At first glance, Neko no Mise seems like an ordinary coffee shop.
Patrons sit on sofas or at tables, sipping their lattes, reading the latest manga, surfing the internet, and chatting with friends.
But look a little closer and you’ll find something curious. In addition to the typical coffee house accoutrements, cats are napping on drink machines and in corner baskets, or they’re comfortably seated in the laps of patrons and enjoying a snuggle.
Neko no Mise, located in Tokyo’s Kanto area claims to be the oldest of Japan’s neko (the Japanese word for ‘cat’) cafs. The establishment just turned five.
Neko cafs are a fairly recent development. But now, about 100 of the cat coffee houses can be found in Japan, almost 70 of which are in the greater Tokyo area. The phenomenon is apparently starting to catch on in other Asian countries; a few cat cafs have opened in South Korea and Taiwan.
Patrons pay an average of 1,000 (about $12 US) per hour to enjoy their coffee in the company of cats. Although many non-cat-lovers would think neko cafs would be best suited to strange old ladies wearing “eau de cat pee” cologne, when journalist Selena Hoy recently visited Neko no Mise she discovered that the coffee house’s customers are mostly couples in their 20s and 30s.
“There wasn’t a pair of bedazzled spectacles or a hand-knit sweater in sight,” she reports.
Neko cafs have become popular date spots. At Cateriam, located in Shimokitazawa, lace-skirted young women and their be-mohawked male companions cooed over the antics of the caf’s feline residents.
Nekobukuro, located on the top floor of a craft store in Ikebukuro, offers a couples discount.
“We have more couples on weekends, and more singles during the week,” says a Neko no Mise employee. “All kinds of people come to the caf.”
Meanwhile, in a corner of the caf, a group of girls squealed and giggled as they took pictures of the cats with their mobile phones, while several other patrons brought their digital SLR cameras to take more professional photos.
As with any feline phenomenon, the cat caf boom has inspired numerous blogs about the most popular of the neko cafs’ namesakes. Some of the cats even have their own profiles on Mixi, the Japanese equivalent of Facebook.
One of these bloggers, a man who calls himself Jack, says he goes to cat cafs because he likes watching his favorite cats grow up.
“Cat cafs make me feel nostalgic because I had cats in my childhood,” he says. “My hobby is photography — I think the cat is one of the best subjects.”
But neko cafs aren’t for everyone.
“My sister wanted to go so badly, she took me to one,” says a young woman named Yuko. “It was weird, I thought. People just hanging out there with the cats, but you’re not allowed to wake them up or pick them up, they were just watching the cats and smiling and stuff … it was a little scary.”
Now that litters of neko cafs are sprouting up all over Japan, people throughout the nation have a chance to get their cappuccino in the company of a cat — and perhaps even meet another cat-crazy single to snuggle with.