Miru Namoo Gallery Cafe, Jeju, South Korea
Winter weather on Jeju provides enough impetus to seek out warm and welcoming retreats. The day of our interview was one of those days. Known by a few foreign residents and locals alike, the Miru Namoo Gallery Café is a cosy space providing a mix of contemporary and traditional ambience and a place in which the founder, Kim Jo Sook, actually lived. Our welcome was one of genuine pleasure as Lee Kwan Hee smiled and guided us in.
Lee told me that it had been a quiet day. Mark, an American teacher and composer, was enjoying the calm piano-side as I began to learn more. Lee says that Kim, a prize-winning writer, originally followed a friend to Jeju 10 years ago and after some time her idea for the café was born. Miru Namoo was opened in April 2002. After about three months, Kim was satisfied with the décor and believed that her concept had been successfully realised. A 1960s building had been transformed into a unique Gallery Café and was named after the Poplar Tree which is abundant in Kim’s home province, Gangwon. Eventually Lee and Kim were to meet.
Lee had spent 12 years in Seoul (working as a freelance reporter) and four months studying in Germany when he began to think that Jeju would be a beneficial place for his family. In common with others, the clean air and living by the sea were two enticements drawing them to the island. In time Lee found Miru Namoo, met Kim and discovered that they had things in common. Their home province of Gangwon was shared. Gangwon is not unlike Jeju Island in that it has a division with the Taebaek Mountain Range at its centre. It’s not a north-south division but an east-west one with Yeongdong comprising the eastern part and Yeongseo the western part. Also unified by writing—Lee of Korean history books for children and Kim of short stories—their Miru Namoo association was at its beginnings.
Before the building’s transformation, Lee discovered that it was a place where artists would meet. This is not surprising as its location is almost at the bottom of Lee Jung Seop Street; a street named after the famous Korean artist who fled in 1950 to Jeju to escape the Korean War.
As time passed, Kim began to consider returning to the mainland. Eventually, Lee and Kim became official partners. Although Kim’s home is once again Gangwon, the two still work closely together and are co-owners – Lee responsible for the “hands-on” management of the café. The evolution of the original concept is now a collaborative effort and there have been some recent changes. Lee has included a movie evening on Wednesdays and added a couple of private areas (one previously Kim’s bedroom) where people can sit and write, think, read, or enjoy time with friends.
Anyone walking through the small doorway into the split-level room with Hanji-covered walls will make their way over wooden floor boards to find a pot belly heater to keep them warm. They will also find a piano to play, a guitar to strum, books to read (currently in Korean), prints and paintings to gaze over, secluded nooks to enjoy, music to listen to, menus to order from, and a host who sincerely welcomes visitors. If you’re visiting for a coffee, oriental tea or tonic, whisky, beer or soft drink, classical music will greet you during the day while popular music is Lee’s choice for evenings.
Lee continues to write but is finding that he has less and less time. He hopes that the unique café will go on to evolve as a place where people meet, feel welcome and are content.
Located almost at the bottom of Lee Jung Seop Street, Seogwipo. Open weekdays and Saturdays from 12noon and closing at around 12 midnight.
– Chris Evans