Coffee and kitty treats. Cute Insta opps aplenty. A chance to connect with something other than a salaryman’s elbow on the train. It’s no surprise that animal cafes in Tokyo are so appealing. The first cat cafes came onto the radar around 2004, starting a trend of tearooms featuring everything from dogs to owls, hedgehogs, goats, meerkats, lizards and more. There are penguin bars and snake centers. You can have a drink in the company of just about any animal under the sun. But not all of these animal cafes are nice to their furred and feathered staff. In fact, some are downright cruel.
Patrons of animal cafes in Tokyo and other parts of Japan don’t usually get a kick out of cruelty. Most people drop by for a cuppa and a cuddle because they love animals—who wouldn’t want to have a cafe latte while giving a fluffy kitty scritches or gushing over its lil’ toebeans?
Many folks miss their animal companions back home, and are unable to keep pets in their apartment in Tokyo. I managed to reside with this charming black cat—
—but not everyone is so lucky. #Sorrynotsorry for the gratuitous pictures.
So the argument that cat cafes and the like fill a need for animal time in the crowded and often lonely capital city makes sense. Unfortunately, for many animal cafes, it’s all about the money money money at the animals’ expense. People are often shocked to find out what happens at these hubs of kawaii—some of the conditions can be abusive. There have been allegations of sedation and other dodgy practices, overcrowding and lack of veterinary care (including no spaying or neutering), confinement and restraint, chronic stress and disruption of natural sleep cycles. Sometimes cafes get shut down by the authorities for violating animal welfare laws. Owl cafes, considered among the worst, have raised the ire of animal rights groups. There’s also the issue of where the animals come from and what happens to them when a cafe closes.
Some animal cafes in Tokyo do care about their creatures, and treat them well—it’s true. But others just don’t. Why are we telling you all this? Because animal cafes are almost as sought-after as Tokyo Skytree when it comes to things to do and see in the megapolis, and we’d like to suggest a few kinder alternatives for your fauna fix. You’ll find those below.
If you absolutely can’t not go to an animal cafe in Tokyo, at least keep an eye out for anything that seems cruel or off—and ask the manager about it or report it to your local ward or city office.
Awesome alternatives to animal cafes in Tokyo
Cafe Lua in Machida
We may be cheapos, but we’re not stingy when it comes to compassion—we’re firm believers in that good ol’ motto Adopt, Don’t Shop. Cafe Lua is an animal cafe with a difference; the cats and dogs there are all rescues looking for new homes. If you’re a long-term resident in Japan, you might want to consider giving one of the furbags a family. If that’s not a possibility, you can still sip your coffee with the knowledge that the money you’re spending on it will be used to keep the animals fed and cared for. Already have a pup? You can bring it along for tea—they have a special pooch menu. And if you need a trimming salon or pet hotel, Cafe Lua offer both of these services. This is a good place, ya’ll.
The “Outdoor Cat Cafe” in Ikebukuro
Okay, so it’s not exactly a conventional cafe—but it is a place where you can see cats doing their thing in the middle of the city. Higashi Ikebukuro Chuo Park, just down the drag from Sunshine City, is an open space with a few trees and benches and a large collection of strays. Some seem to be abandoned pets (because some humans really just suck), others are fully feral and have been there since birth. A few people feed them and, for the most part, the kitties are left to do what they like with their nine lives. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you stroke them (just remember to wash your hands afterwards).
Once you’ve spent a pleasant half-hour in the company of the East Ikebukuro cats, you might consider donating some of your time or yen to Japan Cat Network or Animal Rescue Kansai to help keep as many cats and dogs as possible fed, healthy, homed and happy. That way, you’re giving something back. If you have time, you can assist with vital Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR) programs, or foster an animal for a while.
Rabbit Island (Okunoshima)
If you find yourself near Hiroshima, you could make a trip to this bizarro place. Okunoshima is home to hundreds of bunnies, which you can ooh and ah over and feed snacks to as they hop around your feet. There are a couple of theories about where the large population of fluffsters came from, with a strange little museum on the island hinting at a potentially dark history. But you’ll be pleased to know that the flopsy-mopsies are protected—so you can go and enjoy them on what is very much their own turf.
Cat Island (Ainoshima)
There is more than one cat island in Japan, but the place in our travel log is Ainoshima, just off the coast of Fukuoka. A trip to the tiny island will get you up close and purrsonal with a huge clowder of cats; the feral beasties hang around the port village waiting for treats and belly rubs. While they’re delightful in every way, their situation is less than ideal—life in the wild is rough, and spaying and neutering, as well as other veterinary care, could benefit the colony (and their habitat) in the long term. When you visit, ask questions, and consider donating some of your time or yen to Japan Cat Network or Animal Rescue Kansai to help ensure more of Japan’s cats are fed, healthy, homed and happy.
Snow monkeys in Jigokudani
For a fascinating glimpse of Japan’s famous bathing macaques, you can take a day trip from Tokyo to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano. Here, you can see wild monkeys steaming themselves in a natural hot spring (even when there’s no snow) and take some mind-blowing photos to make your friends jealous. There are no fences or cages; the animals come and go as they please. If you want to bathe with (or at least near) the beasts, you can do so at a traditional Japanese inn near the park. Here are more details to help you plan your snow monkey adventure.
If you like monkeying about, two other places worth visiting are Takasakiyama Monkey Park in Oita and Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto. At both, you can see a bunch of monkeys on their own turf, and on their own terms. At Iwatayama (which is in Arashiyama), humans are required to enter a cage-like room from which they can then feed the monkeys healthy snacks. The monkeys are on the outside at all times—making for a unique experience!
Bowing deer in Nara
If you’re in Kansai, a pilgrimage to see the legendary deer of Nara is a must. A herd 1200-strong roams Nara Park, living their best lives as protected national treasures. They while away the hours munching deer crackers (on sale all over the show), bowing to tourists and chilling outside souvenir shops. The park makes a great alternative to animal cafes.
Pet-sitting in Tokyo
Longer-term visitors or residents can skip animal cafes in Tokyo and temporarily borrow other people’s pets (and sometimes homes). The Housesitting and Petsitting Japan Facebook group is a great way to get connected with folks who need their fur babies cared for while they’re out of town. If you ask nicely, they might just let you in.
Huge thanks to fellow cheapo Selena Hoy for her help with this article.
Have you been to any animal cafes in Tokyo or another part of Japan? What was your experience like? Tell us in our community forum.
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