Fawning over fauna: A guide to Tokyo’s menagerie of animal cafes
By Mark Jenkins October 8 at 8:24 PM
Cats at Tokyo’s Nekorobi cat cafe. Unlike many of the city’s animal cafes, this one admits children. (Junko Kimura/Getty Images)
In a typical Tokyo concrete building a few blocks from the grand Sensoji Temple, I selected a female companion for a 45-minute 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, they may 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.
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 medium-size 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.
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 glass-walled 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 child-oriented 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.
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 a lone 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.