Sunday, May 9, 2010

Kitty cafes I have known

Cat cafes are a rapidly growing phenomenon in Japan these days, and I am pleased to discover that they are also expanding to Seoul. I visited my first cat cafe, in Osaka, last August, not long before moving to Korea. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing; on a visit to the Korean consulate in Nanba, I noticed a sign right around the corner advertising the "Guru Gurudou Cat Cafe" and decided to check it out. I was immediately enchanted.

There was a fenced-off foyer area in which to remove shoes and wash hands, then a second, inner door for preventing kitty escapes. Once inside, a lady explained the rules (no pestering sleeping kitties, no holding kitties who don't want to be held, etc). Guru Gurudou charged 1000 yen ($10) for one drink and an hour with the kitties. The interior was decorated in an eclectic Southeast Asian motif, with soothing zen music playing, and 10 kitties lazing around on the various plush cushions and kitty furniture. None of the kitties were over two years old, and two were still small kittens. All were expensive breeds: a Maine Coon, a Somali, an American Shorthair, a Ragdoll, a Norwegian Forest Cat, 2 Munchkins, a Russian Blue, 2 Scottish Folds. A cute flow chart on the wall introduced each of the kitties and described their relationships to each other. The litter boxes and food dishes were cleverly hidden away somewhere.

The scene at Guru Gurudou

That day there were about 3 or 4 other people inside, and the atmosphere was very friendly; unlike a normal cafe, it was easy to strike up conversations with the other guests while playing with the kitties. There was a variety of cat toys available for teasing kitties, and while a few were inevitably sleeping, there was always one or two who wanted to play. Some of the other customers were almost as fun to watch as the cats.

It was such a relaxing atmosphere and amusing way to spend an hour with fellow cat-enthusiasts. A few weeks later, I found another cat cafe, this one on Oike-Doori in Kyoto. "Neko Kaigi" (Kitty Conference) was quite different from Guru Gurudou in that all the cats were former strays that had been picked up off the streets of Kyoto as kittens. I highly approved of its mission to "reduce the number of unhappy stray kitties in Kyoto," as I own a Kyoto kitty myself.

Also unlike Guru Gurudou, the interior was sunny and decorated like a nice living room, with a large cat tower in the middle and a sun-baked shelf by the window for kitties to nap on. I must say I could appreciate the difference between the fancy breed cats of Guru Gurudou and stray mixed-breeds of Neko Kaigi. Both sets were appealing in their own way. The fancy breeds seemed more delicate, fluffier, and more whimsical in their play. The strays felt more substantial, muscular, and played mainly with the purpose of hunting and killing their toys. Most of the strays were short-haired tabby mixes not unlike my own cat, though I couldn't help but wonder if it was just mother's pride that made me feel that my own was far prettier than these.

A Neko Kaigi board member

A special feature of Neko Kaigi is that someone on staff there apparently has a very high-shutter-speed camera, and they have several albums lying around with beautiful pictures of cats jumping, legs splayed in all directions. They have posted the best pictures online in a slideshow at - a must-see!

A few weeks after that, of course, I moved to Korea. Koreans supposedly have a cultural aversion to cats and prefer dogs, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn recently that a few cat cafes have opened in Seoul. One such place just opened right down the hill from my university, calling itself "Sonamu Kil Koyangine" (Pine Street Cat Spot).

This place is fairly small and just opened about a month ago. They have 6 cats, all kittens, the oldest a 6-month-old Maine Coon. Unlike the Japanese cafes, this one seems to have very few restrictions on how to handle the kitties, and they even encourage guests to bring their own cats in. I wonder if this free-wheeling attitude will change as they get more experience.

The kittens at "Koyangine" are adorable and require a lot of sleep. I've been there twice now, both times in early afternoon; both times there was only one other customer, and the kittens were mostly sleeping. If there was none awake to play with, the proprietor would pick up a sleeping kitten and place it in my lap. There is no entrance charge or time limit, but they charge about $7 for a cup of coffee or tea, which is effectively the cost of admission. Other than a cat tower and a few cushions and toys lying around, there are few props for the kitties, but they are adept at finding toys among the customers' bags and other belongings. As there are few other customers, the atmosphere is very free and relaxing.

I had so much fun at Koyangine that I told my cat-loving friend about it, and she told me another cat cafe had opened recently in Myongdong, Seoul's shopping mecca for Japanese tourists. The name of this place is "Koyangi Darakbang" (Cat's Attic). We went there together on a weekday afternoon, yet surprisingly the place was packed with customers. In stark contrast to Koyangine, the atmosphere is busy and the interior spacious, with over a dozen cats of all varieties, most full-grown and clearly accustomed to ignoring the constant stream of customers trying to pet, play with, and take pictures of them.

The most impressive thing about this place, to my now-experienced eye, was the effort they had put into constructing elaborate cat towers, platforms, and climbing shelves all along the walls. There were even running platforms overhead where cats flitted back and forth, out of reach of the patrons. The customers were very obedient about following the rule not to disturb a cat sleeping inside one of the cat beds, and the cats clearly understood that that was their refuge when they needed a break from being groped and patted.
The mood in this place was a little too hectic for my taste, and the cats clearly had all the attention they needed (and then some). Nevertheless it is reassuring that this wonderful new trend is gaining popularity here in Seoul, as well as Japan.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

An Unsung Hero

The other day in Korean class, we had an activity where we were supposed to describe the person we respected most. My other classmates, all good filial sons and daughters of China, almost invariably chose either "mom" or "dad." The only exceptions were a couple who went with a grandparent. I, with no hesitation at all, said "bus drivers."

It's not that I have anything against my parents. But out of everyone in the whole world, I've always thought of bus drivers as the one group of people who do a job I could never do myself, even if I trained for 50 years. They must have amazing powers of concentration, to keep circling around the same route over and over again, never getting distracted or missing a stop or overlooking a person running to jump on. And maneuvering that massive vehicle around the chaotic streets of Seoul without ever so much as scraping a fender, when disrespectful drivers are constantly maneuvering in and out of the bus lane and motorcycle couriers are trying to cut in front, is a feat worthy of a medal in my opinion. Plus they have to be patient with little old grannies who step in the doorway and ask which bus will take them to such-and-such, even when they're running late and it's rush hour.

I take two buses to get to school every morning. First the 162 city bus, which takes me from my neighborhood to a stop near my school, and then a school shuttle which takes me up the long, steep hill leading to campus. Both buses are absolutely jam-packed with people before 9 am, and sometimes the driver has to holler at everyone to squeeze further in so that he (it's always a man) can shut the door.

To pass the time, I've gotten in the habit of assigning nicknames to each of the school shuttle bus drivers. There's Spike, who has a spiky crewcut, Chewbacca, who's always chewing gum, Michael Jackson, who only wears one glove, and Amadeus, who teases his bangs into an artistic swirl.

For the city buses I pay by swiping my city transit card when I get on and off. It usually costs 900 won (about 85 cents) unless I ride a really long time. The school shuttle bus takes little yellow tickets that I have to buy periodically, 250 won each. Compared to Kyoto buses, which cost 220 yen (about $2.50) no matter how far you go, it's a steal.

Lotte World class trip

Last week, after our mid-term exams, our Korean class had a "cultural outing." Once more we went to an amusement park, this time "Lotte World," which holds the Guiness world record for largest in-door theme park. Wandering the park with a group of my Chinese classmates, I enjoyed myself more than I expected. First we all rode on the extremely slow-moving carousel, famous for featuring in one of my all-time favorite Korean dramas, "Cheonguk ui Gyedan" (Stairway to Heaven). Then we got on the "hot-air balloon" ride to get a birds-eye view of the park and identify which rides had the shortest lines. From our high vantage point we could also look down on the ice-skating rink and see some very young future Kim-Yunas-in-training practicing their spins.

My favorite ride of the day was the "Gyro-Swing," in the outdoor portion of the park, which was a rotating wheel of seats on the end of a hammer that swung back and forth, causing me to produce screams I hadn't known I was capable of. Very good for stress-relief. Another highlight was having lunch with my Chinese classmates at a Korean-style Chinese restaurant. Of course, now that I'm the only non-Chinese person left, it's unavoidable that I get stuck in the middle of a lot of animated conversations in Chinese that I can't understand. Although they do their best to stick to Korean when I'm around, I can't help but feel that my presence is a hindrance to them sometimes.

The lines weren't too bad - the longest we had to wait was about 30 minutes. While waiting, the park provided excellent opportunities for people-watching. I especially enjoyed the girls in extremely short skirts and spiked heels, competing to see who could make more of a display of draping themselves around their boyfriends. Also the park was full of groups of kids in matching school uniforms out for their class trip. Their teachers didn't seem to regulate much which rides they were allowed to do, and I saw a few little ones crying while walking out of the scarier rides, but overall I was impressed with their fearlessness.

Around 3 pm, the parade started. Colorful cartoon characters, dancers, and floats wound their way around the park on a pre-cleared path. At the very end was a float of good-looking young guys in heavy make-up smiling and waving at the crowd. From the female reaction I gathered that they must be some sort of celebrities, and later my friend confirmed that they were members of the boy band "UKISS."