An Irishman's Diary
Two lost decades or not, Japan still keeps coming up with wacky new ideas that, eventually, the rest of the world is bound to copy. One of the latest, and most inspired, is the cat cafe.
Since the first one opened in Osaka a few years ago, cat cafes have multiplied across Japan. They work like normal coffee houses, supplying customers with food and drink. But they also supply pet cats that play or mingle with said customers. For which pleasure, apparently, people are happy to part with cover charges of about €10 an hour.
To coin a phrase (nobody seems to be using this yet, so I'm claiming the English-language rights), these are interpet cafes. And in a stress-filled city like Tokyo, where living spaces are small and there are often rules against keeping animals, their popularity is perfectly understandable.
Unwinding after work, clients of these establishments can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of pet ownership, without the long-term costs, or having to keep the animal cooped up in an empty room, or getting fur everywhere.
It's true that cat cafes have certain, uncomfortable resonances with businesses of another kind. Customers will have favourite cats, for example, and can ask for them by name. The cats can be brought to your table. And in some establishments, you can even buy them milk (lactose-free, naturally).
But there the similarities with lap-dancing clubs begin and end, because it's well known that cats will not perform for anyone, no matter how much lactose-free milk you buy them. In any case, according to the reports I've read, the customers in cat cafes are more likely than not to be female.
The business is not without problems. Children have to be banned from the cafes, usually, because they're too hard on the cats. And also arising from concerns about animal welfare, a 10pm curfew was imposed on all such premises last year.
It wasn't aimed at the cafes, primarily: the real issue was late-opening pet stores where animals were exposed to undue stress, including inebriated customers who might bring a new pet home with them at night but not respect it in the morning. Even so, and despite protests that cats are nocturnal creatures, cafes were also affected by the curfew.
Those problems aside, however, the concept seems to be thriving. The cafes are mushrooming not just in Japan, but in Taipei and other parts of east Asia. And I read recently that there are plans to open one in London later this year.
It's not hard to foresee them taking off on this side of the world, at least to the extent that karaoke bars did. But then I speak as the accidental owner of two feline pets: someone who - although still not even close to being a cat person - can now appreciate the stress-reducing effects of the species, provided the exposure is limited to short periods.
Five minutes here and there does me. An hour at a stretch. Any more that than that spent with cats, I've found, and they only increase your anxiety levels.
In the case of our old cat, if it's not the cost of food and litter and veterinary bills, and having hair everywhere, it's having to work out why he's still staring at you urgently - often at midnight when you're going to bed - even though you've fed and watered him, and plumped his pillow, and he's been to the toilet.
Then there's our six-month-old kitten, who presents a different set of problems. A four-legged Christopher Columbus, he now almost daily has to be rescued from a roof or upstairs widow sill, or somewhere else he's ended up inadvertently during his relentless explorations of the house and neighbourhood.
Nowhere is safe from him. I opened the fridge the other day and - I swear - the kitten jumped out. He was still at room temperature, or close enough. So we surmised that he must have got in only moments before, during one of those conversations you have while holding the door open and looking the other way. He was just lucky it wasn't the freezer.
For these and other reasons, I can see the appeal of pay-as-you go cat cafes. It's already too late for us, I know. Unless perhaps our cats could be persuaded to work there. Which indeed sounds like a plan. If such a place were to open in our area soon, and advertise vacancies, I could see myself dropping in a pair of CVs.