Looking for portals into other cultures is a chance to unearth fascinating insights and perspectives, and if you get lucky, they may well be of the weirdly wonderful variety.
A couple of weeks ago a press release announcing the opening of a hedgehog café in Tokyo caught my eye. Adorable tiny, prickly creatures with pointy pink noses were filmed being held in the palms of cafe customers who pay around $12 for the experience. I had heard of cat cafés, sure, even Shoshanna, the best loved character from television series Girls, worked at a neko kafe in the latest series. But hedgehogs? And if there were hedgehogs cafés surely there were other animal cafés – what other parts of this phenomenon had I missed out on? It turned out, quite a lot.
Alongside cats and hedgehogs, you can sip your matcha latté whilst stroking slobbering dogs, fluffy rabbits, goats, owls (no stroking these guys – it stresses them out), parrots, slithery snakes and even penguins…penguins? Putting aside contentious issues surrounding animal cruelty, it’s an interesting concept merging elements of anti-stress therapy, education and the super on-trend experiential consumerism so desired within the tightly-packed, synthetic led, urban environments.
Animals twisted and twined with spirits conjoining into demons that appear across Japanese mythology and folklore such as Bake-kujira – an apparition from western Japan taking the form of a large ghostly skeleton whale said to be accompanied by strange birds and fish, or Akabeko, a legendary cow from the Aizu region of Japan, who inspired a traditional toy. Aizu legend claims that the toys are based on a real cow used to build the Enzō-ji temple in the ninth century. All these creatures wind their way into the popular anime exports we know and love in the ‘West’: think Hello Kitty, Pikachu from the Pokemon series, Catbus aka Nekobasu and Totoru himself in My Neighbour Totoru.
Ubiquitous animals such as the humble cat are elevated to dreamlike status; the Studio Ghibli classic short animation, The Cat Returns is brought to life on the island of Tashirojima, inhabited by only a hundred people, stray cats in their thousands roaming around, living in tribes, fed and cared for by the locals who believe it brings good fortune. On the island of Miyajima, deer wander freely through the streets and parks. The spot has long been considered a holy place for much of Japanese history. In 806 AD, the monk Kōbō Daishi ascended Mt. Misen and established the mountain on Miyajima as an ascetic site for the Shingon sect of Buddhism.
Animals inhabiting our virtual imaginations has been handled with a peculiar grace by Japanese designers. Back in 1966 when the infamously awesome virtual pet simulation game, Tamagotchi, hit the market they were an instant hit around the world – by 2010, 76 million had been sold. More recently, Paro, the interactive robo-seal, was introduced to the pet therapy market. It has found its place in elderly care homes where the tactile toys offer emotional connection to make up for the shortfall of human comfort, presently unable to fill the demand required by an ageing population. Inventor Takanori Shibata says he designed Paro to evoke memories of pets and babies. Powering it are two 32-bit processors, three microphones, 12 tactile sensors covering most of its fur, touch-sensitive whiskers and a system of motors that silently move its parts. It weighs about 6 pounds, feels warm and sucks on a pacifier-like charger.
This seems like a good place for to pause and reflect on how virtual and physical experiences merge and mingle through our ever expanding desire to connect.
Check out Megan when she visited Central Japan
Plus our Tokyo to Taiwan guide
And there’s plenty more on Japan to explore throughout the site!