Feline grace for revitalising Japan district

July 04, 2014 - 4:54:04 am
Customers at Neko­an cafe in the Naramachi district of Nara, Japan, play with cat. Many cats in Naramachi have been domesticated by local residents aiming to protect strays. 

NARA, Japan: Naramachi, an old district here known for preserving the traditional streetscape of the Edo period (1603-1867), offers another attraction — a “cat sanctuary.” The name holds meaning for cats and cat lovers alike.

Many cats in Naramachi of Nara have been domesticated by local residents aiming to protect strays. The district also contains many shops dealing in cat-themed merchandise. Some people refer to it affectionately as “nyara-machi” — “nyara” combining Nara and nya (meow), an onomatopoeia for the sound a cat makes — while “machi” means town.

Located near Kintetsu Nara Station and south of the Sarusawa no Ike pond, the district became famous in 2000, when photographer Mitsuaki Iwago published a photo collection featuring cats lounging in the district’s back alleys.

Recently, the 10 seats at a local cafe were occupied by visitors from other prefectures in the region. The cafe keeps 20 house cats. “Come here, sweetie,” visitors were saying as they tried to attract the cats with a bunch of green foxtails in hand.

Housed in a remodelled traditional machiya townhouse, the cafe is named Neko-an. “Neko” means cat in Japanese.

One of the cats climbed onto a table and sat with its front paws crossed. Another watched the customers as it sat on a beam of the building. Although the cats remained aloof, the visitors looked happy.

Neko-an’s 53-year-old female owner said, “I’m happy to have so many customers during the rainy season, since there are usually so few.” Customers are also welcomed by cats at three other establishments — an eatery and cafe that is home to 11 cats, a traditional Japanese confectioner where a calico cat serves as a shopkeeper, and a coffee shop whose president is a black cat.

Early in the mornings and evenings, house cats that emerge from their houses and other cats taken care of by local residents are seen cleaning their faces with their front paws. Some others are found yawning in back alleys and on the outer walls of local temples and shrines.

The idea of revitalising the district using cats was devised about a decade ago by a local restaurant operator, who heard a friend joking around and calling the district “nyara-machi.” In 2005, the operator invited artist friends to hold photo and art exhibitions with a cat theme. By 2011, the event had developed into Nyara-machi Neko Matsuri, a festival that features exhibitions and sales of cat-themed goods from local shops.

The annual festival was held in June this year, with the participation of 51 shops. Visitors enjoyed shopping for feline-themed goods and sweets, as well as making illustration books and attending the pottery-making workshop. More than 20,000 people attended the event.

Cat lover Yukiko Okada, a third-year university student of Higashinari Ward, Osaka, said happily at the event venue, “It’s a rare chance for me to see that many cats and cat-themed goods.”

Local supporters have been looking for people who can help take care of the dozens of stray cats caught in the district. They also pay the cost of their surgical sterilisation.

Some cat lovers were disappointed when the district’s stray cat population declined as a result of local efforts, but they now look forward to finding house cats coming into back alleys.

Masumi Yoshida, the vice director of the Pet Law Association and former vice president of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, said: “Using cats to revitalise the district is an interesting idea, since there are so many cat lovers. This event lets cat lovers come in contact with cats indoors as much as they like and enjoy walking outdoors feeling the presence of cats. The project is also laudable, as it isn’t being pushed at people who don’t like animals.”

The estimated number of house cats nationwide is 9.74 million in 2013, according to the Japan Pet Food Association. Cats are popular house pets, as their owners do not have to take them for a walk. It is possible the number will exceed that of house dogs, 10.87 million, in a few years.

There is a Japanese proverb that calls somebody “so busy they want to borrow even the less-than-helpful paws of cats,” which means that person needs all the help they can possibly get.

Indeed, cats have helped revitalise the cities that have organized feline-themed events.

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