Meet Tokyo’s crea­ture com­forts

On the prowl for kawaii (‘cute’) in Ja­pan’s cap­i­tal? An­i­mal cafes of­fer fur, feath­ers and scales by the hour

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MARK JENK­INS

In a typ­i­cal Tokyo con­crete build­ing a few blocks from the grand Sen­soji Tem­ple, I se­lected a fe­male com­pan­ion for a 45minute ses­sion. She and I were ush­ered from the sec­ond to the fourth floor, where a gar­ishly hued bed­room awaited. My host­ess, who went by the English name “Queen,” was pretty, but not much of a con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. In fact, she mostly just wig­gled her nose at me. But then, Queen is a rab­bit.

She’s one of the rentable res­i­dents who work at With Bunny, in the tourist-heavy Asakusa neigh­bor­hood. The six-floor busi­ness is among Tokyo’s big­gest an­i­mal cafes, even if it doesn’t quite jus­tify its billing as “Ed­u­ca­tion & Mu­seum.” But it does of­fer a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties, for a range of fees. Visi­tors can feed a rab­bit, pose for a photo with one or take an an­i­mal on a cir­cum­scribed stroll through the struc­ture’s roof gar­den. That last choice was the prici­est op­tion I en­coun­tered in sev­eral days of vis­it­ing cat, rab­bit, dog, bird and reptile cafes in and around Tokyo.

A note about the wide­spread use of the word “cafe” to de­scribe Ja­pan’s an­i­mal hang­outs: Don’t imag­ine sit­ting at an el­e­gant lit­tle ta­ble, sip­ping cafe au lait and nib­bling mac­arons as a tabby curls in your lap or a bea­gle flops at your feet. Ta­bles are rare, and the an­i­mals may ig­nore you, although I have seen milky drinks draw a fe­line crowd.

The bev­er­ages are likely to come from a self-ser­vice vend­ing ma­chine— some­times cov­ered by the en­trance fee — or a tiny re­frig­er­a­tor.

For most of these places, “tiny” is the op­er­a­tive word. Many seem to be one-per­son oper­a­tions, and even the larger spots are usu­ally su­per­vised by a sin­gle em­ployee. The bud­get doesn’t in­clude baris­tas or short-or­der cooks. You’re pay­ing just for (a) a semi-pri­vate space and (b) an­i­mals. But both of those can be sig­nif­i­cant at­trac­tions in

Ja­panese cities, which are known for minis­cule dwellings and land­lords who for­bid pets. Thus the pop­u­lar­ity of what are es­sen­tially pet­ting zoos for adults.

In the Western media, Ja­pan is of­ten por­trayed as fu­tur­is­tic in style and cor­po­rate in men­tal­ity. In fact, the coun­try is packed with small shops, eater­ies and bars that are mod­est, homey and agree­ably low-tech. (But clean. Clean­li­ness ranks far above god­li­ness in Ja­pan.) Such es­tab­lish­ments are of­ten stacked on top of each other in re­tail hives that rise up to eight and oc­ca­sion­ally more sto­ries. El­e­va­tors built for two, or at the most four, lead to the kit­ties and bun­nies, of­ten on the top floor.

Be­cause Ja­panese an­i­mal hang­outs are fre­quently sole pro­pri­etor­ships, they­may not al­ways be open dur­ing their ad­ver­tised hours. Another po­ten­tial dis­ap­point­ment: Although these places might seem a boon to par­ents in Tokyo with kids, many of them bar guests younger than 12 or 13. Ja­pan’s crit­ter cafes are for your in­ner child, not your ac­tual one.

San­i­tizer and a cover charge

I didn’t en­ter a Tokyo an­i­mal cafe un­til 2013. I heard about cat cafes long be­fore that; the first in the world re­port­edly opened in Taipei in 1998. Lo­cally, Crumbs & Whiskers ar­rived in Georgetown this year, and one is planned for Alexandria. As some­one who lives with cats, though, I wasn’t part of the purr-de­prived tar­get au­di­ence. But af­ter walk­ing past the sign for Cal­ico, near Shin­juku sta­tion, a dozen or so times, I fi­nally went in and up. I took off my shoes, san­i­tized my hands and paid the equiv­a­lent of about $8 for an hour of furry kawaii (“cute”).

Cal­ico, I later learned, was one of Tokyo’s first cat cafes. It’s also the largest, which may ex­plain why its in­hab­i­tants seem more re­laxed — although per­haps it’s the Bach and Pachel­bel on the sound sys­tem.

The more than 50 cats can prowl be­tween two floors, climb the spe­cial­ized fur­ni­ture or stare out the win­dow at bustling Shin­juku, a neigh­bor­hood where nearly any en­ter­tain­ment (not all of it strictly le­gal) is avail­able.

At Cal­ico and sim­i­lar es­tab­lish­ments, guests may give the cats treats (that works) or en­tice them with toys (that usu­ally doesn’t). Chas­ing, awak­en­ing or pick­ing up the an­i­mals is for­bid­den, and visi­tors are en­cour­aged to wait to be ap­proached. That didn’t yield re­sults at other cat cafes I vis­ited, but it did at Cal­ico. On two of my three vis­its, I sat on the car­peted floor and was soon ap­proached by a friendly an­i­mal who sniffed and rubbed me and fi­nally coiled into my lap.

And the third time? I was with an 11-year-old, who was firmly barred.

The staffer rec­om­mended Neko­robi (“cat lobby”), a few stops up the Ya­man­ote line that loops around cen­tral Tokyo.

Ike­bukuro is a slightly less hec­tic ver­sion of Shin­juku, and both are among the many shop­ping and amuse­ment dis­tricts that flour­ish around ma­jor train sta­tions. It boasts the usual at­trac­tions: Food and al­co­hol, strip clubs and host­ess bars, cats and bun­nies. Ike­bukuro is home to Mimi, one of the few cafes where mul­ti­ple rab­bits run free rather than be­ing uncaged tem­po­rar­ily for one-on-one en­coun­ters. ( When I vis­ited Mimi, it was closed.)

Neko­robi has no age limit, and the $9 cover charge in­cludes as many soft drinks and hard candies as you can con­sume; also avail­able are games, a lap­top and a se­lec­tion of pens. It was more like a com­mu­nal rec room with cats than a place to in­ter­act with the eight fe­lines on ac­tive duty. As Abba and Blondie played, the cats dif­fi­dently prowled the medi­um­size room and oc­ca­sion­ally snarled at one another, some­thing I never saw at Cal­ico.

At this and most other Tokyo cat cafes, the breeds tend to be ex­otic: Maine Coon-style long­hairs, sour-faced Per­sians, ex­cep­tion­ally shorted-haired Sph­ynxes and Ben­gals and oci­cats, with the mark­ings of their larger cousins. Young ver­sions of such cu­riosi­ties are for sale at places like Aeon Pet, a chain of shops with at­tached fe­line cafes, dubbed Cat Plus.

At Aeon’s out­let in Aqua City Mall, on the man­made is­land of Odaiba in Tokyo har­bor, un­usual va­ri­eties were dis­played in clear plas­tic boxes, and priced for as much as $5,000: the kit­ten as lux­ury good. I watched as an ap­par­ently af­flu­ent young cou­ple in­spected a ball of fluff and filled out the pa­per­work, as­sisted by a sales clerk/adop­tion coun­selor.

Ja­pan’s more ex­otic fauna

Aeon also ped­dles pup­pies, as do many smaller (and some­times rather grim) pet stores. De­spite its rep­u­ta­tion as a city of an­i­mal de­prived stu­dio-apart­ment dwellers, Tokyo has de­vel­oped a Parisian-style dog cul­ture. Diminu­tive pooches are ev­ery­where, be­ing walked or some­times pushed in strollers like ba­bies. Yet there are also dog cafes, such as the cu­ri­ously named Dog Heart From Aqua­ma­rine. It’s as minia­tur­ized as most of its an­i­mals, who be­long to staff mem­bers (and go home with them at night).

In what’s ba­si­cally a glass­walled sec­ond-floor apart­ment, I joined a half-dozen peo­ple who com­muned with a sex­tet of toy poo­dles, two bea­gles and a Labrador mix who was al­most too big for the room. There was no space for fetch or other ca­nine games, but Dog Heart — un­like other va­ri­eties of an­i­mal cafe — does take­out. For an added fee, cus­tomers can es­cort one of the crew for a walk in the ad­ja­cent Yoyogi Park, cen­tral Tokyo’s largest green space.

The me­trop­o­lis is not known for green­ery or wildlife, aside from its ubiq­ui­tous (and devil­ishly smart) crows. But it has both, and even a colony of the red-faced macaques na­tive to Ja­pan. Sev­eral dozen of the play­ful if in­cor­ri­gi­bly hi­er­ar­chi­cal mon­keys live atop Mount Takao, in Tokyo pre­fec­ture’s north­west cor­ner, about an hour from Shin­juku by train.

A chair­lift or the coun­try’s steep­est fu­nic­u­lar rail­way speed visi­tors al­most to the top of the 1,965-foot-high peak, where trails lead to a tem­ple and the shops and eater­ies that flank nearly all ma­jor re­li­gious sites in Ja­pan. Signs ad­ver­tise the moun­tain’s wild in­hab­i­tants, in­clud­ing fly­ing

squir­rels. The mon­keys are eas­ier to spot, though, be­cause they live in­side a large en­clo­sure. There are other places in Ja­pan where macaques can be ob­served in freer cir­cum­stances, but they’re not 60 min­utes from teem­ing Shin­juku.

A lit­tle closer to the city cen­ter, Machida Risuen (“squir­rel gar­den”) is childori­ented and rea­son­ably priced: about $3.30 for adults and half that for kids. Just be­yond the en­trance are rab­bits, prairie dogs and other ro­dents, along with a few birds and tur­tles, all look­ing a bit sad in cages.

A sec­ond gate leads to the main at­trac­tion, where scores of squir­rels — a species in­dige­nous to Asia, but not to Ja­pan — scam­per amid shrub­bery, tree­like struc­tures and a vil­lage of hand­made squir­rel houses. The an­i­mals make a sur­pris­ingly loud cluck­ing sound, and ap­par­ently have been known to bite. Tykes are is­sued oven mitts to dis­pense squir­rel-food pel­lets. Let­tuce leaves and car­rot shreds are avail­able to feed the other an­i­mals; for the hu­mans, there’s the usual bat­tery of drink vend­ing ma­chines. The exit, of course, is through the gift shop.

All corners of the king­dom

It started with cats, and rab­bits were a log­i­cal ex­pan­sion. More re­cently, bird and reptile cafes have pro­lif­er­ated. But snakes and lizards, which carry sal­mo­nella on their skin, are a bad mix with food ser­vice. At Yoko­hama Rain­for­est Cafe, in the city that blurs into Tokyo’s south­west, the an­i­mals are out of reach, with only a few tur­tles on the loose. This place is said to be more of a cafe than most of its com­peti­tors, but I can’t re­port on the fare. When I vis­ited, it was closed for ren­o­va­tions.

Tokyo’s first owl cafe, Fukuro no Mise, opened in 2012, and it was fol­lowed by sev­eral im­i­ta­tors, some of which spe­cial­ize in hawks. I hit two bird types with one cover charge by vis­it­ing Asakusa’s Tori No Iru (loosely, “where the birds are”). This base­ment venue is di­vided be­tween teth­ered, perch­ing owls and a flock of mainly trop­i­cal birds that fly freely in an in­ner room.

The owls, mostly ju­ve­niles, do lit­tle but look cute and cool. If you ask, staffers will set one on your shoul­der. The par­rots are much live­lier.

Be­fore en­ter­ing the sec­ond cham­ber, cus­tomers don cam­ou­flaged pon­chos, which en­cour­age the birds to treat the peo­ple like trees (and pro­tect from drop­pings). The par­rots seemed to be en­joy­ing them­selves as much as their hu­man roosts, but a few other birds ap­peared less amused. The room had a small pond, but alone duck sim­ply sat on the floor. A Tokyo cel­lar is no place for a duck.

Tori No Iru’s owls are usu­ally young be­cause the birds are for sale, as are the an­i­mals in many Tokyo cafes. In fact, Fukuro no Mise means “owl shop,” not “owl cafe.” All the an­i­mals I saw looked to be well treated. But the mer­can­tile as­pects of an­i­mal cafes, as well as the fre­quent use of small cages, can make the whole trend feel a bit less kawaii.

So I ended my tour at Nekoen (“cat gar­den”), also in Asakusa. There are no rare breeds or un­canned bev­er­ages at this hum­ble sixth-floor venue. Just for­mer street cats and a pro­pri­etor, chatty in good English, who works closely with peo­ple who res­cue strays and so-called feral cats. So far, she told me, she’s found homes for more 130 of them. An hour at Nekoen costs about $6.50, but to the right guardian, the cats are free. That sounds like a bet­ter deal than cof­fee and a mac­aron with a $5,000 oci­cat. Jenk­ins writes about film, mu­sic and vis­ual art for The Washington Post and NPR.

IS­TOCK­PHOTO.

MARK JENK­INS

JUNKO KIMURA/GETTY IM­AGES

In Tokyo, cramped liv­ing spa­ces and per­va­sive nopet poli­cies have given way to a menagerie of cafes where adults can pay to cud­dle up. Clock­wise, from top: Pon­cho-wear­ing visi­tors be­come par­rot perches at Tori No Iru bird cafe in the Asakusa dis­trict; Neko­robi cat cafe in Ike­bukuro; a rentable res­i­dent at With Bunny in Asakusa; a baby owl perches on a visi­tor’s shoul­der at Tori No Iru.

MARK JENK­INS

MARK JENK­INS

MARK JENK­INS

Par­rots pass the time at Tori No Iru bird cafe in Tokyo’s Asakusa neigh­bor­hood.

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