Connect to share and comment

Tokyo's cat cafes

Customers coo, crawl around floor and snap photos at increasingly popular cat cafes.

TOKYO — I followed the instructions of the watchful cashier and took off my shoes, sanitized my hands, placed my bag in a locker and dangled an ID card (“customer #18”) from a lanyard around my neck. The cashier then gave me a once over and a shallow bow, and I padded quietly into the sitting room of the cafe.

“She’s the prettiest girl we have at our cafe. Everybody wants to touch her, but we ask that customers only do so if she doesn't resist you,” a waitress told me.

She didn’t resist. And since I was paying for the privilege, I leaned in and stroked her cheek. She was as lovely as the waitress had promised: a big-eyed, silky soft, compliant 2-year-old Russian Blue cat.

I was at Calico, one of Tokyo’s increasingly popular cat cafes, where customers seeking human and feline companionship pay to sip tea and stroke one of the 20-odd resident cats, representing 17 different breeds.

In an increasingly childless and aging nation, cat cafes fill a void. The more fortunate Japanese are the middle-aged couples who cradle Dachshunds like grandchildren at car dealerships and the young women who hand feed their Maltese puppies on park benches. For those who live with long work hours, no-pet apartments and work-related travel, there are cat cafes.

I first heard of Calico cat cafe when it opened in March 2007, but then it was an oddity and the preserve of lonely women and cat fanciers. It is now staggeringly popular. This March it opened a second branch in the high-rent Shinjuku business and shopping district. Last October it published a glossy coffee table book featuring its “feline staff.” The original branch is so packed that reservations are recommended on weekends.

Browsing in a bookstore, I found 39 establishments listed in the “cat cafe yellow page” section of a magazine. Calico advertises itself as a great "date spot," a place to make “friends” — both cats and humans — and a "fun place" to swing by after work.

Tokyo wasn’t always like this. When I grew up here in the 1980s, people had both children and pets. But in the past decade, the Japanese have chosen to have fewer children, while they keep more pets. The fertility rate, or average number of children born to a woman, was 3.65 in 1950, but had dropped to 2.13 by 1970. By the time I was born in 1980, it was 1.75. The rate now hovers at a little above one child per woman. The estimate for 2009 is that an average woman will bear 1.21 children. Because of this low birth rate, many people go to fertility festivals.

When I visited Calico cat cafe on a Saturday afternoon, it was packed almost to capacity with young couples on dates, older married couples making an afternoon of it and young women in ones and twos. One shy man struggled to draw attention from the cats, the people and even the staff.