Midday on a Monday, I walked briskly into the Shim Story Public Convenience Lounge, hoping to take a quick peek at the café craze sweeping Seoul before resuming my reporting on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Then I lost my shoes. They were taken by a bubbly, bespectacled man named Jung Oon-mo, who handed me slippers and guided me past curtained massage chairs and cubicles containing heated beds and dozing customers.
Soon enough, I was ensconced in a beanbag chair in the common room (nearly all the seating at Shim Story is of the beanbag variety). The initial effect was as if an infirmary and some office space had gotten together and given birth to a spa, with hints of a childhood friend’s basement. Sipping jasmine tea and surrounded by leafy plants as ’70s soft rock wafted through the air, I asked Jung what sort of establishment I had entered. “It’s like a home within the city,” he replied, “but the impact is better than home.” I could see what he meant: a front entry where you were welcomed and offered drinks; a living room that gave off a lazy weekend-morning vibe, complete with magazines, board games, and televisions playing anime; snug, soft-lit bedrooms.
Jung’s lounge belongs to a rapidly expanding array of what might be described as “stress cafés.” (One chain alone, Mr. Healing, has opened 110 branches across the country since 2015.) They are distinguishable from pay-to-nap facilities because of the sheer range of options they offer for body and soul: Patrons enjoy everything from hammocks and mental-health counseling to the “aroma of the forest” and oxygen generators (the air quality in Seoul is awful).