Japan: art, baseball and cherry blossoms
Modern art, architecture, beer, baseball, cherry blossoms and cats – Alex Scott discovers they all hold a place in the cultural identity of Japan.
WE CROSS the road from Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine and forest, and take an elevator to the fourth floor of a Harajuku high-rise. The doors open onto a tiny hallway. Drinks are dispensed from self-serve coffee and soda machines.
We trade our shoes for the provided slippers and step through a sliding door. Inside, it’s all very quiet, like a library, but instead of books, cats. We’ve beaten the rush. Locals flock to venues like this after-hours for a little one-on-one animal therapy. They’re havens of relaxation in a city of 13.5 million people.
Sleeping cats are curled up on the branches of a designer plywood tree. There are more overhead, dozing in decorative cages with bars spaced far enough apart for the animals to slip through. As far as cat cafés go, Mocha is top-shelf stuff. And these aren’t your average house cats. They are pampered, pure-bred felines.
I take a seat next to a tiny grey kitten, its head solemnly bowed, asleep. I place a palm on its back, anticipating the gentle vibration of its purr. Nothing. Curious, I move my hand gently from side to side. He makes no effort to correct his balance. He feels almost hollow.
“This is weird,” whispers my travel companion. She points to a white and ginger cat in the tree. It has one of those faces that looks as if it’s permanently pressed against glass. “I held that one’s paws and it didn’t wake up.” I try for myself. His belly gently rises and falls, but he doesn’t wake. He doesn’t even flinch. An attendant enters and begins to remove fur from the already-spotless carpet with a lint roller.
Standing in a high-rise building overlooking a shrine, drinking CocaCola from a takeaway coffee cup, surrounded by eerily unresponsive cats, I feel like I have truly arrived. OUR FIVE DAYS in Tokyo are a whirl of beer, baseball and cherry blossoms. It’s early spring. The air is fresh but chilly. Every morning we head to our local station, Sangubashi, and ride the tangle of train lines that connects this incredible and mind-bending city.
We’ve based ourselves at an
Airbnb apartment in a small corner of Shibuya. It’s just two stops from Shinjuku, the world’s busiest transport hub. Our neighbourhood is a sleepy settlement of houses with a nice selection of eateries, a small supermarket and at least two doggrooming salons.
We buy breakfast at Boulangerie la Saison – two perfect pan o shokora (chocolate pastries), which I order in my best Google-translated Japanese. The girl behind the counter nods encouragingly as I deliver my request. From the FamilyMart across the road, I select two salmon and seaweed onigiri and a packet of maple-roasted walnuts. The convenience-store snacks are a highlight. In general, we order food by signalling to a picture menu, or simply point to a meal close by – the international sign for “I’ll have what she’s having.”
My recognition of Japanese has faded over the years since school, as has my obsession with Lost in Translation. But I’m still keen to walk in the footsteps of Bob and Charlotte: to stroll beneath the cherry blossoms and gaze up at the reassuringly familiar figure of Mt Fuji.
When we visit the Mori Art Museum’s observation deck, though, the mountain is obscured completely by heavy cloud. The gallery itself is
Tokyo’s cat cafés, including Mocha (right), with its plywood tree, are havens of relaxation. Opposite page: Cherry blossoms line the Meguro River in Tokyo.