Tucked away in a side street near an urban park named Seoul Forest is a tea shop that barely seats 10. Here, you can’t talk. Your phone must be on silent. No shoes allowed.
The rules have one aim. Relax. Just space out.
As South Koreans enter the living-with-corona phase of the pandemic, some are easing back into social life by visiting public spaces where they can be alone and do very little. Nothing is the new something in South Korea as people desperately seek refuge from the pressures of living as functioning adults in a global pandemic in a high-stress and fast-paced society with soaring real estate prices and often-grueling work schedules.
At a Space Out Competition this year, competitors sought to achieve the lowest heart rate possible while sitting in a “healing forest” on the southern island of Jeju.
And the concept is seeping out into a handful of public spaces in South Korea. This month, theaters throughout the country premiered a movie simulating a 40-minute plane ride above and through clouds. Tickets for “Flight,” a project backed by Megabox, a major movie theater company, are just under $6. A tagline reads: “Take a brief rest through the fluffy clouds.”
It’s a sequel to a movie released this spring, “Fire Mung”: 31 minutes of footage of a burning campfire.
Spacing out is known in Korean as “hitting mung,” a slang usage of the word “mung” to describe a state of being totally zoned out. (In this case, “mung” describes a state of blankness.) With the weather change this fall, now popular are the terms “forest mung” and “foliage mung,” meaning spacing out while looking at trees or foliage. There’s “fire mung,” or spacing out while watching logs burn, and “water mung,” being meditative near bodies of water.
放空在韩语中的表达是hitting mung，用mung这个词来形容出神的状态，表示大脑一片空白。入秋变天后，最流行的词语是forest mung（森林放空）和foliage mung（树叶放空），意思是看着树或树叶发呆。类似的还有fire mung（火边放空）和water mung（水边放空）。
Cafes like Green Lab, the shop near Seoul Forest, have been featured in local media reports and have enjoyed a steady stream of visitors throughout the pandemic by offering spaces to heal and “hit mung.” Over tea, customers can read, write poetry, meditate or simply stare out at the trees.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Jung Jae-hwan, 38, took a group of colleagues to the shop. As the head of a skin-care brand, Hyggee, Jung said he had been looking for ways to find peace as he hustles in an intensely competitive business world. He has tried Pilates and yoga but wanted to find a place that would require him to do nothing — and ended up at Green Lab.
"I wanted to be able to press the stop button and take a moment for myself, but I feel like I constantly have to do something,” he said.
"In this space, the rule is that I must do nothing,” he said. “It made space in my brain. I even read a book, enjoyed the smell of diffusers, looked at flowers, wrote poetry. I started getting new ideas, one by one, and I felt so refreshed.”
One of his colleagues, Ahn Areum, said she had heard of the Space Out Competition but didn’t know places such as Green Lab existed. She was eager to check it out and said she had been looking for ways to cope with her pandemic anxieties and daily stresses.
"I’ve been so tired, and I don’t even have time to space out. After work, I go home, and I have to do housework, and then I barely have 30 minutes to an hour before I need to sleep. I spend that time on my phone. So with a space like this, I can actually focus on taking a break,” said Ahn, 32.
Similar spaces have opened in other parts of the country.
At a Jeju cafe named Goyose, the upstairs area is designated by reservation for people to spend time alone. The cafe provides stationery so that you can write letters to yourself over coffee and dessert.
On Ganghwa Island, off South Korea’s west coast, a cafe named Mung Hit also offers no-activity relaxation areas. In one section is a single chair facing a mirror for anyone who wants to sit and stare. There are nooks for meditating, reading, sitting by a pond or the garden, or enjoying mountain views. No pets or children are allowed.
Ta Jung Kim, 32, found the cafe online and recently visited it to get away from the city. There were other visitors, but she found enough nooks to be alone with minimum contact with others and to clear her head.
"As I sat there, secluded and relaxed, taking in the view and drinking coffee, I couldn’t help but space out,” she said. “I felt so comforted, and I felt like my heart opened up. The busy thoughts in my head disappeared, and I came back with a more positive outlook.”