Hello Kitty

Cat cafes provide comfort, Carren Jao finds — that is, if you take the cat’s fancy.

A friend once explained to me, “When a cat approaches you, it’s like a gift. Dogs offer unconditional love, but when a cat comes to you, you feel special.”

Cats and humans have had a long, intertwined history, from the pyramids of ancient Egypt to beloved bookstores around the country, and it shows no signs of abating. In Japan (and increasingly in other parts of the world), rather than pay an additional month’s security deposit and an additional couple thousand yen every month, locals satisfy their kitty cravings by spending about $12 for an hour inside one of the country’s many cat cafes. One, called KitTea, is coming to San Francisco in 2014 with all the provisos about animal welfare that would be expected in that city.

I visited Cat Cafe Calico on a recent trip to Tokyo. With more than 50 cats under its wing, the cafe could easily turn into a mad house with the literal and impossible task of trying to herd cats. Somehow, it never does. The cafe occupies two floors of a multi-story building. Tucked in the Kabuki-cho district of Shinjuku, Tokyo, among a cacophony of neon lights, the cafe actually has a calm, almost spa-like atmosphere. The commotion of Tokyo’s streets slips away as a friendly receptionist kindly explains its many (surprisingly) stringent regulations to first-time visitors.

Always surprised Kemeko.

To enter, one must leave your shoes in a locker by the reception desk and don house slippers. At a small sink, you wash your hands with disinfectant soap so you can safely pet the cats. “You are not allowed to hold the cats,” explains the receptionist. “Just pet them. Photos are okay, but no flash. Please don’t anger or disturb them in any way.” In this setting, the cats are kings.

As I descend into the main cafe on the fifth floor, I pass a bevy of schoolgirls enticing some of the cafe’s kitties lounging by the cashier’s desk. The cats were everywhere, contemplating the city streets below, napping high above a cat tree, or sitting in a stately fashion, watchful eyes cocked towards me.

There were others there with me who seemed to have a better idea of what to do. I have so little experience with pets that I had no instinct for playing along. A woman seemed transported simply by getting Thyolo, a gray striped American shorthair, to “shake her hand.” A couple seemingly on a date gleefully picked up a stick toy to engage the interested few.

Thylo shakes hands.

Ill at ease, I did what I do best: I observed. I had never seen cats with such luxuriant fur. Judging from the way respectful apron-wearing ladies would intermittently pop out at the cafe, I could only imagine constant brushing, petting, and massaging going on behind the scenes.

Apart from their manes, I was also surprised at the diversity of expression in each kitty’s face. It was all too easy to conjure up stories based on their visage. Kemeko always looked stunned, due to her big round eyes and slightly cocked head. Hinata was a mop of fur that simply could not be bothered. Her demeanor suggested, “Pet at your peril.”

Watching the city (and the patrons).

The real excitement came when I shelled out $3 for a small plastic box full of cat food. At the sight, the waking cats’ ears perked with interest. Others stalked the high shelves that line the cafe to make their way over to feast.

At last, the cats came to me. My friend was right. I felt special.

Photos by the author.

Carren Jao writes about art, architecture and design for the Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, and KCET, among others. She’s fascinated with connections, hidden histories, and how the ordinary become remarkable thanks to someone who took time to notice.

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