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A pet, a pat and a smile

[Photo: Cleo Paskal]
At Dog’s Town outside Tokyo, themed storefronts are arranged to look like a village, with dogs in the “displays,” dogs leashed to trees, dogs running loose and a large petting area filled with dogs just waiting to be cuddled.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001

In Tokyo, where space and spare time for pets are at a premium, animal lovers can visit Cat's Park or Dog's Town, pay a fee and find a furry friend - or dozens - to snuggle with.

TOKYO -- Okay, I admit it. I paid close to $15 to pat a dog.

And it was worth it. Not that the dog was all that special. It was one of those small lap dogs, the kind that I have usually referred to as barking rats. But I never will again. For on a cold day in Tokyo, a snuggling schnauzer can be a wonderful thing.

Modern Japan has a lot to offer, but in urban areas, space and companionship are not high on the list. The nation's average residential floor space per capita is about 98 square feet; in the States, it is about 210.

Meanwhile, workaholism, especially in these uncertain economic times, means less time for family and friends. Typically, husbands work 14-hour days while wives are left alone at home once the children leave. It is a case of no one to love and/or nowhere to love them.

Mr. Okubo, the manager of Suematsu Sangyo, takes up the story. We "operated pet shops in former times. The (pet shop) manager noticed that many customers came to the pet shops not only to buy pets but also to enjoy seeing the animals there.

"There are a lot of people in big cities like Tokyo who love animals but who can't have one themselves. For example, it is not allowed to have animals in most apartment houses. It would be better if you could sometimes see and touch animals, even if you can't have one."

So, in 1995, Suematsu Sangyo opened Cat's Park, a place for visitors to be ignored by cats from around the world. It was such a success that in 1997, Dog's Town was established nearby, and, just last April, a ferret-orama was added.

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Now more than 500,000 people a year make the trek out to suburban Tokyo to pay just under $15 for a little bit of furry love.

The parks are laid out like mock villages. Cat's Park takes you down a "street" lined with cat-themed facades. The bookshop, for example, would have two languid-looking Persians in a pet-shop-sized display designed to look like a library. A cat living room might have a couple of Manxes lounging on a faux fireplace mantel or on a chair.

Soothing music plays over loudspeakers. Down the center of the street are benches. Some support baskets containing leashed petting cats, which are kept content by the electric heating pads in the base of their baskets.

About 70 cats later, at the end of this walk, is a high-security, enclosed area in which nine "friendly cats" roam. If they desire, they let you pet them.

These cats are generally too young to know they are supposed to be condescending to humans, too old to run away or so hairless (like that weird cat in the Austin Powers movie) that they are happy for the warmth of contact.

If you manage to get a cat to snuggle with you, staff members will take a commemorative picture.

A reasonable distance down the road is Dog's Town. The layout is similar (little themed storefronts arranged to look like a village, complete with church), but security is much more lax. There are dogs in the "displays," dogs leashed to trees, dogs running loose and a large "petting" area filled with lap dogs just waiting to be cuddled.

The music is much more upbeat.

The petting area is a delight. You sit on one of the benches like a nervous teen at a school dance, waiting to be picked out by a suitable date. As in life, it is a cumulative process: Getting the first one to come to you may be a bit difficult (especially if there is lots of human competition), but once one comes, others follow.

By the end I was so interestingly scented, pooches were coming not for a pat but for a whiff of me. Dog hair brushes are readily available.

The real pleasure, for me, was watching other visitors. Cat's Park seemed to attract mostly young women; Dog's Town, mostly families and young people of both sexes.

In either place, you can see the stress melt away with each pat and scratch. I saw one twentysomething woman spend more than two hours patting a poodle to sleep. The human looked happy and relaxed, too.

Another visitor, a child with Down's syndrome, alternated between talking to each dog and running up and down the aisles with a train of playful dogs behind her. She looked free, happy.

In fact, all the guests were smiling, making eye contact and taking their time -- real luxuries in modern Japan.

For my part, I soon tired of the schnauzer and was wandering around the park when a baleful-looking Labrador caught my eye. And kept it.

I patted him until the park closed, to the strains of Auld Lang Syne and a lot of barking.

* * *

Cleo Paskal is a freelance writer who lives in Ville St. Laurent, Quebec.

If you go

You can find Inutama/Nekotama/Tamaitachi Times Park at 1-15-1 Tamagawa, Setagaya-ku. Call 011-81-3-3708-8511.

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