If there is one thing that the 36-million strong metropolitan monster does better than depopulate surrounding prefectures of their youth, it’s commodifying every aspect of the human experience. Including interacting with animals.
In Tokyo, pets themselves are absurdly expensive, and the space required to house them means that only the most well heeled can afford to purchase, keep, and benefit from the positive emotional aspects of pet ownership. In typical Tokyo style, however, every emotional and physical need is seen as a business opportunity. Like the stores in Kabukicho that sell good-looking guys’ and girls’ time for paying customers to be able to have drinks and conversations with them, more than a few places do the same, but with animals… particularly cats.
However, as it is with chatting with good-looking people—with a little bit of effort, one can experience the benefits of interacting with cats, without the need to pay middlemen money to provide you with a curated, time limited, restricted service that is essentially not real.
That’s where the Higashi Ikebukuro Chuo Koen comes in. It’s right next to Ikebukuro’s landmark, Sunshine City, a 7-minute walk away from Ikebukuro Station and a 3-minute walk away from Higashi Ikebukuro station. It’s a typical, central Tokyo public space. It has some trees, a few benches and a water feature that has been turned off to cut costs. It’s also home to a fairly sizable population of homeless vagabonds. What makes this particular park special is that the homeless vagabonds are of the feline persuasion.
They come from varied backgrounds: some cats appear to be abandoned pets, others have appear to be more “wild” and more than a few were born there. There seems to be a social order in place and the cats get along with each other fairly well. Regular human visitors to the park, some of whom look as rough as some of the felines, have given them names and feed them regularly, despite looking as if they don’t quite have enough to feed themselves. If nothing else, there appears to be some symbiosis between the two species, who are united by a common bond of being forced to exist on the fringes of society.
The cats, however, don’t mind sharing their affection—on their own terms—with just about anyone who wants it. The result is essentially a cat cafe with no time restrictions, cover charges or climate control. Because the cats are essentially in control of the “cat” experience, your mileage may vary. There are some cats who clearly enjoy human affection and there are some that go out of their way to avoid it. Most of them, however, straddle this line based on how they feel at that moment in time—after all, this is one of the reasons we like cats, right?
The most rewarding part of the Ikebukuro Cat Park is the realness of it. The cats are not models, selected for their cuteness and temperament to attract customers with fluffy fantasy. (They’re certainly not sedated, a practice that less reputable cat cafes have been accused of engaging in) They are real life Mungojerries, Rumpleteazers and Grizabellas, without the music or the choreography.
It’s not perfect however. The cats ARE strays, and so a number of them appear to be less than healthy. There are undoubtedly a host of germs and parasites infesting both the cats and most of the surfaces in the park and one would do well to keep some alcohol sanitizer close at hand. One would probably do well to keep an eye on kids too, because kids are kids and cats don’t like their tails being pulled.
Small concerns aside if you’re just looking to get away from the cacophony of commercial craziness for a few hours, without having to shell out a lot of money to do it, the Higashi Ikebukuro Chuo Koen can make for a unique city escape.