Heavy petting, Aichi style
Added In: Articles › Culture
The basic concept is simple. For many living in Japan, owning a dog, or even a cat, is simply impossible. Tiny apartments, long working hours and the appalling combination of claws and tatami mats makes even the most ardent animal lovers think long and hard before adding to their household. This is where pet hiring companies step in – they deal with the logistics of owning the animals, and (for a fee) you get all the cuddling you want.
It sounds like a very Japanese concept, but in fact it is a very city concept. There are companies that will allow you to stroll with a dog by your side through London, New York and Paris, among other cities. That said, I doubt that any other country in the world could come up with a dog hiring facility like Wan Wan Doubutsuen (Bow Wow Zoo in English).
Wan Wan Zoo is in Otogawa, on the Meitetsu Line just past Okazaki. You can hear it before you can see it – the frantic yapping of around 450 dogs of 125 breeds. So many dogs together also means that there is a certain unmistakably doggy smell in the air as you approach the complex.
For the entrance fee of 1200 yen, or 950 yen if you print out the voucher from the website, you get entrance to the grounds, entrance into the patting pens and, depending when you arrive, a chance to watch either a dog race or some dog theater. You can also bring your own dog in to enjoy the spectacle for free.
And what an odd spectacle it is. After walking past the signs for the upcoming dog cosplay event, we paid a quick visit to the dog shrine before heading out into the painted concrete of the main yards. A high pitched jingle played on constant repeat as we wondered past dogs in spartan pens, who spent most of their time sleeping. Going into a petting area, we found ourselves largely ignored by the dogs, who knew that if we really cared we would have spent 100 yen on some kibbles to bribe them to spend some quality time with us.
Slightly discouraged, we decided to hire a dog for a walk – 500 yen for fifteen minutes of a dog's undivided attention. The walking area was on a path around a grassed field (reserved for visiting dogs to play in) and in our fifteen minutes we and Cherie the beagle went around six times, allowing plenty of time for sniffing. Cherie, I'm sorry to say, was an old hand at the business and rightly saw no reason to try and bond with people who would be handing over her lead forever in a few minutes. At the end, the friendly staff admonished Cherie to say thank you for her walk, and gave us Cherie's business card – a laminated picture of her looking soulfully into the camera.
Next up was the dog theater, putting on a matinée of Snow White and the Seven Puppies. The dogs, resplendently dressed in European court garb, followed the stage directions of the narrators, with much prompting from the treat box. The plot was interrupted at one point for a dog race, upon which we were encouraged to 'bet'. A recorded announcement urged us to buy a soft toy of the dog we fancied at an increasingly loud and rapid tone while the narrators broke character and wandered around with baskets of the toys, yelling encouragement of their own. As the noise increased, the dogs started barking, and the babies in the audience began to cry. Finally the bets were closed, the dogs were raced, and the correct guessers were rewarded with sticker sheets. Just as abruptly as it had been stopped, the play began again, and Dog Charming bent down to awake his curly haired heroine by gently nibbling a biscuit near her ear.
There was time for one last visit to the petting pens before we left, and here, at last, we found the animal friendship we had been seeking. Lap dogs and poodles, it turns out, don't really care who's giving the attention as long as they're the ones getting it.
Cats, on the other hand, are notoriously fickle creatures, so we visited the Neko Mahou (Cat Magic) cafe in Sakae with less expectations of the animals. This was the right attitude to have – the cats there, like cats everywhere, tolerate humans best when they are carrying some minced chicken in their hand (on sale in the cafe).
Before you enter the light, airy rooms of Neko Mahou you need to take off your shoes and wash your hands thoroughly. The human staff (who all wear cat ear headbands) then direct you to a table and explain the pricing system. The exact price will depend on if you go during a peak or an off peak time; at peak time expect to pay a minimum fee of 900 yen for forty five minutes in the cafe, with additional 15 minute blocks for 300 yen. While in the cafe, you can sit and eat in the main room, where there might be a cat wandering around, or visit the petting room, where some of the cafe's twenty 'cat staff' will be on duty.
There were plenty of toys to tempt the cats, but by and large they seemed happiest to just laze about in the spots of sunlight. After a short time their relaxed attitude started to rub off. It was pleasant just to sit in the room and enjoy the beauty of the cats, many of whom seemed to be very proud of their pedigree.
When our food was ready, a staff member called us away from the cats to the table. You can get light snacks, meals and desserts, with drinks starting from 500 yen. Some of the food items have a cat theme – a cat shaped croquette upon which you can draw your own cat face in tonkatsu sauce, for example, and the secret dessert of Neko Baba which came with a sweet paw print on top. The menu is all Japanese, but there are plenty of pictures to help and in the evening there are likely to be some English speaking university students on duty.
For westerners used to having cats and dogs in their lives, neither of these places is able to replicate the feeling of having a real pet, or even of playing with someone else's pet. The animals are exposed to many people every day, and so naturally their behavior is different to that of a pet that only sees it's family and the odd guest. What they can provide for foreigners is a completely different experience. Whether you go for the surreal atmosphere of Wan Wan zoo, or the cat-themed calm of Neko Mahou, when you tell your friends back home what you did you can be certain that they'll be fascinated.
For more information about the dog park, visit http://www.ipcnet.co.jp; Neko no Mahou's website is at http://www.nekomaho.com. More animal related services, including other cat (and dog) cafes, hair salons and accommodation for your pet can be found at http://pet.yogore.jp/ which has listing for all sorts of animal related services in all areas. All websites are in Japanese.