Transforming Osaka: Animal Planet Edition

There are not a lot of stray cats and dogs in Osaka, at least not in the neighbourhoods we’ve frequented. Plenty of Osakans walk their dogs, all of whom appear to be small breeds. Since there are probably not many ways to exercise one’s dog in the city, some owners will cycle down the sidewalks with their dogs leashed alongside them, hustling their stubby legs to keep up. When it rains, the dogs get hoisted up into bike baskets, and sheltered under umbrellas that attach directly to the handlebars.

Where are the cats? Perhaps, since we’ve visited during a heat wave, they have opted for shady, secretive spots. The best spot in most businesses—alongside the doorway but tucked into an alcove so as not to be underfoot—is reserved for a statue of a tanuki, a friendly-looking racoon/dog/trickster spirit who conveys good fortune through his enormous testicles (or something). Or maybe the felines were all led away from the city like rats, lured by some legendary karaoke performer.

IMG_0235Either way, the Japanese have addressed the lack of cats in a very direct way that also speaks to the Japanese love for commerce. Neko No Jikan is one of Osaka’s many cat cafés—soothing environments where patrons can sit, relax, sip tea or coffee, and get their purr on with 12 or so extremely tranquil cats who live on the premises. Our visit was delineated by a printed list of instructions: remove your shoes, sanitize your hands, enter quickly and slide the panel-door closed behind you. We each paid 1,100 yen (about 14 dollars) for 90 minutes of cat-time plus one drink. If the drink was worth two bucks, that worked out to about one dollar per cat.

The four-footed residents of Neko No Jikan clearly believe that their job is not to entertain tourists with their wacky cat antics, but rather to provide a soothing oasis for harried Japanese city-dwellers. They take their naps seriously; no matter how much stroking and scratching we delivered, they kept right on snoozing. They are an interesting, diverse bunch of breeds, but even after consulting a hand-written, laminated “personality guide,” it was still hard to get a reading on any of the cats as individuals. They were such a blasé bunch that T began to wonder if they’d all been drugged.

IMG_0234That unlikely but nagging notion soured the experience for us somewhat, so we left feeling a bit less soothed than we’d hoped. Maybe if we’d come closer to feeding time (or sprung for the cat treats or cat toys, all of which cost extra), we would have gotten more cat action. Failing that, other cat cafés might have yielded different results. If all else fails, there is also at least one owl café in Osaka. At least with nocturnal birds, you know they have a good excuse for being asleep the whole time.

If the cats at Neko No Jikan are, indeed, on downers, then someone must be sneaking uppers to the deer in Nara Park. Located in the city of Nara—about a 30 minute train ride from downtown Osaka—these deer congregate in the hundreds in a collection of treed parks that surround some of the region’s most impressive temples. For centuries, the Nara deer have been considered sacred, thanks to a visit from Takemikazuchi, a thunder god who stopped by once while riding a white deer. Killing a Nara deer was a crime punishable by death until 1637. Presumably the method of execution was “trampling,” because these ungulates mean business.

We arrived at Nara under a scorching noontime sun, but only about half the deer we saw were taking advantage of the shade. The others crowded around the tourists, mostly sniffing curiously and looking cute, but sometimes getting quite insistent, nosing their way into backpacks or gently butting people with their antlers, as if to say, “Hey. You’ve come all this way. Why not buy some deer-crackers? There’s a vendor right over there.”

IMG_0264When J bought some of the crackers, which look like big brown communion wafers, all trace of domestication left the deer. They practically swarmed him. Two of the bucks began hurling themselves back onto their hind legs, threatening to butt antlers over who gets fed first. J was hoping the Nara deer would do their famous trick of bowing their heads reverentially, and indeed, we did notice a few other deer doing this before getting treats; but J’s deer were not spiritually inclined, I guess, and they gobbled up the goods without so much as a “god bless you.”

Nara Park was also where I finally got a close encounter with my Osakan nemesis, the cicada. These proliferate jumping bugs hunker up in trees and make a racket by vibrating tymbals on their abdomens. The louder they chirp, the more likely they’ll win themselves a mate—or a scathing review in a tourist’s sardonic blog. After listening to me complain about their mating song for a week, the Osaka cicada population had clearly had enough, because one of them dive-bombed me in an open area between two temples. The bug, about the size of a poker chip, slammed into my arm, then hopped away to crow about it. I came away with a welt; he probably got laid.

Despite our close encounters with nature’s dark side, Nara Park was worth the visit. We toured the Nara National Museum’s collection of antique Buddhist statuary, and then passed clockwise through Todai-Ji, a temple complex that includes the world’s largest wooden building, which in turn shelters the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana. There he sits, a human-shaped metallic mass symbolizing emptiness. Just like all the animals we’ve met, we anthropomorphize him. And, just like the deer at Nara, who bow their heads without fully knowing why, we light candles in the hopes of some spiritual sustenance. Every step is a communion.

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