Upon approaching a coffee shop counter, and being faced with a pretentious cacophony of the black stuff, I often retreat, grumbling, to the safety of English Breakfast Tea. If only I could cleanse the coffee-shop experience of the smooth-talking barista, seemingly only here to highlight my ignorance of the bean.
Thankfully, Jeju has the answer.
“Muin” cafes — unmanned — have removed surplus human contact from the coffee-buying experience, thus leaving us all to serve up our own, and make an impassioned stand against coffee-chain conformity.
These establishments, as diverse as baristas are uniform, give the customer the full run of the house, allowing you to brew your own coffee, scoop your own ice cream, grab your own snacks and even help yourself to the fridge (contents).
Children the freedom of Masil Muin Cafe, free of the watchful eyes of the uptight barista. Photo courtesy Masil Cafe
A point of local pride, Jeju was the first place in Korea to pioneer this business model, and what a statement this makes about our fellow islanders, confirming the social contract is steadfast in this corner of the world.
Settling in, scanning my surroundings and reading the thoughtful messages from former patrons stuck to the walls, my mind drifts in awe to the beauty of reciprocal trust, the pillar upon which island societies are built.
Photo courtesy Altteureu Muin Cafe
It is a cliche, of course, to say Jeju is free of thieves (and gates and beggars), but there are few other places such a concept could thrive, and the sticky-fingered tea leaves seem to keep a respectful distance (with occasional lapses).
The coffee, it must be said, comes virtually theft-proof: only a thief as thick as thieves would steal a brew this bland. And although that sounds a bit harsh, the beans are certainly secondary to the palpable sense of freedom within.
Forget the lifestyle fetishism of your local chain coffee purveyor, you are now of an eccentric wandering tribe of fellow joe-lovers, enthused with a spirit of sharing, much like the Jeju Olle trails along which many of the cafes lie.
Unsurprisingly, cleanliness can be an issue (clean up after yourself!). While many are sparkling fresh and new, some have that dankness of granddad’s sofa (not that you came for luxury).
All considered, these places come highly recommended and are ideal for the student looking for a quiet few hours, or for walkers looking for quick refreshment. They may not have honeybread or a towering bingsu, but they have huge dollops of humanity, albeit in the absence of humans.
May Flower (오월의 꽂)
This was the first muin cafe to open in all Korea! You won’t miss its unique and striking white plaster exterior, plastered on an old Jeju house with a basic interior. A recent addition is the independent outhouse restaurant providing pizzas and pastas.
542, Nokchabunjae-ro, Hangyeong-myeon, Jeju-si
Muin cafe: 10am - 9pm (365 days)
Restaurant: 11am - 6pm (Tuesdays closed)
Fresh coffee, black and herbal teas, cocoa, cookies, juices.
Kim Young Gap Gallery Dumoak
This cafe is located at the back of Kim Young Gap’s Dumoak Gallery, part of a remodeled elementary school displaying Kim’s renowned landscape photography.
137, Samdal-ro, Seongsan-eup, Seogwipo-si
064-784-9907 / dumoak.co.kr
9:30am - 6pm (July-Aug: 7pm / Nov - Feb: 5pm)
Nespresso coffee machine, black teas, herbal teas, cocoa, cookies.
Masil Cafe (마실 카페)
Within Nokgome Anteure Center, this modern cafe has astounding views of nearby Nokgome, Jogeun Nokgome and Gwenmul Oreum. Surrounded by glass windows on three sides with a wide balcony, the scenery is unbeatable!
165, Nokgome-gil, Aewol-eup, Jeju-si
Coffee, tea, drinks, green tea, cookies, candy.
1,000 - 5,000 won
Siseoni Meomuneun Gallery Cafe (시선이 머무는 갤러리 카페)
Exhibiting over 80 pictures of Mt. Hallasan’s wild orchids, this quaint cafe’s name means “eye-catching gallery” and it also boasts a pottery and tea garden.
463, 516-ro, Seogwipo-si (Sanghyo-dong)
9am - 10pm
Photo gallery and pottery gallery
Flower, herb and citrus teas plus toast and more.
Noeul Eondeok (노을언덕 )
Sunset Hill in English, and located on Jeju City’s coastal road, this is probably the most popular of all the muin cafes. Spacious and perfect for groups, its popularity is inspite of the dank lingering smell we talked about earlier.
360, Seohaean-ro, Jeju-si
064-712-7898 / cafe.naver.com/7127898
7am - 11pm
Coffee, Juice, Organic teas, icecream, cookies
Muin Cafe Sanchaek (무인카페 산책)
At the end of Olle 15, or start of Olle 16, the name means “stroll” and this is a classic muin cafe with customers’ messages on the walls and a selection of organic coffee, herb teas and beverages.
l’ isola Muin Cafe (리솔라 무인카페)
Another classic, this place achieves the required quaintness of the muin cafe genre with hardwood furniture, a handmade table and charming props.
730 Seoseongil-ro, Seongsan-eup, Seogwipo-si
9:30am - 10pm
Americano, espresso, hot chocolate, chocomilk, caffe latte, cappuccino, juice.
1,500 ~3,000 won
Bia Muin Cafe (비아 무인카페)
Quiet and opening late on the Aewol coastal road, this is perfect for people looking for a contemplative spot that won’t burn a hole in the pocket. It also has a relaxing garden with benches and sea views.
Japari Muin Workshop Cafe (자파리 무인공방카페)
With wooden sculptures and works of art throughout the interior, this place is truly unique. It is run by the famous Japari arts group and the creativity that went into making people feel at home makes this clear.
Altteureu Muin Cafe (알뜨르 무인카페)
Near Olle 10 and 11 and adjoining a guesthouse of the same name, this place is clean and fresh with distinctive features including the wooden beer mats individually decorated by visitors, Jeju basalt rock decoration, works of art and customer PCs.
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