Friday 19 October 2018

Hello, kitty! What's it really like inside Tokyo's cat cafés?

Cat cafes leave some purring with pleasure...

A tree sculpture inside Cat Cafe Mocha, Harajuku, Toyko. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A tree sculpture inside Cat Cafe Mocha, Harajuku, Toyko. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
One of the cats inside Cat Cafe Mocha in Harajuku, Tokyo. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A cat. In a bowl. On a plinth... Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Cat Cafe Mocha in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

"Hello sir, this is our system," says the ultra-polite attendant welcoming me into Cat Café Mocha.

She elaborates. To proceed, I must swap my shoes for slippers and pay ¥200/€1.50 for every 10 minutes I stay. I mustn't use flash photography, give the cats any human food, carry them around or talk too loudly.

Also: "Please do not chase them."

Welcome to Tokyo.

Cat Cafe Mocha in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
Cat Cafe Mocha in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Stepping into two small rooms overlooking the crowded streets of Harajuku, famous as the heart of kawaii (Japan's 'cult of cute'), I enter a furry oasis of serenity.

Fabulously kept cats recline in the branches of tree sculptures, in gilded birdcages and cutesy cubbyholes. The rooms are connected by a hallway lined with bookshelves (there are cats on those, too) and customers wander about as if in a feline dream world.

I'm not a cat person. I don't think 'cat' and 'café' belong together, even in the same sentence. Once I cross the threshold of this universe, however, I feel drugged.

About 20 cats sprawl about like little emperors - those who truly did get the cream. There are lots of different breeds; some with eyes so wide it looks like they sauntered off the pages of a manga comic. A white kitten plays with the straps of my backpack. Another, grumpier cat with a squishy face and tooth spiking out of its lower lip sits in a bowl on a plinth. A bowl on a plinth!

A cat. In a bowl. On a plinth... Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
A cat. In a bowl. On a plinth... Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

When I move in to pish-wish and pet, it turns and licks its nether regions. With perfect timing, it owns me. Hello, kitty.

Cat cafés aren't news. I'm not sure they even originated in Japan; but the country feels like their natural home. Customers are in heaven. Some stoop and pet. Others chill and chat over drinks from a vending machine (what else?).

It's all amazingly strange, but there's also a weirdly therapeutic feel to the interactions. Back on the street, you couldn't explain the concept with a straight face. But in here, it's disarming.

"You can enjoy tea time slowly in the space where the cat is," as the brochure translates (the cats, of course, don't give a toss).

One of the cats inside Cat Cafe Mocha in Harajuku, Tokyo. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile
One of the cats inside Cat Cafe Mocha in Harajuku, Tokyo. Photo: Pól Ó Conghaile

Before I know it, almost 30 minutes have passed.

That's the way of it with Japan. Famous for Lost in Translation-style culture shocks, many visitors arrive primed to bask in the surreality of it all. Those who stay any length of time realise, however, that the real drug is not on the surface. It's beneath the skin.

A cat café is just one random example. It could be an anime adventure, an onsen bath experience, a great conversation, or the byzantine etiquette to a tea ceremony. The longer you stay, the more you see the systems beyond the surprises, the deeper your intrigue grows. It's intoxicating.

With the Rugby World Cup coming in 2019, and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, we're going to hear a lot more about this brilliant destination.

I'm purring at the prospect.

Irish Independent

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