep industry, estimated at 2 trillion Korean won.

Seoul’s residents are notoriously overworked, underslept and exhausted at all times, by all accounts. South Koreans work longer hours than any other employees in the developed world, sleep fewer hours and live in a society with a high suicide rate. They may be the world’s 11th largest economy, but they really need to catch a break.

And so did I. At 6pm, after pounding 10 kilometres on my feet, I was ready to be swept off them. The bright reception of the Mr Healing branch that I picked was clean and welcoming. Adele and Taylor Swift hummed in the background. A few people sipped their drinks at tables. English was of little use, so some articulate hand waving later, I picked the most basic option on the menu: half an hour in a massage chair for 9,900 KRW/Rs600 (drink included).

Parting with the cash, I entered the quiet open-plan room cordoned off into cabins. To dispel any ambiguity, the wall in front of me bore a large framed painting of Van Gogh’s “Siesta”—you know the one with farmers sunk soporific in haystacks? Subtle. The gurgle, rattle and sputter of massage machines gently doing God’s work filled the dim room.

Seoul’s Soothe Operators 1

In Seoul’s busy life, parks also become work stations. Photo by: Ha Hyungwoo/Dinodia Photo Library

I emptied my pockets as instructed, slipped on the bulbous plastic footwear I was handed and shoved myself into position. The chair buzzed to life. Over the next several minutes it pummelled and pushed, manipulated and massaged me into catatonic submission. Half an hour later I hobbled out, searching for a centre of gravity—and my promised free drink.

Ryan Lee, a nattily dressed Korean businessman, had also just come out of his session and was also nursing his free beverage. “Between meetings I am very exhausted, and there is no place to go for an hour or two,” he said, closing his laptop. “I don’t want to go to a coffee shop every time. Here I get coffee and a massage. It’s perfect.” He was right—I had been to a few of the packed Starbucks outlets and despaired of finding a chair, let alone one that would massage me.

Seoul-born Lee was on a month-long business trip from Vancouver, and visited an outlet like this roughly once a week. He went on to tell me of movie theatres that had napping times and the culture of hard work and hard partying that left people frazzled. “The reason we have such places is because people are stressed out,” he said. “Seoul is an expensive city to live in, students study a lot and the job market is competitive.”

South Korea is technologically advanced and highly developed, but cultural pressures and social taboos prevail. Students shoulder enormous academic burdens, there is an inexorable premium on looking good, and social hierarchies inhere, all of which ratchets up the tension in daily life. This has forced the government to consider lifestyle-improving measures, while fuelling a booming industry around repose.

“In Korea most people are tired,” said Jung Oon-mo, the owner of Shim Story Public Convenience Lounge, another such enterprise. “Parks are few, distances are vast. There is no place for people to stretch their legs during the day.”

In the plush suburb of Gangnam–referenced in the pop hit “Gangnam Style”–in a first story location, Jung has monetised sleep. Manning the counter along with his wife, Shim has all the avuncular charm of a mom and pop shop.

People filtered in as the afternoon progressed, and were divested of their shoes and handed a pair of house slippers instead. A few lolled on plump cushions in a lounge strewn with bean bags, television screens and magazine-stacked tables. With the soothing tempo of instrumental music and the hushed air of a meditation retreat, I could see why Shim was doing such good business. All the sleeping cabins were full the day I visited, as were the relaxation rooms–with bean bags instead of beds–and Oonmo led me through to take a look, instructively holding his finger to his lips. His average headcount of 80 visitors a day included teenagers and senior citizens.

Seoul’s Soothe Operators

Myeong-dong is Seoul’s biggest shopping district, and a must-visit for tourists. Photo by: 501room/shutterstock

When he first opened the place in February 2016 it was quickly dubbed a “sleep cafe”, but Jung insisted it was not just a patch of real estate for snoozing at lunch hour. As he chatted, I drained my iced tea and sank further into my bean bag. “The original intention,” he said, pointing to the slogan painted on the wall behind him. “Was to give people a place to relax, recharge, refresh.”

I took those words to heart. I’d tried massage chairs and sleeping lounges, all that remained was the ultimate pitstop for reckless indulgence: a spa. On my final day in the city, monuments and museums safely ticked off, I decided to dedicate the seven hours before my flight to a jjimjilbang, as spas or bathhouses are known. Lee had already alerted me to the city’s penchant for glorious shut-eye, showing me videos of comatose people splayed on spa floors, asleep wherever they could find place. Even if I couldn’t spend the night at one like many people chose to, a daytime visit was certainly in order.

Spas are ubiquitous, and surprisingly cheap, considering how expensive the rest of the city is. Siloam Spa in central Seoul is a five-story bulwark against everything that addles these frantic urban denizens: a place to luxuriate and hibernate, and do the hard work of doing nothing at all.

At check-in I traded my clothes, shoes and luggage for locker keys, towels, and the standard-issue Siloam uniform: orange t-shirt, red shorts. It felt like joining a cult. The cult of extreme leisure.

There were multiple rooms, each with distinctive properties and highfalutin promises of vitality, harmony, immortality, world peace, whathaveyou. A movie was played in the cinema room every afternoon, and there was a gym, restaurant and multiple lounging areas. The topmost floor had dormitories–including a separate section for snorers.

I recycled myself through each of the rooms on the fourth floor–jade, Loess ball, forest and so on–sampling varied temperatures and environments, aromatics and sensations, each apparently hard at work on some or other corporeal improvement that I could not even fathom. Need your metabolism stimulated? To the charcoal room it is. Feel like some “shiny and elastic” skin? It’s the salt fomentation room for the win. Diminishing “vital power”? Head for jade.

Outside there might have been bad traffic, worse bosses and a nuclear neighbour–but here, in this little island, real life was on hold. On the straw mats in the main halls across floors, people were partaking of what I by now knew to be the national past time: siestaing. I too lay supine against a log and watched Korean television for a while.

More than two hours had already passed by this point. I worked my way to the lowest level, now emboldened to tackle the saunas. Gingerly stepping into the no-clothing-allowed area clutching the fig leaves of two tiny towels, I forayed towards the various hot pools and steamy saunas. On one side a bunch of massage ladies was at work, and I later parted with an extra 10,000 KRW/Rs 610 for a basic 20-minute scrubbing-cum-massage that was both intensive and extensive.

So far, so relaxing. I exited Siloam four hours after arriving, ready to take on the world oxygenated, rejuvenated, exfoliated. In short, I had come to Korea and traded my old body in for a new one. And without the fuss of plastic surgery so beloved to this nation. Now if only Kim Jong-un would hop across and sample some of this sleep-sauna-siesta routine. Maybe we’d finally get some world peace.

  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.

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