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The Cat Houses and Paid Companions of Tokyo: Postcards from a Sex Nerd

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In Japan, petting pussy has its price ... and can be both decadent and tame.

  Cat House Staff vs. KyabaKura Hostesses

Welcome to the phenomenon of cat cafés in Japan. Starting about six years ago, cat cafés have sprung up all over urban centers in Japan, drawing feline devotees desperate for some furry companionship. They are more than happy to dole out precious yen to lavish attention upon these often-fickle creatures.

The desk clerk at Cat Café Hapineko told me that it all started in Taiwan, then spread to Japan and Korea. Most of the clientele are women in their 20s, followed by straight couples in their 20s and 30s. Parents bring their young children; fathers bring daughters. During my visit, a bored looking dad watched over his pre-adolescent daughter, who was desperately trying to get a white Persian to play with her. The cat had obviously perfected the art of power napping in the presence of over-eager humans. Mother-daughter pairs tend to be adult daughters with middle-aged and older mothers. Sons of any age, apparently, have no interests in cats. Seventy to 80 percent of the customers are women, and many of them are frequent visitors.

Curiously, there’s a great deal in common between cat cafés and Hostess Bars, KyabaKura and other venues offering paid companionship in Japan.

The Hostess bar and its younger hipper sister, the KyabaKura—short for cabaret club—are distinctly Japanese institutions, tracing their ancestry to the rarified tea houses and their geishas in Edo period Japan. Essentially, they’re drinking establishments where customers pay a big cover and exorbitant beverage prices while attractive staff members keep them company.

These are not brothels—there’s no sexual contact. It’s not even a topless or lap dance joint, so don’t expect to get your grind on. There are unspoken rules of conduct that seem to be innately understood by all Japanese, and grabbing and groping isn’t appreciated. There are separate places to serve all interests, whether you’re a straight man, straight woman, gay or lesbian, into costume role-play or SM.

If sex is what you want, though, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Many Westerners are confused by this, and can’t figure out the point of the whole set up.

Midori with Cats
Side-by-side- ads ... take your pick of companions.

  A Human Problem and a Japanese Solution

To understand the cat café is to understand the KyabaKura and its adult entertainment relations.

They all have a shisutemu, a system, usually posted in the entrance or on their web site. You are charged by the duration of stay in increments of time, with a minimum required drink order. The Hapineko Café charged 525 yen by the half hour with a one-drink minimum. KyabaKura charges are at least two decimal points larger. The cat café serves coffee, tea and soda with cookies while the host and hostess bars serve up a full bar of high quality liquors. Both cat cafes and KyabaKuras showcase their staff members’ portraits with chatty profile information on their websites and storefront marquee. Each venue has its specialty type of employees, whether purebreds or rescues, pretty boys or blingy party girls. Many cat cafés guarantee a minimum number of staff on hand. Same goes for the human clubs.

Cats are referred to as staff. If you want attention from the staff, you’ll need to play with them or feed them kibble. The same applies for human staff, but they prefer alcohol to cat food. Since outside food and toys are forbidden, you’ll have to buy them from the in-store menu. A tablespoon-sized bag of cat treats cost $2, while a cocktail will easily set you back $30 or more.

Sometimes the cats are all over you, and sometimes they’ll ignore you, making you work to woo their attention. Sometimes the KyabaKura boys and girls seem totally into you, while some are famous for fussy and theatrical aloofness, increasing the perceived value of any attention the customer earns through the ritualized wooing process. Most cat and human staff are known for providing the illusion of unconditional affection and patience, at least for the duration of your visit to their establishment.

Both provide the very real benefit of zero drama, zero strings attached, and no need for the messy reality of what it takes to maintain a full time relationship. Devotees of cat cafés never have to change a litter box, care for an ill or dying animal or discipline a couch shredder. Likewise, a host or hostess is always drama free, no fights, no emotional processing, and the patron has no need to actually understand their complexity and vulnerability.

The urban congestion and small living quarters of Tokyo make both home entertainment and cat ownership nearly impossible. Since most homes are too small to have house parties, a majority of Tokyoites entertain out of their home. Hostess spaces provide not only the girlfriend hang-out experience, but guarantees hospitality to all, should you spend the evening with your friends, colleagues and entourage. The same residential condition makes it common for no-pet policies in rental units. The cat café provides a place to get your cat fix and a home-style space to entertain your friends.

Night Life in Tokyo
Night Life in Tokyo.

In the end, it’s about the Japanese talent for creating pragmatic solutions to provide for the messy human need of companionship and intimacy, while helping to maintain the giant, orderly and buzzing hive that is Japan.

For all the benefits of no-strings-attached professional feline and human companions during my travels, at the end of each journey it’s my five cats and spouse at home that I long for.



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