Sometimes, my life in Japan is so strange and foreign that I just start accepting everything. It gets to the point where I’m not surprised by much anymore.
So I barely raised an eyebrow when, on my walk to work, I looked across to the park opposite and saw a shabbily dressed lady ‘taking her cats for a walk.’ I was slightly concerned because the park in question, Higashi Ikebukuro Chuo Koen, is on a busy road and I thought it was a bit irresponsible to walk the cats without leashes. But hey, maybe that’s what eccentric middle-aged Japanese ladies do on a Tuesday morning! Everyone seems to take their dogs around in prams here (a bit counterproductive if you ask me, as dogs need walking…) so why not taking their cats for walks in parks? Just one more wacky thing Japan has to throw at me
Maybe it says more about how dense I am than how ‘accepting’ I’ve become that it took me several more morning moggie sightings at Higashi Ikebukuro Chou Koen before I considered that maybe this wasn’t standard practice for Tokyo’s more left-field cat owners and maybe had more to do with the park itself. To clarify, I work irregular days at this school so we’re talking seeing a shabby lady surrounded by three or four cats in a city park on random days over a course of about a month before I figured something was up and went to investigate.
It turns out that Higashi Ikebukuro Chuo Koen is, and I have no other word for it, a kind of ‘cat colony.’ For whatever reason, a large number of cats are living in this small, otherwise ordinary, Tokyo park. Some look like they were once pets, others seem to have been born strays. A group of homeless, or at least shabby looking, people gather regularly at the park and take care of the cats. They feed them, build them little shelters and even seem to have given a few felines collars and names.
Cats, unlike dogs, are not pack animals. It took years for my two cats to be able to pass each other in my family’s house without hissing at each other. So I’m not sure how it came about but I’m impressed that so many cats are able to coexist happily. It’s also touching to see people who clearly have so little coming together to care for them. Both human and feline residents were welcoming to me when I explored the park – it wasn’t difficult to find a cat that didn’t mind being stroked and a women with a few teeth missing approached me mid-petting to say something I didn’t understand but sounded friendly.
In a fast paced metropolis where everything seems to be compartmentalised into something that can be valued, bought or sold, it’s nice that there are spaces like this which are just allowed to ‘be.’ When something is not fixed by a specific purpose, different kinds of people can brush shoulders; the homeless regulars, the salary men having a fag before work, couples having an in depth conversation with a cat on their lap, and a slightly confused English teacher; all united by some kitty lovin. I dread the day when some jobsworth government official decides that it’s a health risk and evicts the residents. I guess he might have a point regarding health – the cats are living wild and some of them don’t look too clean so if you have allergies or are the fastidious type then maybe stay away. For me though, what’s charming about this park is its unpredictability. I do enjoy visiting cat cafes, but it’s kind of cool that this place has grown naturally. The experience feels ‘real’ because your mileage may vary – maybe they’ll be hiding from the elements when you go to visit and, yes, there is a small chance you’ll get fleas. Cats, after all, are arseholes by nature so it seems more authentic to interact with them in an environment where they have the option to hiss at you and walk away, instead of the cat café where they are primped up to be little schnookums of adorableness.
For me, these pockets of randomness interest are what makes Tokyo such an interesting place to live. Now that the mystery of the park is solved, you can bet I will be stopping to get my cat fix on the way to work.