To the cat cafés and beyond!

To the cat cafés and beyond!

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.


Shoshana and the cats, Season 5, Girls.

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.

Cafe Baron

Cafe Baron

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.

Catbus or Nekobasu in My Neighbour Totoro.

Catbus or Nekobasu in My Neighbour Totoro.

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.

Japanese Sika Deer at Miyajima by Richard Fisher creative commons license

Japanese Sika Deer at Miyajima by Richard Fisher creative commons license

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.


Paro the seal at with a patient in a nursing home.

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!


Holy Robot Hotels! The Future Has Arrived!!

Holy Robot Hotels! The Future Has Arrived!!

“We will make the most efficient hotels in the world…in the future, we’d like to have more than 90 percent of hotel services operated by robots.”

This is the vision of the service industry that Huis Ten Bosch company President Hideo Sawada shared at a news conference earlier this week  to announce the opening of Henn na Hotel within the Nagasaki Prefecture in Japan.

This is the future of robotics and the future is now…


The hotel is fully equipped with a startling array of robotic features such as automated receptionists, including an English-speaking dinosaur and a Japanese-speaking female android, facial recognition technology, rather than keys, is used at check-in and guests have to type their information into a touch panel, porter robots are used by tapping room numbers into their digital panel for delivery, giant robot arm usually seen in manufacturing helps guests store items at the hotel’s cloak room and sensors in the bedroom adjust the room according to body heat and also deliver weather forecasts.

It’s not just the functionality of the hotel that looks to the future, room prices are reasonably low compared to other high end hotels in Japan and potential visitors will have to bid for the price they are willing to pay. The highest one wins, although there will be an upper limit of ¥14,000 for a single room. The park’s founder Hideo Sadawa told reporters that having robot staff at the hotel is no gimmick as he said he wants to show how establishments can improve efficiency and lower labour costs.

The name of the hotel reflects how the hotel will “change with cutting-edge technology,” said a company official, “this is a play on words: “Henn” is also part of the Japanese word for change.”

Exciting times ahead, let’s just hope it turns out rosier than the outcome in the 1973 sci-fi classic Westworld.







To make booking your experience at other robot themed places in Japan easier and at best value contact: