The timid young girl carefully extracted a strip of the pink, fish-flavoured treat from the bag. Every furred head turned, with envious green eyes transfixed by this highly coveted reward. They moved as one, a wave of fluff and claws sweeping across the floor of the cat cafe, enveloping the hapless girl's feet in a blanket of fur.
In true Japanese fashion, she let out a high-pitched squeal and waved the treat overhead in an attempt to keep it from her furry friends. Undeterred, the cats began to climb, each eager to claim the flaccid pink prize. In a moment of panic, the girl dropped the treat, distracting the hungry horde long enough to make her escape.
Inventing the Cat Cafe
Although the concept was born in Taiwan, Japan is well known as the home of the cat cafe. It was here that this quirky theme first found mainstream appeal. Since Osaka's 'Neko No Jikan' (Cat Time) opened its doors in 2004, dozens more cat cafes have sprung up throughout Japan and the rest of the world.
Millions of Japanese people live in tiny shoebox apartments where having a pet is impractical and often forbidden by the landlord. A visit to a cat cafe offers the chance to relax with some furry feline company. As a bonus, there is none of the responsibility of feeding or caring for your own pet.
The Cat Cafe Experience
Walking through the door, we entered a kind of cat utopia. Soft couches, fluffy cushions and bean bags were strewn throughout. These were interspersed with a network of scratching posts and strategically placed shelves from which the resident felines could survey their surroundings. It seemed that any human-sized furniture was merely an afterthought. It was certainly underused as most customers spent their time sitting on the floor, communing with the cats.
The cats themselves represent a wide variety of pedigree breeds. Whether you prefer your cats with long hair or short, pointy ears or squashed, you are sure to find your purrfect companion.
As people who have had pets, the behaviour of the animals in these cafes seemed really weird. They get so used to human contact that they no longer crave it in the way a family pet does. They are also not in the least territorial or inquisitive about strangers coming to visit. This means that they can often appear disinterested in anyone who hasn't purchased a suitable treat or toy for them. They will sit patiently and accept copious cuddling and petting but don't expect them to return the affection. Purchase the right treat however, and you will quickly find yourself the centre of attention, if only for a short time.
What If I Don't Like Cats?
Like all good ideas, the concept of cat cafes quickly evolved and within a few years dog cafes were also commonplace. More recently the idea has diversified into so many different species that animal cafe may well be the only suitable term. Japanese theme cafe aficionados now seek out the company of rabbits, snakes, goats and even hedgehogs. They are not all as 'hands on' as the usual cat and dog varieties though.
The New Number One: Owl Cafes
The latest craze to take cafe culture by storm, buffeted on the wings of Harry Potter's success, is the owl cafe. We saw owls of all shapes and sizes perched throughout the cafe. Huge Eagle Owls observed the goings on with gigantic amber eyes while a pristine Snowy Owl ruffled its feathers in front of a massive Hogwarts poster.
Despite being voracious predators, owls are much more delicate than cats so there were very strict rules of engagement. Contact was limited to the lightest of touches to the top of the head. Having thoroughly perused the owl collection, we took the chance to hold one of these beautiful birds. We donned leather gauntlets and chose our favourite, a tiny White-faced Scops Owl. We then took turns holding our new friend, who seemed perfectly content to have moved to a new perch.
Our Favourite Owl
Although a chance to interact with these magnificent birds of prey is a rare opportunity, keeping wild owls for the pleasure of paying visitors has caused some controversy. Asking at the owl cafe however, we were told that all of their owls were bred in captivity and wouldn't be able to survive in the wild, even if they were released.
The Japanese can certainly be credited with developing cat cafes and their spin offs into a global phenomenon, even if they didn't come up with the original idea. Whatever your opinion on animal cafes, any visit is sure to provide a memorable experience. As well as offering close encounters with a variety of creatures, seeing some of the regular customers at an animal cafe can give you an insight into one of Japan's many bizarre subcultures.
Cat Cafe Tips
There are cat cafes all over Japan. We started with Japan's original cat cafe, Neko No Jikan. They now have several branches in Osaka.
You will pay an entrance fee when visiting a cat cafe. This usually includes a drink of your choice. There will be a time limit though.
Most cats at a cafe will tolerate you stroking them. However, the only way to get the cats to pay you any real attention is to tempt them with toys or treats. Cat toys and treats will not be included in the entrance fee. You'll have to pay extra. Although beware, if you buy the right cat treats, you may end up with more attention than you bargained for.
Owl Cafe Tips
Owl cafes have recently become very popular with new owl cafes appearing all over Japan. We visited Owl Cafe Watawata in Nara. This can easily be combined with a visit to see the deer at Nara Park.
Owls are very delicate so they have to be handled carefully. In the owl cafe we visited, we were only allowed to touch them very gently on the top of the head.
Any chance to hold an owl will be carefully supervised by a member of staff. Individual birds tend to have carefully monitored rest periods when you will not be allowed to disturb them.
You pay an entrance charge when visiting an owl cafe. This tends to include a drink of your choice. There is a time limit though.