My second night in Tokyo, following a long day of evading Japanese school children in the maze of Asakusa market stalls, I found myself with no general plan for the evening. I don’t know how I decided on visiting Akihabara, except that maybe I was tempted by the draw of lights and sound and arcades. Hopping onto a spare computer in the hostel lounge, I did a quick internet search to see what I shouldn’t miss, and soon struck gold.
I remember Akihabara being easier to get to than my subway map now makes it seem, but I suppose by then I’d already become comfortable with the Tokyo subway system. My first step outside the train station was a bit overwhelming as I found myself suddenly thrust into a Japanese version of New York’s Times Square. All I could see were flashing neon lights and glaring LED signs. Even on a weeknight the streets were still crammed with people, mostly young adults, tourist and local alike. The street outside the station was another open air market like in Asakusa, but instead of paper fans and ceramic bowls, these stands were selling video games and dvd players, wires and electronics, even neon tubing. At a teppanyaki stand on the corner a boom box blared a mixture of disjointed English and Japanese, as a man in an apron carved strips off a large slab of meat hanging from the roof. Young women in maid outfits handed out fliers, enticing people to visit their cafes. Beyond were buildings with flashing marquees, glowing signs advertising what could be found on each floor.
Although I’d written down directions to my destination, a lack of English street signs made it difficult to orient myself, so I struck out at random, eventually having to stop and study my map. Although I spent a good ten minutes with my atlas spread out before me on a ledge, head bobbing up to search for landmarks before turning back down to the map again, I never once was approached by the ever-helpful Japanese person that I’d read so much about in my pre-trip preparations. Perhaps I hadn’t looked desperate enough. Although I was able to cross reference my location with the station I’d walked from, I still wasn’t exactly sure where I was going, and decided to try the long-standing practice of “I’ll walk in one direction for a few blocks, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll go back in the other direction.” Luckily, my destination ended up being only a block in the direction I first started, and I was able to arrive half an hour before closing.
If I hadn’t been looking for it, I wouldn’t have found it, but once I saw the silver door handle in the shape of a cat’s paw, I knew I was in the right spot. Sliding open the door (after a failed attempt to pull it toward me) I entered a small alcove with a reception window and a wooden latticework door to keep the cats from getting out. I had what was becoming a familiar conversation with the man behind the window; he rattled off a greeting in Japanese, I replied with head shaking and pleas of “Wakarimasen!” and “Eego!”, and he hurried to fetch someone who could speak English. The woman explained to me the rules.
Neko Jalala is a cat cafe, a recent trend in Japan in which patrons pay an hourly fee to play with the cafe’s resident cats. 500 yen would get me half an hour of kitty cuddling. I was given a badge to hang around my neck (presumably to keep track of when I’d arrived), shown where to put my shoes and bag, then lead into the back to wash my hands. At a small counter you could order drinks; I purchased a coke then settled down on the floor.
I counted probably a dozen cats milling about the small yet cozy room. A tall bookshelf against one wall held books, manga, and the occasional feline. There were a few chairs scattered about, most occupied by cats rather than people, and here and there were baskets crammed with cat toys. Most people were sitting on the floor, some coaxing cats with bits of string or feathers, others content to merely watch. I busied myself with taking photos (no flash). The cats truly owned the place, the way cats will own anything if given the opportunity. I watched in amusement as a beautiful Maine Coon helped himself to a glass of soda that had been abandoned on a coffee table. Most of the cats would twist away if you tried to pet them, not running but merely bending their bodies so that your fingers stroked only air. They would approach if and when they felt like it, more likely if you had food, although I noticed they seemed to have a certain fondness for socks.
The time didn’t go quickly, not in a way that I was conscious of it. I wasn’t aware of time, when I was with the cats. Since I’d come late, the end of my half hour coincided with the cafe’s closing. I watched everyone slowly rising to their feet as if reluctant to leave. I handed in my badge and counted out the payment for my time and drink. Altogether it cost under $10. As I slipped on my shoes in the alcove, the Maine Coon stretched up on his hindlegs and peered at me through the lattice, as if biding a silent farewell. Stepping out into the night and glowing lights of Akihabara, I felt at peace.
This blog entry was featured in the April Japan Blog Matsuri: Slow Times in Japan.