Meet an odd couple of hard-working felines in Tokyo.
Probably everyone has heard about Japan’s cat cafes, but did you know there are other working cats in Tokyo? Many shops and cafes have what is called a kanban neko in Japanese. Loosely translated, you might call them spokescats or shop cats. As you would expect, these furred, four-legged staff members bring big purr-sonality to their work, so we set out to meet some of them.
The granddaddy of kanban neko establishments in Tokyo is Cafe Arles in Shinjuku. Proprietor and native Tokyoite Osamu Nemoto opened the cozy cafe in 1978.
“I used to work at the Isetan around the corner and I visited a lot of the kissaten near here, but there weren’t many that seemed to have a good relationship with their customers,” he says. “So I thought I would try opening a more relaxed kind of place where customers could hang out and enjoy themselves.”
This ethos is still alive after several decades in business. Although it was my first time to visit, Nemoto-san and his two young waitstaff happily chatted with me and encouraged me to stay as long as I liked even though I was just drinking an inexpensive coffee. The walls are lined with manga and other books you are free to peruse and relaxing classic jazz is piped at just the right volume to enjoy without being intrusive.
▼ Let’s call the decor eclectic.
But of course, the real draw for me was the two smallest employees! Sadly, when I arrived both Jirocho and Ishimatsu were happily engaged with other customers. Across the aisle from me, Jirocho was with a couple on a date, completely conked out in the lap of the young man, while a few tables over, a middle aged women was moving her hand under her jacket so a wild-eyed Ishimatsu could pounce on it.
According to the staff, this was pretty typical. Jirocho is the elder at about 5 years old and other than his walks around the neighborhood with Nemoto-san, he enjoys perching on the sofa backs or a warm lap and snoozing the evenings away. Ishimatsu is still kittenish at about a year old and is always looking for someone to play with him. Their names, by the way, are a reference to Jirocho Shimizu and Mori no Ishimatsu, Edo-era Robin Hood-type figures.
▼ “IS THAT A TOY?!”
The dynamic duo are not the first kanban neko to work at Arles, however. Pictures of another cat lovingly adorn the walls and menu, the original spokescat Goemon. Nemoto-san rescued Goemon as a kitten from a nearby shop after he had become stuck behind a rolling security screen. After that, the two were inseparable and Goemon turned out to be a real-life manekineko, beckoning adorning fans to the cafe. Scores of cat-themed tchotchkes began to dominate the decor.
Sadly, Goemon passed away in 2015 at the ripe old age of 19. To the end, he was healthy and spritely, hardly ever missing a day at the cafe.
▼ Goemon enshrined near the cash register
Nemoto-san hadn’t planned on getting another cat, but again fate intervened. A woman working in animal rescue finding foster homes commented to a friend of Nemoto’s that she had a cat that had been with them for a long time despite being very sweet. At about 4 years old, she wondered if they would be able to place him. The friend commented that he looked a lot like Goemon and decided to make a match. Jirocho was soon on his way to Cafe Arles and before long he was joined by another young rescue cat.
About this time, the young couple across from me left, and before I could even ask, the waitress moved me over to cuddle with Jirocho. If he was the slightest bit put out by the change of attendant, I couldn’t tell. He opened his eyes to acknowledge a few chin scritches and then promptly adopted the classic loaf formation and fell asleep again. I read a book, pausing occasionally to stroke his back.
▼ He still had his leash on from his walk, but it wasn’t attached to anything. Both cats have free run of the store and places to go if they aren’t feeling social.
A little later, Ishimatsu wandered over to check me out. The staff brought over his favorite toy, a crinkly bug on a string, and I obliged him by trailing it down the aisle for him to charge after. If I hadn’t had another appointment to get to, I could have happily stayed there all night watching his goofy antics. Cafe Arles even serves some classic Japanese cafe fare like omuraisu and Nepolitan spaghetti, but I had other dinner plans.
I’ll be back though. Not just to enjoy the casual and welcoming atmosphere of the shop, though that’s hard enough to find in the neighborhood, but because the two kanban neko have so thoroughly charmed me that I couldn’t possibly stay away! And that’s how they earn their kibble.
▼ “You’ll be back.”
Address: Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku 5-10-8, Daisan Touhou Bldg. 1st floor
東京都新宿区新宿5丁目10−8 第3東邦ビル 1F
Open 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m.
▼ The location is well away from the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku Station
▼ Even from the front, it looks welcoming
▼ And you can start to see the cat theme
▼ Which continues inside
▼ The business card has cute drawings of Jirocho and Ishimatsu!
▼ Check out the classic china and cat spoon. Drinks come with free snacks too!
▼ I’m in love with that little pink nose.
▼ “You may pet me now, servant.”
▼ A steady flow of customers kept the atmosphere bright without feeling crowded or rushed.
▼ Sleeeeeeeeepy Jirocho
▼ Wily Ishimatsu hunts his prey…
▼ gets ready to pounce and…
▼ And repeat.
▼ Another cute appearance by Goemon.
▼ Ready for work
Curious about more kanban neko? Read up on another famous feline, the cat stationmaster.
Content and images © RocketNews
H/T TO Magazine