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.
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But, says a Neko JaLaLa staffer, customers are extremely forgiving.Skip to next paragraph
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Historically, paw prints are all over Japan: Cats meander through the chapters of a prince's love story in Japan's oldest novel, "The Tale of Genji," which is celebrating its 1,000th anniversary this year. And another notable cat classic – "I am a Cat," written in 1905 by one of Japan's most famous novelists, Soseki Natsume – is told by a nameless cat who observes odd human habits as he wonders in and out of a social salon run by his owner, a high school teacher.
And today, in overworked, overstressed and overpopulated 21st century Tokyo, visit a bookstore and you'll find an entire section of cat comics, magazines, and photo books of cats that have idol status. The feline boom has been helped by popular cat blogs that get around 18,000 clicks a day (such as http://hatchan-nikki.com/ and http://scomu.jp/makocat/) – and perhaps more important, by the busy lifestyles of Japanese people dearly longing for a moment of peace and comfort.
"I always used to play with cats back home, but now I can't, since I live on my own," says Yuka Sato, a college student who came to cafe Neko no Mise in Tokyo's Machida region after a recent long day of job interviews. "I wish I could live together with cats like this."
Neko no Mise – "cat store" in Japanese – opened in 2005 and is home to 12 cats, some of which owner Norimasa Hanada adopted after visitors unable to keep them dropped them off.
"Basically, the visitors of this cafe are stressed," Mr. Hanada says of the escape his customers seek.
Sometimes it's human connection the cat cafes offer. At Neko no Mise, strangers often start conversations as they focus on goochie-gooing the same feline. The regulars teach newcomers names and habits of the resident cats.
The cats even play Cupid, says Hanada. Two strangers whose hands met as they both reached out to play with Porute, a short legged tabby with folded ears, ended up marrying, he says pointing at Porute, curled in a chair.
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Mr. Maeda, of Neko JaLaLa, started the cafe with a neighbor who shared his interest in increasing public awareness of cats, particularly strays. He explains that he hopes his little cafe is the first step in raising a larger awareness of cats in a country where about 240,000 are euthanized each year, partly as a result of pet dumping.
With his companion, Jack, a three-year-old black cat, curled up at his feet, Maeda says, "Everything here is based on the idea of getting people to love cats."
And while there seems to be a boom in cat cafes, Maeda is on the cautious side.
"When it comes to the business of cat cafes, you can grow by opening more branches or expanding the scale of existing stores," he says. "But there is a limit to that – what happens to the cats once this isn't so popular anymore?
"That's why I'm looking for cats that I want to live with for the rest of my life. I'm not getting any extra cats."