Feline fans flocking to cat cafes across world

Amu, a calico RaggaMuffin, has a reputation for being arrogant.
Amu, a calico RaggaMuffin, has a reputation for being arrogant. Miami Herald Staff

A cafe patron is trying to woo Amu — she of the long hair and lovely green eyes — but the beauty disdainfully turns away.

And then she flicks her fluffy tail. Amu is a long-haired calico — one of 51 felines who staff the Calico Cat Cafe, one of Japan’s numerous cat cafes — and she has a reputation for being somewhat aloof.

But most of the resident felines are curious about the cafe customers and eager to toss a few toy mice around with them. Patrons, who pay the equivalent of $9.36 for an hour of cat play, can also get a cup of tea or a bite to eat. For another 300 yen (about $2.80), they can make a cat’s day and buy a fortunate feline a small chicken snack.

The cat cafe didn’t originate in Japan, but in the past decade it has really taken hold in a country where space is at a premium and many apartments and houses are too small to keep a pet.

The concept spread from Japan to Europe, where cafes such as the Katzencafe in Berlin and La Gatoteca in Madrid have opened. Now it has leaped the Pacific to the United States, where the grand opening of the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, on Oct. 25 was believed to be the first U.S. launch of a permanent cat cafe.

The Japanese fixation on cats goes back further to a time when the cats that gobbled up rats and silkworms were considered the lucky charms of the silk industry.

Now Japanese affection for the feline is evident in everything from cartoon characters like Krocchi, a swashbuckling stray cat, and the cat-like girl character Hello Kitty to the ubiquitous Maneki-neko, the beckoning cat figurine whose raised paw is thought to bring good luck and good fortune.

There’s even a cat shrine on Tashirojima Island, where the cats greet the returning fishing boats. During the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it’s said that the cats who wander the island evacuated to the area around the Neko-jinja, or cat shrine, and survived. Another island, Aoshima, where the cats outnumber the people, also has become something of a tourist attraction for cat lovers.

Takafumi Fukui, owner of the Calico in Toyko’s Shinjuku neighborhood and another cafe in Kichijoji, said the cat cafe was born in Taiwan, but was far different from what it’s become in Japan. There, he said, the cats wandered in and out from the street, mingling with patrons as they sipped tea.

At the Calico Cafe, an elevator whooshes patrons up to the sixth-floor reception area where they are expected to park their shoes and don slippers, put jackets, purses or luggage into a locker, and scrub their hands and apply a hand sanitizer before heading in to see the cats.

The reception area smells vaguely of eau de cat litter, but the floor below where the main cat room and the cafe are located is odorless. The litter boxes are set up in an area under the stairs. “It’s a lot of work; we clean them frequently,” Fukui said.

Kitty wonderland

The Calico Cafe — the largest cat cafe in Tokyo — is a cat paradise, with scratching posts, kitty tree houses, perches, cardboard boxes and baskets to hide in, sunny window sills to lounge on, and feathery toys and cloth mice to swipe at.

Kurumi Bonkohara, a first-time visitor, swished some feathers at one of the cats and tried a pair of velvet bat wings on another. “I’ve been to cat cafes all over Japan, but this one is by far the biggest one I’ve visited and the cats are really friendly here,” she said.

An album at the cafe includes each cat’s breed, birthdate and personality traits. For the record, it says Amu is “arrogant in the store but timid outside.”

Everyone has a way of communing with the cats. One man sat quietly stroking a cat on his lap while other patrons crawled around on the floor trying to tempt cats with toys. A half-dozen cats rubbed up against a patron who purchased a chicken snack. (The cafe advises splitting the portion among several cats.)

The cats are allowed to wander freely between the fifth and sixth floors, but there are rules for the people. Only beverages are permitted on the cat-play floor; more substantial food can be purchased in a separate glass-enclosed room where cats aren’t allowed. About half the patrons supplement their cat fix with food.

Flash photography is prohibited, and most importantly, there is this rule: “Please do not wake up the sleeping cats, surprise them or annoy the cats.”

Some 40 cats work the floor at the same time. Cats who don’t get along work different shifts, and each cat has its own cage in a private room. They spend the night in their cages and are fed in them to ensure that each cat gets the correct diet.

A vet attends the cats, which are all neutered and spayed, once a year to give them checkups and vaccinations. The oldest cat at the cafe is now 7. There hasn’t been a retirement yet, but Fukui said he has begun to think about how it should be handled.

“When we opened our first cafe about eight years ago, the concept of the cat cafe wasn’t really established, so we had to explain it,” Fukui said. “Now the business is doing well, and we are starting to get a lot more foreigners.”

A cat lover

Fukui, who grew up in Mie Prefecture, said his family kept five to 10 cats when he was a child. “My first reason for wanting to open a cat cafe was so I would be able to keep a lot of cats,” he said as a calico pushed up against him, purring.

Now he has 20 varieties — Persians, ruddy Ocicats, Norwegians, Siamese, Ragamuffins, Abyssinians, Scottish Folds, a short-legged Munchkin born on Christmas Day named Santa, American Shorthairs and more. The biggest is Taiga, a Maine Coon cat.

“In Tokyo it’s hard to keep pets because the apartments are so small, and I thought many people might feel the same way I did,’’ he said. New arrivals to the city who used to keep cats, and now can’t, also find their way to the cafe for cat therapy.

Books and more

Cat merchandise is also popular in Japan.

Near a busy intersection in Jinbocho sits the Nyankodo bookstore (nyanko is kitty in Japanese). It was struggling until about 11/2 years ago when Yuko Anegawa, the daughter of proprietor Fumio Anegawa, came up with the idea of devoting a large portion of the shelf space in the 30-year-old store to cat books.

“I noticed there was a cat boom, and there just seemed to be so many cat lovers, so I decided we should try this,” she said.

Now the bookstore stocks 300 cat-themed titles and 2,000 volumes of cat books in addition to its more general stock. You’ll also find a dozen different cat magazines from Life with Cats to The Perfect Day for Cats, cat tea towels, pins, T-shirts, postcards and stationery, catnip toys, cat treats made from dried chicken, calendars, photographs, mugs and other feline paraphernalia.

The walls are festooned with pictures of customers’ cats and Riku, Yuko’s orange Scottish Fold.

“It was her idea to add the cat books because the other books just weren’t selling that well,” Fumio said. “It’s been a much greater success than we expected. We’ve been featured on television, and now people are coming from all over Japan.”

Literary giant Soseki Natsume’s classic I Am a Cat is a bestseller, but so are comic books featuring a neko (cat) baseball pitcher. “A lot of men like this,” said Yuko, who presides over the cat side of the bookstore. “We didn’t think it would sell well, but it’s really popular.”

In the States

Meanwhile, across the Pacific where the cats say meow, rather than nya as they do in Japan, Cat Town Cafe recently celebrated its grand opening. For a $10 donation, cat lovers can schedule a one-hour appointment in its Cat Zone.

But rather than a tea room, it’s a coffee shop, and its concept differs from the Japanese cat cafes. Its residents are rescue cats that are up for adoption, and the feline staff will be replenished as the cats find homes.

Cat Town may have a cross-bay rival soon, and there are also plans afoot in other U.S. cities to launch cat cafes.

KitTea, which bills itself as part gourmet tea house and part cat and human oasis, hopes to open in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley before the end of the year. It is seeking crowdfunding and also plans to source its feline staff from local rescue centers.

A pop-up cat cafe, Catfe, opened for four days in Los Angeles’ Chinatown earlier this month and has launched a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of becoming a permanent haven for L.A. cat lovers. There was also a four-day pop-up cat coffee shop in New York this spring.

Inspired by the Japanese cat cafes, The Denver Cat Company also hopes to open a permanent cafe this fall.