The Japanese are renown for loving their sushi, cellphones and cats. Sushi and cellphones are easy to come by in Japan, but owning a cat is not. Most Japanese landlords prohibit pets, so unless you own your home, Hello Kitty paraphenalia is about as close to cat ownership that most Japanese renters can ever get. And let’s face it, Hello Kitty is adorable, but doesn’t quite cut it if you are looking for a little furry four-legged companionship after a stressed-out day in the 21st century rat race.
In contemplating the disconnect between the Japanese love of cats and the ban on pets in rental units, thirty-something Norimasa Hanada had an epiphany – what if she opened a cat cafe? A place where city-dwellers could come for a cup of tea, a cozy reading corner – and a lap cat. Not only would this allow pet-less people to enjoy the company of a furry feline, but it would also provide homeless cats a home, albeit an unconventional one.
Hanada’s Neko No Mise (Shop of Cats) was an immediate hit. By creating a relaxing, distinctly feminine environment with soft music, stuffed sofas, and a wall entirely lined with manga books, young twenty- and thirty-something women (and some men and older women) began making a stop at Neko No Mise a daily ritual.
The average stay is an hour and a half, but many regulars make Neko No Mise their office for the day. Some patrons even call in sick and then spend the day surrounded by kitten love as a way to ease away their headaches, sniffles or whatever ails them. Many of Hanad’s customers admit that Neko No Mise is their go-to place when they are mentally exhausted, overstressed or just needing downtime.
Fourteen cats now call Neko No Mise home. Many of the human customers have favorite cats and the cats have favorite people. If you are a newbie, it may take a while for one of the fourteen pussycats to warm up to you, as typical of any feline, cuddling is entirely on their terms. The cafe charges by the hour — $9 an hour to be exact or $21.50 for a three-hour plan, plus whatever you order from the cafe.
Cat cafes are now a pan-Japanese phenomenon with over 79 locations across the island. One Japanese talk show radio host suggested that this mild obsession with all things cat it just a sign of the times. There is a Japanese folktale that says whenever economic hard times hit, interest in cats and cat-related merchandise soars. The Japanese economy has been struggling the past few years and sure enough, cat-related everything has seen a big uptick in popularity. Recently, a Japanese entrepreneur released the first font made entirely out of cats (cat photos that is). One cat-cafe patron suggested that perhaps the traditional Japanese culture of obedience and conformity, which requires people to act in pre-described ways by carefully judging the nuances in every situation — what the Japanese literally call reading the air — that makes the independent, freedom-loving cat the perfect target of obsession.
Whatever, the draw, cat cafes are booming across Japan and my guess is it will not be long before cat cafes pop up in America, Australia, Europe and elsewhere. What do you think of the trend?