I fear my gushy internal smile seeps to the surface when I reflect on the ways in which life with Pumpkin has skewed my tastes. Six years ago, the overlapping segment of our collective Venn diagram was barely a linear sliver but as the minutes ticked on, the country count toll rose and the experiences became increasingly memorable, our scrawny overlap ballooned like an expectant mother, as our interests and tastes meshed into an indecipherable, blurry cloud.
The influence we have had on each other is easily apparent to all those who know us well.
For starters, I now own a pair of hiking boots and he now understands the word, “amuse bouche.” He has slowed his gait after learning that my little legs struggle to keep up with his brisk pace and I have learned that travel is far more liberating when you don’t pack your hair straighteners. He has slowly come to love the uplifting, unwinding qualities of a beach break with no itinerary and I have surprised myself by volunteering to go on jungle walks in the pouring rain.
Ever since we met, he has worn his previously rarely-seen beaming smile (those are his parents’ words not me patting myself on the back here) and I have learned from him to live in the moment, on our own terms and that life can be much more of an adventure than any stereotypical societal mould would have us believe.
Even more moving though, is when Pumpkin’s tastes don’t overlap with mine – when he finds an activity I will love that he knows he will loathe that he not only agrees to participate in but actually proactively suggests. It is this form of selfless kindness that moves me the most and nothing exemplifies it better than when he accompanied me to the Hello Kitty Café in Hongdae Seoul earlier this year.
Hello Kitty Childhood Memories
I was very much a child of the Sanrio generation. My primitive years were spent in the Middle East where Hello Kitty, the cutesie bow-adorned cat-come-little lady was a character that many young girls wished they knew. I was no different and when I spotted a Hello Kitty watch in a toy shop with my parents, I felt a materialistic longing for the very first time. The watch was nothing revolutionary (or perhaps for that era, it was); it comprised a fabric strap with a plastic Hello Kitty face that you lifted to read the time but the twist, and for a wide-eyed 7-year-old, it was the most innovative twist of all, was that the plastic part of the watch that comprised Hello Kitty’s outfit could be switched with interchangeable plastic outfits.
My parents took note of the sense of wonderment they spotted in me that day and on my next birthday, as I tore through shimmering gift wrap, my miniature fingers failed to keep up with the racing beat of my overjoyed heart. The watch was my pride and joy. I took it to Show and Tell at school. I kept it safely in my treasure box of belongings when we moved to the UK. Along with the straggly, cuddly koala I have had since birth and the Statue of Liberty rubber I mentioned in this post, the Hello Kitty watch still remains securely parked in a drawer of my parental home.
So it was nostalgia more than anything else that drove me to the Hello Kitty Café in Seoul. I didn’t arrive expecting a Michelin starred meal and (spoiler alert), I didn’t get one. But that wasn’t why I went. I went to reminisce about all those moments from my childhood that were punctuated by Hello Kitty. I went to remember my teenage years, when my best friend would return from trips to Hong Kong to see her Dad with her hand luggage filled with Hello Kitty goodies – notepads, toys, stickers, I loved them all.
I revel in knowing that the colourful fun-factor of this synthesised, fictional character, the one that Pumpkin finds silly in immeasurable quantity, lives on in future generations, as I see my 7-year-old niece reliving the trends with every bit the zeal that I did at her age.
In fact, truth be told, even until a couple of years ago, my car was home to a white Hello Kitty fluffy steering wheel cover. No prizes for guessing who removed it and in my defence, it was a gift rather than a self-purchase. I’m not a loopy lady going through a Hello Kitty orientated mid-life crisis.
A Hello Kitty Cafe in Seoul
I am sure there is a part of Pumpkin that questioned whether it was the right thing to tell me about his discovery of the café but he knew I would love it and since we were heading to Hongdae anyway, it seemed a perfect place to pause for a drink.
Once you are in the area, you can’t really miss it. A towering gate with a giant bow hallmarks the entrance to the café, which we were easily able to walk into without a reservation. The assault of pink is all-consuming, less problematic for those of us who conform to gender stereotypes in being able to label this our favourite colour; but perhaps verging on the grotesque side for a man who is repulsed by such shades and such characters. As he took his tentative first steps into this cotton candy floss cocoon, the rich, rosy pink walls, ceilings, plaques, gates and signs did little to allay his grumpiness.
And that was only the outside.
A few (dozen) photos later, we asked for a table for two. We were shown the way in a coarse and half-baked way and a welcoming expression wouldn’t have gone amiss but it was easy to see that this is not a café that depends on its service personnel to acquire custom. Hello Kitty nuts and all those who cling to nostalgia the way I do are going to make their way either here or to one of the numerous Hello Kitty cafes around the world, regardless of whether or not they are seated with a smile.
Credit where credit is due though, the Hello Kitty Café in Hongdae excelled in featuring her kitty-shaped face in every plane throughout the premises. Look closely and you would spot her on your table, in your food, in your coffee, on your chair, in the mirrors, on the shelves, by the fireplace and in the toilets (and those are just the ones I noted). Most people who come here have a soft spot for the Hello Kitty brand so from a marketeer’s perspective, the décor serves its purpose effectively.
Having read several mixed reviews about the food, we weren’t keen to order up a feast, particularly when the Seoul street food scene has so much more on offer to whet the appetite. After we settled into our garishly pink seats and perused the English menus, we decided to go for a round of coffee and hot chocolate and a brownie to share.
The hot drinks, contrary to my expectations, were actually rather tasty, made all the more appealing by the floral motifs on the cups they were served in and the clean lines of the Hello Kitty coffee art. I can’t even draw an outline like this with a pencil on a piece of paper so I have no clue how baristas create such art works out of a bit of foam, milk and cocoa powder on a canvas of coffee.
And in case you’re wondering why my coffee was looking a little jaundiced, it is not a photo filter but rather, a SWEET POTATO LATTE! For all those of you that thought this post was just going to be about a fictional pink cat, clearly you under-estimated the menu. Sweet potatoes are a store cupboard ingredient in our home (there are two in the house as I write this) but to see it in latte form was something entirely quirky to me and that’s coming from London, which has its fair share of novelty coffee finds.
Far from being a tasteless gimmick, the latte had a rich, earthy and wonderfully autumnal sweetness melting through it and as far as the food and drink go, it was definitely the highlight of our visit.
Unfortunately, the brownie, in contrast, was suffering from serious dehydration (I bake mine to be proudly fudgey in the middle) and this one lacked in any discernible chocolate aroma. And since I am not habitually a fan of mousse-based desserts, I opted against the Hello Kitty strawberry and chocolate mousse cakes, despite their Instagram potential.
Prices are on the steeper end of the spectrum compared to other cafes in Seoul but this is not unexpected given that it is a theme café, where your money is buying the experience more than it is the coffee itself, so whilst it would have been nice to have a moist, gooey brownie (go figure), that’s not really what we came for. After all, if you’re seeking out the best brownie in town, would you really go to the Hello Kitty café to locate it?
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Pumpkin who stared around on a few occasions to see if any semblance of a Y chromosome could be seen in the vicinity. Unfortunately, after three sheepish 360 degree sweeps of the room, he gave up on his plight and the aforementioned grumpy frown that his family always tell me he used to sport, made a rapid and assertive resurgence.
“This place is just ridiculous” he ranted repetitively, cursing himself for the generosity (or stupidity) of putting himself in this position.
You’ve all seen the Instagram husband video right? Imagine having to play Instagram husband in the middle of an oasis of pink bows and Hello Kitty faces?!
Even the bladder isn’t spared from a pink backdrop in this café with the bathrooms adopting the same, predictable colour scheme as the rest of the café but Pumpkin would have rather gone into retention than used the facilities there.
And if you are a bit of a souvenir collector, the gift shop is filled with Hello Kitty paraphernalia but by this stage of pink proceedings, the fact that I hadn’t received divorce papers was gift enough so with a final glance at the dolly-mixture like interiors, we made a swift escape.
This is not a café you come to in pursuit of exquisite gourmand patisserie or artisanal desserts but if you ever had a soft spot for Hello Kitty (or you just really want to annoy your husband), this is a must-see café in Seoul.