In a concrete building a few blocks from Tokyo’s grand Sensoji Temple, I selected a female companion for a 45-minute session. She and I were ushered from the second to the fourth floor, where a garishly hued room awaited. My hostess, who went by the English name “Queen,” was pretty, but not much of a conversationalist. In fact, she mostly just wiggled her nose at me. But then, Queen is a rabbit.
She’s one of the rentable residents who work at With Bunny, in the tourist-heavy Asakusa neighborhood. The six-floor business is among Tokyo’s biggest animal cafes, even if it doesn’t quite justify its billing as “Education & Museum.” But it does offer a variety of activities, for a range of fees. Visitors can feed a rabbit, pose for a photo with one or take an animal on a stroll through the structure’s roof garden. That last choice was the priciest option I encountered in several days of visiting cat, rabbit, dog, bird and reptile cafes in and around Tokyo.
A note about the widespread use of the word “cafe” to describe Japan’s animal hangouts: Don’t imagine sitting at an elegant little table, sipping cafe au lait and nibbling macaroons as a tabby curls in your lap or a beagle flops at your feet. Tables are rare, and the animals may ignore you. Plus, beverages are likely to come from a self-service vending machine — sometimes covered by the entrance fee — or a tiny refrigerator.
Most of these places are one-person operations, and the budget doesn’t include baristas or short-order cooks. You’re paying just for (a) a semiprivate space and (b) animals. But both of those can be significant attractions in Japanese cities, which are known for minuscule dwellings and landlords who forbid pets. Thus the popularity of what are essentially petting zoos for adults.
Another potential disappointment: Although these places might seem a boon to parents with kids, many of them bar guests younger than 12 or 13. Japan’s critter cafes are for your inner child, not your actual one.
As someone who lives with cats, I wasn’t part of the purr-deprived target audience of cat cafes. But after walking past the sign for Calico, near Shinjuku station, a dozen or so times, I finally went in. I took off my shoes, sanitized my hands and paid the equivalent of about $8 for an hour of furry kawaii (“cute”).
Calico, I later learned, was one of Tokyo’s first cat cafes. It’s also the largest, which may explain why its inhabitants seem more relaxed, although perhaps it’s the Bach and Pachelbel on the sound system.
The more than 50 cats can prowl between two floors, climb the specialized furniture or stare out the window at bustling Shinjuku, a neighborhood where nearly any entertainment (not all of it strictly legal) is available.
At Calico and similar establishments, guests may give the cats treats (that works) or entice them with toys (that usually doesn’t). Chasing, awakening or picking up the animals is forbidden, and visitors are encouraged to wait to be approached. That didn’t yield results at other cat cafes I visited, but it did at Calico.
Ikebukuro, a slightly less hectic version of Shinjuku, boasts the usual attractions: food and alcohol, strip clubs and hostess bars, cats and bunnies. The neighborhood is home to Mimi, one of the few cafes where multiple rabbits run free rather than being uncaged temporarily for one-on-one encounters.
Nearby Nekorobi — with unlimited hard candies, games and a laptop — was like a communal rec room with cats.
At this and most other Tokyo cat cafes, the breeds tend to be exotic: Maine coon-style longhairs, sour-faced Persians, exceptionally short-haired Sphynxes and Bengals and ocicats, with the markings of their larger cousins. Young versions of such curiosities are for sale at places like Aeon Pet, a chain of shops with attached feline cafes, dubbed Cat Plus.
At Aeon’s outlet in Aqua City Mall, on the manmade island of Odaiba in Tokyo harbor, unusual varieties were displayed in clear plastic boxes, and priced for as much as $5,000: kittens as luxury goods.
All corners of the kingdom
Creature cafes started with cats, and rabbits were a logical expansion. More recently, bird and reptile cafes have proliferated. But snakes and lizards, which carry salmonella on their skin, are a bad mix with food service. At Yokohama Rainforest Cafe, in the city that blurs into Tokyo’s southwest, the animals are out of reach, with only a few turtles on the loose.
Tokyo’s first owl cafe, Fukuro no Mise, opened in 2012, and was followed by several imitators, some of which specialize in hawks. I hit two bird types with one cover charge by visiting Tori No Iru (loosely, “where the birds are”). This basement venue is divided between tethered, perching owls and a flock of mainly tropical birds that fly freely in an inner room.
The owls, mostly juveniles, do little but look cute and cool. If you ask, staffers will set one on your shoulder. The parrots are much livelier.
Before entering the second chamber, customers don camouflaged ponchos, which encourage the birds to treat the people like trees (and protect from droppings). The parrots seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as their human roosts, but a few other birds appeared less amused. The room had a small pond, but a lone duck simply sat on the floor. A Tokyo cellar is no place for a duck.
Tori No Iru’s owls are usually young because the birds are for sale, as are the animals in many Tokyo cafes. The mercantile aspects of animal cafes, as well as the frequent use of small cages, can make the whole trend feel a bit less kawaii.
So I ended my tour at Nekoen (“cat garden”). There are no rare breeds or uncanned beverages at this humble sixth-floor venue. Just former street cats and a proprietor, chatty in good English, who works closely with people who rescue strays and so-called feral cats. So far, she told me, she’s found homes for more than 130 of them. An hour at Nekoen costs about $6.50, but to the right guardian, the cats are free. That sounds like a better deal than coffee and a macaroon with a $5,000 ocicat.