Docile Japanese cats

Are Japanese cats more docile than other cats? Before having lived in Japan, I would have thought this to be a ridiculous question. Surely cats are the same everywhere? Cats are not subject to cultural differences, are they? But living in Japan, surprises are never far off. I have seen Japanese cats tolerate things from their owners that most Belgian cats would never stand for. There was that one time when I saw someone walking a cat on a leash in Okinawa. And then there was the time when I was walking through crowded Asuke village in Toyota City at the start of autumn leaves season and saw a guy having a walk while holding his cat. Can you imagine visiting a festival and bringing your cat along? I am not sure how the cat felt about it, but in any case it wasn’t trying to escape, which is saying something.

docile Japanese cats

Never mind me, just having a walk with my cat during a crowded festival

docile Japanese cats

The cat looks slightly dubious but remains calm nonetheless

docile Japanese cats

If you ask nicely, most people in Japan are more than willing to pose for a picture. Too bad my Japanese wasn’t good enough to ask him why he was carrying this cat around.

I am not sure why these Japanese cats are so docile. Are these just exceptions and are most Japanese cats in fact as ferocious as Belgian ones? Or were these particular cats treated like that from when they were kittens and have grown used to it? Or, the far more interesting possibility, are these cats somehow influenced by the calm personal energy that, in my opinion and compared to Belgium, is typical for Japanese culture? I would love to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments section!

The Cat Café

Keeping a pet is quite a challenge in Japan. Living space is limited and the rules about keeping pets are very strict. But the Japanese wouldn’t be the Japanese if they hadn’t found a very interesting solution to that problem. I present to you: The Cat Café.

Cat cafés are places where one can go to spend time with cats. I use the term café loosely, because cat cafés do not always serve beverages. I had heard about cat cafés before coming to Japan and I was very excited at the prospect of finally visiting such a magical place myself. When I took a trip to Tokyo in the summer of 2012, I had my chance. My brother took me to Nekobukuro. Neko means cat and the name Nekobukuro is play on words referring to the district of Tokyo in which the café is located, which is Ikebukuro.

cat café in japan: nekobukuro entrance

Nekobukuro is located inside a department store, conveniently situated next to a pet shop.

caf café in japan: paw marks

Paw marks show the way to the cat café.

A substantial entrance fee of 1000 yen is charged, but they do have a couples discount for people who come on a date. Upon paying the fee, you are ushered into the magic kingdom that is Nekobukuro. I’d say there were about 20 cats inside, half of which were locked away behind glass. I imagine this is done to give the cats some relief from the ceaseless petting. All the cats have a name and the ones that are out on that particular day, are introduced at the entrance.

nekobukuro entrance

Nekobukuro entrance in the pet store and the sign with all the cats that are out for the day and available to play with.

I will now take you on a journey through the sliding doors and into Nekobukuro.

Notice the little girl with the squeaky shoes at the one minute mark. Personally I would never ever buy my kid something that makes noise with every step they take, but in Japan these squeaky shoes seem popular for children. Of course the sound does make it easier to keep track of your child. Maybe that’s the reason?

Anyway, back to the cat café. As you can see, the entire cafe is full of colourful and cute stuff, to serve as a decor for the cats. Every word in which the terms ‘neko’ (cat), ‘nya’ (miaow) and ‘nyanko’ (kitty cat) can be inserted, is thus transformed into a feline version. Some examples:

cat café in japan: play on words

All these movie and book titles have been changed to contain the words ‘neko’ or ‘nyan’

cat café in Japan: play on words

These are some famous train stations in Tokyo that have been changed to make them sound more cat-like. For example Shibuya is changed to Shibu-nya (nya means miaow).

cat café in japan: cute decor

A cute and colourful decor.

cat café in japan: cute decor

This cat is resting behind glass, in a cute imitation kitchen.

cat café in japan: camera

I was not the only one there with a camera. His is bigger though…

As you can see in the video above, most of the cats are pretty lethargic. They do their best to ignore the people as best they can. Some of the cats even seemed to be in a downright foul mood, glaring at me as I tried to pet them. I guess I can’t really blame them. It must be tough living in a place like Nekobukuro where they are approached by strangers all day long. Or maybe they just don’t like gaijin? Every once in a while, an employee comes out and tries to bring the cats back to life by giving them some food or by luring them out with a toy.

If I’d have to sum up my experience at the cat café, I’d say that it was very interesting but I do not feel the need to repeat it. In terms of cat interaction, it was downright disappointing. I also had some trouble with the lingering smell of litter box in the café. But in terms of cultural phenomena, it was very rewarding. Maybe I was there to observe the people as much as the cats. (=^‥^=)

Poor Nyan Cat

Never have I seen tamer cats than during my stay in Japan. I have seen Japanese cats submissively undergo treatments that would have sent any Belgian cat into a hissing, clawing and biting frenzy.

You can imagine my surprise when I came across the following scene in a shopping street in Okinawa:

Cat on a leash in Japan

How often do you see a grown man walk around with a cat dressed in a pink cape decorated with bows, flowers and what have you not? In most cases, the answer to that question will be “not very often”. Unless of course you live in Japan, in which case you will be forced to respond with “occasionally”.

My amazement increased when I saw that the cat would lie down and get up again on command. As the man walked off, the cat meekly followed at his side. Although obedient, the cat looked far from happy. My initial tendency to laugh at the scene soon changed into a feeling of pity for the cat.

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Let’s have a closer look at the cat. Don’t you think it looks a little bit like Nyan Cat? Only Nyan Cat looks a lot happier.

Poor Nyan Cat

Poor Nyan Cat

 

The vicious deer of Nara

Nara is an ancient city not too far from Nagoya. At one point it was the capital of Japan (from 710 to 785). The most famous sites include the largest wooden structure on earth (Todaiji Temple), a 15m Buddha statue and the second tallest pagoda of Japan (Kofukuji Temple).

But never mind all that, because perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Nara are the deer. Large numbers of Sika Deer (‘shika’ in Japanese) wander freely around the premises. Visitors can purchase rice crackers, called ‘shika senbei’, to feed the deer.

Sika deer in Nara

Sika deer in Nara

Nara deer everywhere

Deer everywhere!

selling shika senbei

A stall selling shika senbei, the special crackers to feed the deer.

At first sight, the deer seem quite tame. In fact, they appear to be downright lethargic.

This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera    This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera. Even when I start petting it, it acts as though I am not there.

This deer just couldn’t be bothered, although I was practically in its face with my camera. Even when I started petting it, it continued to act as though I was not there.

But don’t be fooled. Their innocence is but a ruse. As soon as they smell food, the deer of Nara turn into vicious predators. They stop at nothing to get hold of the rice crackers, even going as far as attacking the humans holding the crackers.

deer looking for food

Obtrusive deer looking for food. These people didn’t even buy shika senbei. They are just trying to enjoy a bit of yaki-imo (grilled sweet potato).

My personal deer feeding adventure soon turned into a shouting frenzy when one of the deer tried to head-butt me. Another person in our group got bitten in the  behind while feeding the deer.

In all fairness, the park authorities did warn us this might happen. Here is an overview of what the deer might do to you:

nara warning sign

Warning sign in Nara park

Be forewarned!

Japan’s most famous cat

I once heard somewhere that 80% of all content on the internet is porn. But surely that can’t be true. If you ask me, 80% of all content on the internet consists of funny cat pictures.

The most famous website with funny cat pictures is ‘I can has cheezburger‘. It features pictures of cats with comments in slightly distorted English. While some people might argue about the comic value of ‘lolcats’, as these pictures are commonly known (geek humor is not for everyone), there can be no doubt about the fact that this site has made a huge contribution to the explosion of cute and funny cat pictures on the internet.

lolcats

An example of ‘lolcats’

Since Japanese people love all things cute, naturally the Japanese also participate in the phenomenon of cute online cats. Japan’s most famous online cat* is called Shiro, which means white. It’s owner has a YouTube channel and a blog where he or she posts daily video’s of Shiro. Shiro is apparently quite famous in Japan, because I have come across Shironeko merchandise like calendars and birthday cards.

shironeko blog

Close-up of Shiro

 The Shironeko videos are not just videos of a cat doing your average cat things. The reason that Shiro is so famous, is because its owner has a habit of piling things on top of Shiro’s head. And amazingly, Shiro puts up with it. When I imagine doing the same thing to my cat, scenes of a madly screaming and flailing cat come to mind.

Have a look at Shiro with a ramen bowl on his head:

If you think a ramen bowl is impressive, check out the video below:

Apparently the owner has several other, equally docile cats:

The thing I love most about these videos is actually not the cute cats, but the glimpses of Japan that are in the background, like the beautiful screen doors in the ramen video or the scenery of the Japanese mountains in the videos outside. Apparently the owner lives in a beautiful secluded home somewhere in the mountains. Having lived in an almost entirely flat country like Belgium for most of my life, the beauty of the Japanese mountains has made a big impression on me.

;

Just as I was finishing up this article, I found out that there is another Japanese internet cat that is a lot more famous than Shiro. His name is Maru, his videos get millions of views and he has been featured in the New York Times. There is no denying it, the title of most famous cat in Japan goes to Maru. But I do remain a Shiro fan. The Shiro videos are just so wonderfully odd!

Return of the mukade

There are few Japanese animals as fabled and feared among expats in Japan as the poisonous Japanese centipede (called mukade in Japanese). Proof of this widespread fascination is the number of people who find their way to this blog on a daily basis, looking for mukade information.

Having been a Japan geek long before moving to Japan, I had of course heard of mukade. Some of you might remember my elation when I saw my first mukade only a few days into my stay in Japan. I can assure you that I felt equally elated about never meeting a mukade since that day. Until a few months ago, that is.

It is a beautiful day in May. My parents and I are having a walk in the forest, in the lovely town of Asuke (Toyota City).

forest in Asuke

Forest walk in Asuke

Suddenly my mother calls out. “Look at this interesting animal I have found”. What could it be? A butterfly? A squirrel perhaps? I rush over to see what it is. I catch a glimpse of a shining brown exoskeleton and bright orange legs. It’s the dreaded mukade! And a big one too. “Stay back!” I shout. “It’s a mukade”.

mukade

The mukade, who almost appears to be posing for the photograph

But there is no need for fear. The mukade completely ignores us. He’s just scrambling about the leaves, probably looking for a good place to hide from us. This provided me with some wonderful photo opportunities. The previous mukade I met (in the supermarket) ran straight towards me when I tried taking a picture.

After a year of living in Japan, I think it is safe to say that at least in the Toyota City and Nagoya area, there is no need to fear the mukade. I don’t know anyone who has had problems with mukade (apart from one horror story about ‘the mukade mountain’, an overgrown mountain that is apparently teeming with mukade and is causing some problems for the nearby apartment building).

So why are expats so afraid of this animal? Speaking from my own Belgian point of view, we are not used to giant, poisonous bugs. The most dangerous bugs we have around here are mosquitoes. In hot and humid Japan, the sheer size of the bugs is a trigger for expat imagination. And then we find out they are poisonous as well! That is one advantage to being back in Belgium: no more scary bugs!

The meow song – Nekomeshi

I recently came across a Japanese song which is too cute for words. The song imitates a cat talking to its owner. Not only is the song extremely catchy, a noble stranger has taken it upon him- or herself to illustrate the song with beautiful photos on YouTube. Check out the result:

The repeated ‘nya-nya’ means ‘meow’ in Japanese. The cat is talking about what it wants to eat for lunch and dinner, and it is urging its master to not work too much. Click here to read a translation of the complete lyrics.

This song appears on a single with music from the anime ‘Arakawa Under the Bridge’. The singer is Etsuko Yakushimaru.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be singing nya – nya nya – nya for the rest of the day.

Japanese singer Etsuko Yakushimaru

Japanese singer Etsuko Yakushimaru

The birds

The rainy season has started in Japan and with it, huge flocks of birds have arrived in Toyota City. These birds gather in groups that easily count several hundreds of birds and make a noise like you wouldn’t believe. Every night around dusk they gather on the power lines or in the trees next to the station. It makes for an impressive sight.

Muku birds

The birds, lined up on the power lines

Birds as far as the eye can see

Birds as far as the eye can see

They never seem to sit still. Individual birds constantly come and go, while whole flocks move through the air at an amazing speed, twisting and turning as if they were one.

Muku birds coming and going

Birds coming and going

In this video you can see them moving about and you can even get an idea of the sound they make (if you manage to mentally filter out the poor sound quality of the video).

The birds have arrived in Toyota City about one or two weeks ago and they stay here all through summer. When the weather gets colder again, around October or November, they disappear. I wonder where they go.

I was told that these birds are called ‘muku’ but I was unable to find any information about such birds on the internet. Does anyone know what their English or their scientific name is? The one thing that I did discover, is that ‘mukubird’ (ムクバード in Japanese) is a Pokemon.

A pokemon

This pokemon is called ‘mukubird’ in Japanese. His English name is Staravia.

Bunny alert!

When driving along the highway in Japan, one often comes across signs warning drivers about animals that could possibly cross the road. While in Belgium such signs almost always depict a deer, in Japan the sign can show all sorts of animals. The Japanese love to be specific!

The sign that surprised me most was the one with a bunny on it. It’s especially funny because the sign is bigger than the actual animal. I almost feel as if I should beware of giant bunnies, attacking the cars in Godzilla-like fashion. Fortunately we have had no such encounter yet!

Bunny alert sign Japan

Bunny alert sign in Japan

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto

While attending Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) last week, I came across an endearing scene. A huge black butterfly had decided to have a rest in the sun, right on top of someone’s head.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto sitting on someone's head

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto sitting on someone’s head

The person in question was keeping very calm, quietly posing for photographs.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto

Calmly posing for pictures with a butterfly on his head

After a few minutes the butterfly took off and made for a new spot in the sun, this time on the head of a lady.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 2

This lady has no idea that her head is the new resting spot for the crazy butterfly

At first this lady had no idea that she was the new ‘chosen one’ but as amateur photographers flocked to her, she took a few moments to pose for pictures and then calmly resumed walking, completely ignoring the butterfly on her head.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 2 posing for pictures

Lady nr. 2 poses for pictures with the butterfly on her head

I was able to follow the butterfly to a third person. This time it was someone holding a white vest. This person responded in exactly the same way as the previous two people: he just stood there calmly, without moving or even smiling, while people where taking pictures of him.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 3

The butterfly having a rest on the sleeve of person nr. 3

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 3 photographers

Posing for photographs with the butterfly on his sleeve

In this whole situation, I was actually more intrigued by the Japanese people’s behaviour than by the butterfly. European people in the same situation would either make frantic movements to chase the butterfly away (possibly accompanied by loud screaming) or they would make a show of themselves and pose conspicuously for the photographs. The modest behaviour of the Japanese and their simple acceptance of the situation impressed me.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto close up

Crazy butterfly close up