Thursday, January 10, 2008

Have there been any nuclear accidents in Canada lately? Last week I saw some truly frightening animals from that country when I visited the cat zoo.

Yes, the cat zoo. You already knew, of course, that there is a cat art gallery here in Japan, so why not a cat zoo? In fact, this country boasts at least two such zoos. One of them, in the Kinugawa area of Tochigi-ken, is called Wan-Nyan Mura (Woof-Meow Village). The other, more conveniently located in southern Tokyo, is called Nekotama (Cat-Tama, so named because it is just a few blocks from the Tama River).

A Japanese cat fancier of my acquaintance put me onto this place, and she gave me a coupon for 200 yen off the 700 yen (US $6.54 or 6.80 euros) price of admission when I said it sounded interesting. Like many cat fanciers here, she does not actually own a cat. Her apartment is too small, and there are rules against pets. The relatively high rate of three-generation households also cramps the style of some would-be pet owners. I know a guy who still doesn’t have a cat at the age of 40 because his mom won’t let him have one.

Those who are catless but wish they weren’t can get their fix of cooing and cuddling any day of the week with a visit to Nekotama. There’s a bulletin board just inside the entrance covered with snapshots of recent visitors holding cats. One of them was a stocky guy in a black leather vest with no shirt on underneath it. He was wearing a bandanna on his head, mirrored sunglasses, several days worth of stubble, and a goofy grin as he cradled a Tabby in his massive arms. It goes to show you never can tell.

Most of the visitors on the day that I was there were young women on their own or with boyfriends in tow. Exclamations of “Kawaii!” (Cute!) could be heard on a fairly steady basis. Cute is big in Japan. Of course, no one said “Kawaii!” in front of the display case housing those horrid and unfortunate Canadian things.

They, and several other distinctive breeds, were housed in glass-fronted pens that were meant to resemble Western-style living rooms, complete with chairs, tables, and (non-functioning) fireplaces. The largest of these was occupied by a pair of nearly identical Turkish Angoras called Silky and Milky. A sign helpfully explained that one of them had blue eyes and the other one had green eyes. Both of them kept their eyes closed. There was also a cute creature called a Scottish Fold whose ears are folded over, and a pair of odd-looking pug-nosed cats. My own personal favorites were the dark and velvety Russian Blues, who would have made lovely pets or lovely gloves.

And then there were the Sphinxes. The female of the pair had such bright yellow fur that it looked synthetic. She had very little of it. Her gray and heavily wrinkled skin was showing through so clearly that her hide had the look of a much-trampled carpet that should have been replaced years ago. Her mate was even more grotesque. He had no hair at all except for an electrified-looking crewcut between his radar-dish ears. He had a lot more skin than he really needed, and most of the excess was hanging from his neck or draped around his shoulders. I couldn’t help noticing that his scrotum — which I overheard other visitors commenting on as well — would not have looked out of place on a considerably larger animal. A Great Dane, perhaps. Worst of all was his tail. Long, gray, lumpy, and totally hairless, it resembled nothing so much as a misplaced section of intestine. The effect was particularly shocking when he sat upright with his tail coiled over his abdomen. It was as if he had just committed seppuku with his own claws. Yuck.

I wish I could say that I spent more time gazing at the elegant Silky and Milky, but that just wouldn’t be true. I was surprised to learn that the Sphinx, in spite of its name, is a Canadian breed. The land of polar bears and arctic hares, of mink and beaver and Mike Myers’ chest wig, has given the world a hairless cat. How unpatriotic can you get? The voyageurs must be rolling in their graves.

Eventually I did tear myself away to see what else Nekotama might have to offer. There were two enclosures where visitors could actually encounter cats in person to stroke and hug them to their hearts’ content. The visitors’ hearts, that is. The cats themselves were kept on leashes and seemed a bit harried by all the attention. I also found these rooms a little too crowded myself, and since I was not on a leash I left.

My last stop was — of course — the Nekotama gift shop. As one might expect, this is a vast emporium of cat coffee mugs, cat calendars, cat paintings, cat stationery, cat cookies, cat keychains, cat toys, toy cats, cat refrigerator magnets, cat lamps, cat umbrellas, and so on.

What caught my eye was the Nekotama brand of herbal tea that includes catnip as its main ingredient. I had heard that this is an herb that is supposed to affect cats in the way that champagne affects people. Since then, I have been told by a couple of cat owners that it makes their pets roll around on their backs and drool, so perhaps champagne is not a sufficient analogy. Whatever catnip is, though, everyone agrees that felines love the stuff.


I stood around for a while thinking about how I should ask my question, and then approached the cashier when no one else was nearby. “Can only cats drink this?”

She was very quick to correct me. Cats CAN’T drink catnip tea because they have an aversion to hot beverages. I should have known. After all, the term “neko-jita” (cat tongue) is how the Japanese describe a person who doesn’t like their food or drink too hot. In any case, Nekotam’As catnip tea is intended primarily for human consumption. The cashier went on to say that if I drink it while my cat is in the house, the smell will make my cat love me very much. She then did a convincing pantomime of a cat cozying up to someone who smelled irresistible. She added that if I poured a little of it into a shallow dish and let it cool, then my cat would probably join me in enjoying the tea.

I decided not to tell her that I didn’t have a cat.

So, my plan now is to wait for my next free and sunny day, brew a pot of tea, and enjoy it on the outside steps of my apartment building. I’ll bring a shallow dish and an extra cup and share it with whatever human or feline neighbors happen to come by. As long as no Sphinxes show up, I’ll count the experiment as a success.