Tokyo is a large city. Many people here have to live in small apartments. Those small apartments aren’t necessarily great places to keep pets. At the same time, Japanese people are fascinated with cats – my evidence being a country-wide obsession with Hello Kitty, wearable cat’s ears and a range of half-human half-cat manga characters.
It’s hard for city dwelling cat lovers to keep cats in Japan. Thus, to give space-restricted Japanese people face time with actual cats, the phenomenon of the cat café has come to be.
Don’t confuse the Japanese ‘cat café’ with the Vietnamese ‘dog restaurant’ – they’re different things.
A cat café is where customers pay money to spend time surrounded by cats, whilst having a cup of tea. It’s the sort of thing that really could only happen in Japan, and so yesterday we went to visit the Hapi Neko cat café in Shibuya. The café was more like someone’s front room than a café. There were sofas and tables and pictures on the wall. There was comfortable furniture. There were books and magazines.
And sure enough, there were cats. Lots of cats. About 15 or 16 cats in total, of various shapes and sizes, doing various different things.
The cats are extremely well cared for, it seems. They had a lot of space to run around, a multitude of toys to play with and plenty of cushions to sit on.
Customer numbers are strictly controlled, so there are never more than seven or eight people playing with the cats at one time. There were plenty of places where the cats could go and hide, if they wanted some ‘me’ time away from over eager punters.
There were also lots of rules for us to follow, which we head to read carefully before being allowed inside. You have to wash your hands thoroughly, agree to not bother sleeping cats, and you have to wear a face mask if you’ve got a cold. We were given diagrams showing how and how not to hold a cat.
If you’ve been to another cat café the same day then you can’t go in, lest germs and diseases might be spread. If a cat is wearing a collar, you can’t pet it. The collars are rotated between the cats every day, meaning each cat is given time off from being petted. If a cat is sleeping, you can’t wake it up. The welfare of the cats is clearly uppermost in the minds of the café’s owners.
Broadly the cats seemed quite content, I suppose. But at the same time, they also seemed to me to be a little bit fed up at times. At home in England, we have a cat called Tyson. Tyson is pretty much the friendliest cat ever, forever seeking someone’s knee to go and cuddle up on and go asleep. These cats weren’t quite as loving as Tyson. They didn’t always seem keen to go and snuggle. They were happy being stroked, but they didn’t seem to particularly relish attention. They broadly sat on the floor and looked around at all the people. Unless you encouraged (read: bribed) them with a cat biscuit, they generally wouldn’t come and say hello.
I guess it’s like when you were a kid, and it was your birthday, and you suddenly found dozens of overeager aunties and uncles filing through the door of your house all keen to tweak your cheeks and say how much you’d grown and remind you to study hard and eat vegetables. You’d very happily speak to the first few, but by the evening you’d be a little bit weary of having to go and be the enthusiastic and wonderful nephew.
I imagine that’s how the cats felt after yet another day of being fawned over. Thirty minutes in the café costs just over 1,000 Yen – about a fiver. That included a cup of tea. You can also purchase a small box of cat biscuits, which is an excellent way, nay, the only way of getting the cats interested.
It was a fun way to spend half an hour, and I guess if you’re someone who rarely gets to see cats, then this is a nice, relaxed way of doing so. It is also, again, one of those uniquely Japanese things that you can only do in Japan.
For me, though, there’ll never be a better cat to go and say hello too than my mate Tyson.
The Hapi Neko cat cafe is at 2-28-3 Dōgenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Its on the third floor overlooking the main road – look for the signs with big pictures of cats. They’re open from 11am until 10pm. Their website is here.