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Tokyo's cat cafes offer serenity in the city

If you don't mind the staff dipping their whiskers in your tea or pouncing on your fur coat, these places are respite from urban chaos.

By Yoko KubotaContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2008

At Calico Cafe the fees buy prime views of sleeping cats, hungry-for-scratching bellies, and up-close-and-personal moments.

Michael Caronna/Reuters

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Just around the corner from the pulsing blare and brightness of the Akihabara electronics and anime district, cafe Neko JaLaLa is an oasis of calm. Past the brass, paw-handled door to the inner sanctum, denizens loll on the thick carpet, drape over couches, and almost purr with pleasure in the quiet atmosphere.

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And that's just the humans.

It's the eight staff cats who actually set the tone here at this "cat cafe." Customers can sip tea, just as at regular cafes in Tokyo, but the felines – some sashaying cool, others chasing their own tails – are the point at the city's cat cafes.

Cats, says Tetsunori Oda, a system engineer who likens cat-gazing to looking at art, are "a way to relax and let go of my stress."

Mr. Oda has dropped in to Neko JaLaLa (neko means cat in Japanese) to indulge himself after work on a recent Monday evening.

Kneeling, hoping to snag the attention of an imperious fluff of feline, Oda is not alone. There are half a dozen other people here, some sitting on the floor sipping tea, some swing feathered teasers, making feline eyes go black and wild. Others rest elbows on cat-shaped cushions as they read comic books, smiling up occasionally and content to look and not touch.

"When it comes to having cats, it's a burden. I work and I don't have the time to take care of them in a responsible manner," Oda says of the utility of cat cafes.

And in Tokyo – where not only long work hours but tight and expensive real estate limit pet ownership – cat cafes are a cultural trend. There are at least seven of them operating in Tokyo, packing customers in at fees varying from $8 to $12 an hour.

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Cats in a cafe, with their attendant kitty litter and wafting hair, might seem like cultural dissonance in such an obsessively clean society, but the shops are run with an equally obsessive sense of order. Vacuums are ever-present, everyone going in must wash their hands and use liquid sanitizers, and shoes must be removed (a Japanese custom in homes but not normally in public places).

Also in these cafes the rules run strictly in favor of the cats. A no-tail-pulling mandate means that small children are personae non gratae at some of the cafes. Let sleeping cats lie is another strict rule – as is, in some cafes, a prohibition on hoisting a cat up to be held.

"I don't hesitate to scold people who treat cats in a bad way," warns Neko JaLaLa owner Osamu Maeda, an architect by trade who recalls being bitten by a cat at another cafe because it was so bugged by the constant attention.

But the cats themselves answer to no rules: A Bose stereo speaker at Neko no Mise, another cafe in Tokyo, is in shreds. Likewise, at Cafe Calico, an upholstered reception chair no longer looks like itself. At Neko JaLaLa, one cat has been known to abscond with a customer's handkerchief and another's shtick is to nip people's milk tea out of their cups. And no one's furry or fuzzy winter coats and sweaters are safe from cat attack at any of the cafes.