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Sunday, March 16, 2008

WEEK 3

CAT CAFE CALICO

A purrfect place for fanciers of felines


Special to The Japan Times

The 20th of this month marks the first anniversary of Cat Cafe Calico's opening to the public.

News photo
News photo
A few of the 17 pedigree feline stars of Cat Cafe Calico — from Russian Blues to Persians — who pull in feline fanciers day after day to commune with their elusive personalities. They include this dozy beauty (top) in the arms of a cafe staffer, the imperious Chiyoko looking down from on high (above) and one of their number asleep in a cooking pot (below). And then there's these moggies so delighting cafe regular Kaori Sato (bottom). FELICITY HUGHES PHOTOS
News photo
News photo

The cafe's 34-year-old owner Takafumi Fukui, having managed to hit on a revolutionary yet simple idea at just the right time, has good reason to celebrate. His cafe is now so popular that on weekends customers have to make reservations in advance if they want to visit. They come in droves to spend time with the cafe's coterie of 17 full-grown felines and kittens — and they pay ¥800 an hour for the privilege.

When I visited Fukui, I found most of the cats there stretched out on the many plush sofas that furnish this spacious room. It was a Monday around 6 p.m., and the evening rush hadn't yet kicked in. There were only two customers: a young man reading a book, apparently happy just to hang out with his furry friends, and a young woman whose attention was totally focused on petting a tiny kitten.

The atmosphere was completely tranquil. Accordingly, I tried to remove my shoes, put my belongings in a locker and wash and disinfect my hands — according to the cafe's strict rules — with the minimum of noise.

"My parents used to have many cats in their house while I was growing up. When I moved to Tokyo I found out that most landlords here don't allow you to keep cats," said the gently spoken Fukui, explaining his motivations for opening the cafe.

A former employee of a mah-jongg parlor, Fukui had another very important reason for opening the cafe — and that reason was sitting in his arms as he spoke to me.

"I wasn't home very much and found that my dog, Moka, was showing signs of neglect," he said, looking down at his treasured brown toy poodle.

Starting up the business was extremely difficult, since out of the 100-odd spaces Fukui viewed, only three were prepared to allow animals on the premises. "I chose this one because it's close to Kichijoji Station and because the landlord likes animals," he said.

Once the cafe opened, business was steady. "Of course, people who can't have cats come because of the rules of their apartment. But also, surprisingly, we get many customers who already have cats, but just love felines so much that they come here, too. Sometimes their cats might get too old for play, so they come here to play with the younger ones. We have many toys for them."

Kaori Sato, 33, a sales clerk who works in Kichijoji, bore out Fukui's theory. "I come here every day, I love cats. I've got two cats at home already, but I come to see other kinds of cats."

A unique selling point for the cafe is that the cats are all pedigrees: visitors can spend time with Russian Blues and Persians — though sadly, there are no regal Siamese. Later I see Sato getting down on the floor, playing with a small kitten, completely oblivious to anything else.

Is it difficult for Fukui to ensure the customers treat the animals with respect?

"Most people who come here to play with the cats know how to treat cats well. The cats have always lived here, so they've got used to being with people. At first, we allowed children to come to the cafe, but they used to tease the cats too much, pulling their tails and so forth, so we made a rule that only children over 10 years old can visit."

While I was there, two trained members of staff were on hand to ensure all went smoothly, and there are also sensible rules to protect the animals' welfare.

"The kittens wear scarves to indicate that they cannot be held, you're only allowed to stroke them," Fukui explained.

How about trouble between cats? If you put 17 different personalities in a room together, aren't there bound to be clashes?

"There is only one male cat here, only male cats get aggressive about territory. Female cats don't really care. So we avoid trouble with this kind of thing — and they are still young," answers Fukui. Considering that he keeps the cats inside the cafe 24-7, the fact that peace still reigns is incredible. Perhaps the cats pick up on the Zenlike vibe their calm owner gives out.

You'd think that the most popular cats would be the kittens, but not so. A large orange, white and brown face peers down regally at us. "That's Chiyoko, I named the cafe after his calico markings," said Fukui.

Chiyoko's reserved nature has brought him a big fan. Hamamata Kazunori, a 33-year-old systems engineer, visits the cafe three or four times a week and while there takes "around 100" photographs for his blog. "Chiyoko is my favorite cat. I like him because he's got a difficult personality — it's hard to get him to play with you. I want to get his attention."

News photo
A star of the Cat Cafe Calico menagerie in Tokyo's Kichijoji district takes her upside-down ease "at work" — to the delight of cat-loving customers. FELICITY HUGHES PHOTO

The business really took off for Fukui when the media got interested. "Since an article appeared in Tokyo Walker magazine in September, announcing the start of a "cat cafe boom," as the media called it, we've been really busy."

Fukui feels that the fact that three cat cafes started up in the space of one year is hardly cause for such a furor. But isn't he thinking of capitalizing on this "boom?" What are his plans for the future?

"When the cats get older, they won't be able to work here any more, so I want to create a place for retired cats," comes the selfless answer.

How old is too old? "It's hard to say, but around 8 to 10 years old. The same as people, as they get older, they're no longer very playful and don't want to interact with others so much. That's something for the future, though. I've only just started."

As I leave the cafe, the evening is just getting going and the space is at half capacity with around 10 customers. Rie Takamatsu, 34, a gym administrator, sums up the feelings of many visitors. "It's my first time here — I love it. I don't have cats at home because my apartment contract won't allow it. The atmosphere here is really warm, I can relax."

Catisfaction guaranteed.



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