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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    At Calico Cafe the fees buy prime views of sleeping cats, hungry-for-scratching bellies, and up-close-and-personal moments.
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    Tokyo's 'cat cafes' are calm refuges in the urban chaos – if you don't mind the staff dipping their whiskers in your milk tea or having the fur on your coat attacked.
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    Where they pay to see a cat – Tokyo has seven cat cafes where patrons pay $8 to $12 an hour for the privilege of sipping tea among the felines.
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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.

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.

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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.

But, says a Neko JaLaLa staffer, customers are extremely forgiving.

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."

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