We first read about the Japanese cat cafes months before we came to Tokyo and our daughter, the animal lover in the family, was immediately on top of it. Our plan was to go to a cat cafe in Ikebukuro, but less than stellar reviews from our neighbor (most cats were sleeping and the ones that were awake weren’t playful) changed our plans. Fortunately, while standing on the train platform at the station we use to go to church, I noticed an advertisement for a cat cafe near the station. My 10+ years of casual Japanese language study suddenly paid off big time for my daughter! The name of the cafe was “Eko Neko” with “Eko” short for Ekoda, the train station, and “Neko” meaning cat in Japanese. Well played.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with cat cafes, which I assume would be 99% of you, let me explain the concept to you. It differs somewhat from what you might think of when you hear “cat cafe”, which personally gave me visions of sipping a latte with a cat on my lap and a beret on my head with French music playing in the background. The stress of the cat cafe is more on the CAT and less on the cafe. In fact, the particular cat cafe we went to dispensed with the baristas in favor of a coffee machine selling pretty generic coffee.
We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and were greeted at the door by one of the two ladies working there. With my rudimentary language skills, I was able to understand that many of the cats were sleeping at this time of the day and we could not wake them up to play with them. Would this be okay? I relayed the message to my daughter, and she agreed it would be fine. The woman then welcomed us inside and asked us to remove our shoes in the genkan (entry).
Once inside, she went over the rules of the house, also all written in Japanese. The cost was 1,100 per person for the first hour and 500 yen for every additional 30 minutes. The initial cost included one drink, coffee or a soft drink from a little fridge by the front door. We opted for the soft drink on this hot humid summer day. As previously mentioned, we could not bother or wake up sleeping cats. There were little cats (maybe kittens, or just small cats, I wasn’t clear on that) that could not be picked up, but bigger cats could be picked up carefully if they didn’t resist. We could take photos, but no flash. Once the rules were properly explained, we were given a squirt of the ubiquitous Japanese hand sanitizing liquid, we picked out our drinks and found a seat on inside.
About 30 cats live at Eko Neko but as we were warned, 25 of them were sleeping when we came in. I always suspected cats were lazy creatures, but this proved my suspicions. Fortunately, the 5 or so cats that were awake were very friendly and playful. I sat down on the bench and went to open my soft drink when a little calico walked right up to me and jumped into my lap and lay down, purring like a lawn mower. He was so adorable, I put my drink down and spent the next 5 minutes or so stroking him and scratching behind his ears. My daughter went to work on the large collection of cat toys and started a “chase the toy” game with another adorable little cat while the cat on my lap watched comfortably.
The 30 cats who call Eko Neko their home.
Over the next 40 minutes or so, we had the whole place to ourselves. Granted, it was a room about the size of a large living room in a Japanese home, but it was all ours. Around us, in comfy little beds or platforms on rafters built near the ceiling, a couple dozen other cats dozed the afternoon away while we played with their friends. Over time, a few more cats stirred from their sleep and woke up. Some decided to join in the play, including an adorable little kitten named Lulu (or “Ruru”, based on the hiragana) who loved chasing the little “mouse” on a string. Some simply moved from one bed to another, watched the action nonchalantly for a few minutes, and went back to sleep. Another cat decided my lap looked comfortable and jumped up into it, demanding a back rub and head scratch.
After 40 minutes, a couple joined us in the cafe. By now, about 8 or 9 cats were awake so there were plenty for the 4 of us to play with. Soon our hour was over and we went to the counter to pay for our fun. At the counter, the woman gave us rolling lint brushes to remove the cat hair from our clothing and another squirt of the anti-bacterial hand cleaner. I assumed the lint brush is mainly for those salarymen who secretly want to play with cats on their lunch break but don’t want cat hair on their suits giving away their secrets.
You may think $11 an hour is pretty steep for a soft drink and an hour of playing with cats, and in fact, you may be right. But I have to admit these were some of the most adorable, friendly cats I had ever played with. I’m not much of a cat person, but there’s something about cats at a cat cafe that changed my mind about cats.
In all seriousness, I can understand the attractiveness of such a place in a city like Tokyo. After dealing with millions of strangers every day on the trains, streets, and public spaces of the city, interaction with cute, loving animals is something people can look forward to. There is nothing you have to do to earn the attention of these animals; they literally throw themselves into your laps when you arrive. For some people, that is the kind of love they are craving. This is likely the reason for the sudden explosion of dog ownership in Tokyo over the past decade or so.
Our prayer is that rather than using animals as sources of love and affection, the citizens of Tokyo would find out that there is a God who loves them unconditionally. Unlike a pet’s love, His love for us redeems us, gives us a life that has true meaning and purpose. God’s love for them (and all of us) is as a father has for his children; He would give anything for them. If the love of a pet seems to be fulfilling, the love of God is infinitely more, transforming us into what we were born to be.