Announcing an impending trip to Seoul seems to be a silent invitation for the most distant of acquaintances to impose on you to purchase products on their behalf. These luggage extras occasionally comprise snacks or K-pop merchandise, but it is the South Korean obsession with beauty that frequently makes the checklists.
If you plan it right, however, picking up face masks and too-many emulsions does not have to be the chore you imagine. Beauty cafés in the capital city have turned these pit stops into veritable respites, juxtaposing skincare with light or lavish treats that embody their ethos. Forget jostling with overeager fellow shoppers for the best bargains. Instead, put your feet up (figuratively) and mediate over tea until the crowd lessens and you can browse at leisure.
We stumble upon New Origin Café in Jongno-gu by accident, a short stroll from the Dongwha Duty Free emporium. The café’s counter on the right purveys juices, hot and iced teas and Western-style coffees as well as light bites and desserts. Running the length of the store is an enticing beauty bar, with natural oil soaps set by sinks and a friendly assistant eager to lend a hand. A full-height shelf housing jars of raw ingredients emphasises the natural philosophy guiding the collection of labels here, spanning the eponymous New Origin brand to Bee-Remedy, Deerest and Little MaMa. These are arranged before the running windows that flood the exposed-brick interiors with sunlight and highlight the gilded trimmings.
A mixed crowd populates the few tables, with more sprawling seating available upstairs. Our order arrives — two iced Americanos, a massive mug of Ganges chai latte with spices surfing on the thick froth and a cinnamon bark for stirring, and a vanilla soft serve, dense and intensely milky. Alongside each is a skincare sample, tiny packs of cleansers and lotions arranged on the serviettes — not at all a bad deal.
Innisfree is on our shopping list, but we intentionally opt for the Myeongdong outlet that hosts its wares within the Innisfree Green Café. Located along the main shopping thoroughfare, the ground-floor store is a scene of frenetic activity, so we head to the café upstairs to wait out the frenzy.
The first all-natural beauty brand from South Korea’s Jeju Island, Innisfree incorporates native ingredients such as green tea, volcanic clusters and tangerines into products renowned for gentleness on the skin. That same culture of clean, green minimalism saturates the space and menu. The counter at the far end touts infused teas, fresh juices, light salads and desserts such as the signature Cloud Soufflé Hotcake. Recipe cards introduce the menu items and spell out the ingredients to help you decide on your order.
Eclectic seating in light wood is spaced out well across the first floor, ranging from long tables with benches to window-side seats overlooking the bustle of the street markets outside. Plants of all sizes stretch and hang from every surface — on the living walls, on every table, on shelves, by doorways and in corners. The frothy green tea latte is easy on the palate with a side of concentrated green tea for tailored bitterness while the citrus and stone fruit Balance Tea Water proves to be as refreshing as the décor. No giveaways here but the brand is famed for its affordability and value for money, and samples sometimes accompany purchases.
Also in Myeongdong but a world away in character is the Stylenanda Pink Hotel, named after trendy Korean fashion and beauty brand Stylenanda. A beacon for Instagrammers, the six-storey space is decked out entirely in the flamboyant pink of flamingos and princess dreams. Basement access is restricted, but the upper five floors of the Art Deco “hotel” are a haven for all things feminine and fun. The Lobby and Spa (Level 2) are reserved for 3CE skincare and cosmetics; the Rooms floor (3) for all in-house products; and the Laundry and Pool levels (4 and 5 respectively) boast apparel and a café, with a rooftop terrace crowning the building.
Gilded fittings and quirky accents such as a bathtub topped with flowers cement amusement as the name of the game here. Of the three beauty cafés we visited, this is by far the most crowded, with throngs of customers trying out products and taking photos. The café on Level 5 offers some solace, outfitted in thematic (if slightly kitschy) decor such as blue-and-white tiles, striped awnings and umbrellas and bright yellow curtains. The menu encompasses poolside treats the likes of shakes, cream soda, cotton candy coffee and indulgent baked goodies, served on bubblegum pink furniture. The drinks are nondescript but this place is truly a shopper’s paradise.
It might be best to head to one of Seoul’s many specialist restaurants or cafés for a genuinely good meal or coffee, but in case you happen to be in the neighbourhood or are strategically plotting routes to maximise time, an immersive beauty café seems to be a distinctly Korean experience that promises a gratifying pick-me-up while ticking souvenirs off the list. If nothing else, it is worth doing for the ’gram.
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This article first appeared on Oct 28, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.