Pause the World; I Want to Get Off...Prison-Themed Resort

by David Kendall , 07/04/2017


Know anyone overwhelmed? Anyone thinking “Stop the world; I want to get off”?  At a place in Gangwondo, they can at least pause and unplug from it. A Korean couple created the non-profit Happitory (a Happy-Factory amalgam) precisely to offer guests voluntary solitary confinement. Think of it as nearly 24 hours of peaceful self-reflection -- a temple stay in a clean, modern setting without the crowds, packed-schedule, monks or temple.

The unconventional resort opened in 2013 and sits in the countryside by Hongcheon about 90 minutes east of Seoul. The motivation for this “healing center for people feeling a lot of stress” came to co-founder Kwon Yongsuk at the turn of the millennium as he half-seriously pleaded with judicial acquaintances to place him in solitary confinement. He was trying to decide whether to leave his demanding, frustrating post as prosecutor and craved isolation.

His wife and co-founder Noh Jihyang also has a judicial connection that led her to share his vision. A director for the theater company Hae, she has used drama therapy since 2000 to help juvenile offenders increase their self-awareness and confidence. The program holds a coveted spot at Happitory: stage lights adorn its orientation hall. “We bring about seven to eight kids here together with their parents around eight times a year” explains Ms. Noh. They come to literally act out pivotal scenes from their lives.

The normal overnight program involves far less interaction. Guests first don “prison” uniforms tagged with their names and cell numbers, introduce themselves and learn tips for stimulating healthy thinking via meditation and bowing. To improve the body, an organic all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet follows. After lunch, the staff takes them to the building housing their sparse but comfortable 1.5-pyeong (about 5 meter square) cells. Once locked in, electronic devices are collected through an opening at the bottom of the door, and quiet isolation from the outside world commences. It is interrupted only by a light dinner and breakfast fed through the same slot and hourly chimes. The facility has its own well water accessible through a sink. Green tea is also available, as is a tiny toilet room. The near floor-to-ceiling window offers a slice of a quiet, stationary, all natural world.

The couple have poured their life savings and free time into creating this environment. A wall bears the name of companies and individuals who provided donations, including DR & AJU, the firm where Mr. Kwon now works as a defense attorney. Happitory charges guests via a Pay What You Want (PWYW) system, but the concept is more of a “pay it forward” system: leaving fees to cover the cost of the next guest’s stay. They are expecting to be able to cover operation costs from program revenue next year.

Should a family emergency arise, relatives could reach guests through a phone number provided by Happitory at the time of reservation. Also, there is a panic button and means of escape available to anyone wanting out fast. “Everyone has completed the full program,” Mr. Kwon says, adding proudly, “Some returning guests seem addicted to the experience.” The Happitory website (currently in Korean only) posts more details and visitor testimonials. One measure of a successful stay might be each chimed hour blissfully missed by a detainee in a deep sense of peace.

About the author:  Full disclosure, the writer is PR Manager at the same law firm which employs Kwon Yongsuk. He is one of the first foreign nationals to visit Happitory.
 

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