Seoul, South Korea: Cat cafe versus dog cafe

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

For many years, that was a question that many inhabitants of East Asia's most densely populated cities couldn't answer. Living in small apartments, they were unable to enjoy the delights (and occasional pitfalls) of pet ownership.

Then, in 1998, the world's first cat café opened in Taiwan. The concept spread to Japan, where it became a craze, then onward to the rest of the world.

Seoul was no exception. But in the South Korean capital I'm faced with an additional option: a dog café.

It's not a surprise there are cat and dog cafes within walking distance in Hongdae, perhaps the city's hippest district. Next to Hongik University, its narrow streets are full of student-friendly live music venues, quirky fashion boutiques and colourful cafes.

But how different can they be?

Cat café

The Cheong Chun cat café wouldn't be the easiest business to locate, without its big cut-out placard of a cat on the street. This leads to an alley, and a climb to its third-floor premises.

I've no idea what to expect, with lingering doubts about animal welfare as I enter, place my shoes in a provided locker, apply hand sanitiser, then buy my 8000 won ($9.50) entry ticket from a vending machine.

Once past the entry procedures, however, things couldn't be more mellow.

It's a straightforward set-up: a large room with chairs and tables around the edges, and a cat gym in the centre. This is a complicated wooden structure of platforms and walkways.

But what of the felines? The general rule of cat cafes is that you let the cats approach you, rather than the other way around.

Despite their reputation for aloofness, this happens almost immediately.

An older long-haired grey cat wanders over, looks at me, kneads my leg lightly then jumps on my table. It's happy to sit there for a bit, being patted, before wandering off to a food bowl.

Looking around, I can count at least 20 cats in the room, about half of whom are asleep. The others potter slowly around, investigating and interacting. They seem relaxed and confident, often approaching visitors.

There's something surprisingly chilled, almost Zen-like, about this room, with only the occasionally yowl or hiss breaking the calm radiated by the soothing mood music playing in the background.

I get talking to a group from the Philippines, and we decide that these are the most contented and pampered cats we've ever met. A sign on the wall just above a dozing kitten reads, "I'm lucky to meet a cat."

Dog café

I'm expecting a similar vibe within Bau House, a canine hotspot since 2001.

I couldn't be more wrong. Where the cat café was peaceful and relaxing, this place is noisy and filled with motion.

Twenty or so dogs of all sizes charge around the big interior. Its walls are lined by booths, but these don't prevent pooches running over seated humans to ledges which act as walkways.

The dogs are going off like a frog in a sock, interacting with each other as well as people. They bounce around, moving from table to table, looking for pats and (dogs being dogs) for food.

Aside from a reasonably pricey drink selection (there's no entry fee, but you must buy a drink), the staff sell non-allergenic dog snacks to offer to the hounds.

I buy an orange juice for myself and a pack of long, straw-like canine treats – and chaos ensues.

The moment I sit at a booth, I'm besieged by dogs big and small, including a Labrador who ends up on my lap and a selection of small dogs who stand on my table and the adjacent ledge. It's startling but is also fun, at one with the energy and noise of the place.

I try to feed them all fairly, including the enormous but shy Alaskan Malamute who stands at the back, but am empty-handed in moments.

Other people throw toys for the dogs to chase across the room, or crouch to give them a pat. There are plenty of young Koreans who seem to be strongly connecting with the dogs, especially those canines who'd be way too big to live in an apartment.

By chance I meet the Filipinos I encountered at the cat café, and we agree it might have been better to do the two the other way around – doggy chaos first, cat calm last.

They're both fun, however, and I'm glad I've visited both. Like the yin and yang symbols on the South Korean flag, they're two opposing forces that fit neatly together.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

TRIP NOTES

More information

visitkorea.org.au

Getting there

Cathay Pacific connects to Seoul via Hong Kong, see cathaypacific.com.

Staying there

Ibis Ambassador Seoul Insadong, ibis.com. Affordable accommodation in a historic district. From $100 per night.

Visiting there

Cheong Chun, 12-6 Wausan-ro 21-gil, Seoul; ycat.kr.

Bau House, 64 Yanghwa-ro, Seoul; bau.cyworld.com.

See also: How London's coffee scene got weird

See also: Sorry world, our coffee is better than yours

See also: The best places in the world for coffee

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