Tokyo cat cafe
Humans seem to have always needed the comfort of animal companionship. That warm furry body lying next to you on the couch; the smiling innocent face at the door when you get home; the non-judgemental excitement of play.
So it’s often hard for people who are forbidden from having pets their whole life. In much of the greater Tokyo area, where more than 30 million Japanese people are piled on top of each other in one of the world’s best examples of urban tetris, there simply isn’t room for many animals. Residents live in tiny apartments that often hardly provide space for them – let along a pet. So these people go through their days without any animals to enrich their lives.
It is from this problem that the Tokyo cat cafes were born. They are small apartments or shopfronts where people can go and spend time with cats. They can get their daily or weekly dose of feline affection without having to own one themselves. They keep these people sane.
It seems like a very weird idea to a Westerner like me – and perhaps it is a bit strange. But in Tokyo, there are so many oddities that it all starts to seem normal by association. Still, I couldn’t resist and so one afternoon I headed along to a cat cafe on the sixth floor of a building near the Ueno train station.
“You can touch,” the friendly young woman at the front desk tells me. “But please don’t pick up.”
It’s my introduction to the cat cafe. Well, that and having to disinfect my hands with some sanitiser. But the woman at the counter isn’t quite finished, I realise. She has one last warning for me.
She holds up a piece of paper with a photo of a fat white furry cat on it. There’s something not quite comforting about its eyes. “This is Milky,” she tells me. “It’s danger cat.” She then does some actions for the next part of the explanation.
“Bite, bite, bite…. don’t touch please!”
Suitably warned about the ferocious Milky, I find a spot on the carpet to sit down, before realising I’ve sat right next to Milky. Those evil eyes look up at me through the mess of fluffy white fur and I look back, warning the cat with my gaze to leave me alone… which it does.
Going to a cat cafe
The cat cafe is about the size of a large studio apartment and, despite the name, isn’t serving any food or drink. There are some in Tokyo which do actually have tea and coffee but the emphasis here is on the animals. There are 25 cats in this cafe of a variety of ages, sizes, breeds and friendliness.
A ‘menu’ and a booklet in both Japanese and English tell you a bit more about the animals. It has their photo, name, birthday and a bit of personality information. I like the sound of Marl who is a Short-haired Scottish Fold who “seems to be confident of being so cool and is in charge of blog on our website”… apparently.
There are about a dozen people here in the cafe. It’s mainly women who I would guess are about 30 years old, but there’s also a young boy and a man (both of whom seem to have been brought along by someone else). They are each interacting with the animals in their own way. One woman runs around the room with a stick, trying to get the cats to chase her; two women sit at a table and chat while they stroke cats on their laps; another woman crouches on the floor and just watches the cats as they walk around her; and the young boy sits in the corner rather timidly and just stares.
“Do you have a favourite?” I ask the women who are sitting at the table. One of them with slightly better English answers me.
“Yukinojou is my favourite,” she tells me as she points to a grey and white Ragdoll with an incredible amount of hair. It’s sitting up on the top of a cupboard looking suitably unimpressed with everything going on around it.
“Maybe you should get a cat at your home,” I suggest.
“No, no animals,” she tells me, as I expected. “Not allowed.”
“And why do you come here?”
“I want to touch some cats,” she says, slightly giggling both at the answer and at hearing herself say it in English.
I’m not sure how long the average person would stay here. I notice a bit of a turnover during my hour although clearly some of the people are in for the long haul. I make small talk with a few of the other customers (occasionally with my broken Japanese) and find out that on woman is just passing time before she gets a train home. Another woman just wants to tell me the names of all the cats.
“Brittany. She Brittany.”
It’s the same woman who has been running around with a stick, the cats chasing her across the floor.
When my time is up I realise that the hour has gone extremely quickly. Between chatting with the customers, taking some photos and trying to move between each of the cats, there was plenty of amusement to fill the time. I could easily have stayed for a bit longer and I understand why some of the others were planning to do just that. Although at about $12 an hour, it could prove to be an expensive afternoon.
It’s not simply about the animals, I realise. Up on the sixth floor, away from the traffic noise and hectic Tokyo, this was a little bit of calm. For those who are pushed against thousands of others every day on the commute from home to work, I can appreciate they like the serenity of a quiet room with a couple of dozen cats and some like-minded friends.
Humans seem to have always needed the comfort of animal companionship but I think it’s the emotional tranquility that they crave the most. For the residents of Tokyo, this can sometimes be hard to find.