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Tokyo Cat Cafes Offer Feline Friendship for a Fee

By Julia Williams

Many things that originated in Japan have since become commonplace in America and other countries – origami, anime, martial arts, Pokémon, karaoke, teriyaki and sushi, to name just a few. In the animal arena, the Japanese have given us the Maneki Neko (Beckoning Cat), Hello Kitty, the Japanese Macaque (Snow Monkey), the Japanese Bobtail cat breed, and the Shiba Inu and Akita dog breeds. “Cat Cafes” are the latest Japanese craze. Although wildly popular in Tokyo and surrounding areas, it’s too early to tell if cat cafes will ever be found in America. I like the idea of cat cafes myself, but then I do have my reputation as Crazy Cat Lady to uphold.

What’s a cat cafe, you ask? It’s a quiet, cozy place where people can go to sip tea or a latte while enjoying the companionship of a room full of friendly cats. A “cat menu” introduces patrons to each of the different felines in the cafe, with photos and information on their name, breed, gender and age. The fee varies by establishment, but typically costs around $8 to $10 for an hour of feline friendship. The meticulously groomed resident cats are free to lounge wherever they please – on the sofas, chairs and tables, in cat trees and baskets, and even on your lap, if you’re lucky.

Most cat cafes have at least a dozen sociable felines that patrons can pet, talk to, photograph or play with – and just like the animals at the zoo, sometimes the cats sleep through visiting hours. Rules vary at the different cafes, but some won’t allow customers to wake the cats up, and some prohibit picking the cats up to hold them. Most do allow customers to pet the cats, but only if the cats are up for it. Because the cats’ welfare comes above all else, young children are not welcome at many cafes, and one who pulls on a cat’s tail will find themselves ushered quickly out the door.

Cat cafes must obtain a license and comply with strict regulations to ensure both the safety of the cats as well as cleanliness of the premises. Before interacting with the cats, customers must sanitize their hands and remove their shoes (a Japanese custom in homes but not typically in public places).

In Tokyo, where long work hours and tight housing regulations often prohibit pet ownership, the cat cafes fill a void. For many kitty lovers, a visit to a cat cafe is the only way they can get their feline fix. Though this cultural trend is only about five years old, it’s become all the rage. Tokyo proper boasts more than 50 cat cafes, with another 70 or so in the greater Tokyo area.

Cat cafes are not just the domain of elderly, childless ladies in frumpy sweaters either. The “catmosphere” appeals to all types of petless people, from young singles looking for a date to married couples who want to spend a quiet afternoon with some furry friends. Calico, one of Tokyo’s most popular cat cafes, advertises itself as a great “date spot,” a place to make friends — both human and feline — and a fun place to swing by after work. Calico has reportedly become so packed on weekends that reservations are recommended.

Paying money to hang out with felines doesn’t seem like a strange idea to a cat lover like me. I wouldn’t personally want to live without cats in my own home, but for those who can’t have a pet for one reason or another, a visit to a cat cafe would help quell that longing for feline friendship. What do you think? Could cat cafes ever become an American tradition?

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