As we passed through one of Asakusa’s many shopping alleys, I was bemused to see four middle-aged men fawning over a tortoiseshell cat perched on some goods outside a shop. The cat seemed quite accustomed to the attention of strangers and I soon found myself joining in.
I shall declare an interest here: I love cats. We have three felines at home who are a big constant in our lives. When travelling, I do miss them.
But on this trip, cat therapy was close at hand. Japan is home to some 79 cat cafés and, for a fee, I could get my fix of felix. While the cat café’s primary purpose is to give city apartment dwellers – often having to work long hours and unable to keep pets – the ability to pet a cat in a controlled environment, tourists are welcome to partake too.
For a background to the cat café culture in Japan, see here.
I had put M on notice that we were not allowed to leave Japan without visiting at least one cat café. As we ticked off various destinations on our itinerary, I mentally charted lost opportunities, from the sixth floor cat café near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from our hotel, to the cat café in Kyoto near the Nishiki markets.
I did turn off the flash, honest!
We will probably never get to pet Liz, Chocolat, Pen or Karin in Kyoto. M felt that 1200 Yen (about A$12 at the time) was a bit steep for 30 minutes. Skinflint.
During some down time in Nagasaki we found ourselves near the city’s sole cat café, Neko Fuku Fuku. We agree that “it’s time”. I argue for an hour, at 800 Yen, but am beaten down by M to half an hour at 500 yen. It’s still a bargain compared to Kyoto and Tokyo prices.
With its four metre frontage and see through front window, Neko (meaning cat) Fuku Fuku doesn’t look like the kind of flash cat café we’ve read about in the bigger cities. Those which serve tea, coffee, cakes and snacks. Fuku Fuku has a sort of utilitarian feel to it. We get the feeling that one comes here strictly to pet the cats.
There are two doors which separate the street from the cats, one at the public entry behind which is a vestibule and the other at the end of the vestibule. This is obviously for security purposes, as an escapee cat would stand no chance in the Nagasaki traffic.
We take off our shoes and don slippers. The female proprietor speaks enough English to ask us how much time we want, take our cash and start the clock. We are even given a “five-minute bell” to remind us not to overstay. She is friendly enough, but does not engage. If I have any questions about cat cafés – and I do – then I’m not going to get them answered here.
There are nine cats in all, five in the room fronting onto the street and four in a room at the back. Two are in a cage for some reason. All but one younger cat are fast asleep. Now I know that cats sleep a fair bit, but these barely twitch an ear on our arrival. Have we come at siesta time?
I set to and pat the tortoiseshell in the doll’s house. It curls its paws, but does not purr.
I move to the tabby on the orange shag pile and get a similar reaction, then to the tabby with white markings in the window. And so it continues.
The room at the back has a couple of tables and chairs on raised tatami mats, suggesting the possibility of refreshments. None is offered. Perhaps we need to stay an hour to qualify for that.
The cats are obviously well fed and well looked after. Their coats are smooth and sleek to the touch, a sure sign of good health. They may be a bit dopey, but they are not unfriendly. Each one responds in some way to our ministrations, the youngest quite playful at times. The establishment is neat and tidy, and spotlessly clean. If there are cat toilets anywhere, they have been discreetly placed out of sight and there is no smell of cat urine inside.
As we stood there, I wondered where these cats might have come from. Apparently some 200,000 abandoned cats are destroyed in Japan every year, so there is a role for cat cafés – in a small way – to do their bit by taking in rescue animals.
Questions have been asked about the welfare of the cats. There is a view that large numbers of cats do not thrive in confined spaces and that they might find such an environment stressful. This was not evident in Neko Fuku Fuku when we visited, but it may be at other times and in other cat cafés. Cat cafés are also required to obtain a licence to operate and to comply with strict regulations governing the protection of animals.
What about the health of the cats? Do the Nagasaki cats ever see the sun? Does the proprietor take them somewhere where they can run and play? Can they have a good life without going outside?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that indoor cats can live longer than their “free to roam” counterparts. The home is free of both natural (e.g. dogs) and artificial threats (e.g. cars), although indoor cats generally need more stimulus and are more demanding of humans.
My thoughts returned to the Nagasaki cats, cooped up in what I reckoned was less than 50 square metres. Would a few cat trees, toys and the stimulus of passing humans be enough to promote longevity in their case?
A week later, we were on the island of Naoshima. Despite the island’s tiny population – it has fewer than 4,000 inhabitants – it supports a cat café. This is a very charming venue in a lovely garden setting and if it had been the first cat café I’d seen in Japan, I’d have found it hard not to venture inside.
But by now I was over it. I wanted the company of my own cats and I particularly wanted to tell them how lucky they were to live in our home.
Not that they would know anything different.
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