Back in the mid-80s while teaching English in Shimonoseki, Japan, I lived in what the locals called a “1 DK” apartment. That means a bathroom, a hallway with a kitchen, and one “living room” with six tatami mats – about 250 square feet total. When it was time to sleep, I pulled the futon out of the closet; in the morning, I put it back. If you think this sounds pretty small, you’re right, but for a 25-year-old on his first exotic adventure, my living situation was just fine. It’s not like I really owned anything at that point in my life. The thing is, it wasn’t just me. A LOT of Japanese lived and continue to live this way, and they DO own stuff, particularly high-end stereos and electronic equipment. What’s missing in this equation is space for pets. Unless you own a house – a very expensive proposition in Japan – you probably don’t have room for a cat or a dog, which is why Japan has so many pet cafes — coffee shops where you can surround yourself with animal energy while sipping a latte. While visiting Japan last year, Donica and I visited a cat café in Tokyo and a dog café in Kyoto. There were other options available as well, but the owl and hedge hodge cafes just sounded like gimmicks.

Walking into a cat café is not like walking into a regular café. You pay your fee (based on time) and order your drink in the antechamber, take off our shoes, then finally enter the main room through a separate door. Immediately you notice the cats scattered around the room in various chairs and perches, mostly sleeping — because that’s what cats do during the day. Generally speaking, these felines are not particularly interested in you; don’t expect a soft, affectionate kit-ty to climb into your lap and demand a neck rub. About the only thing that trips their trigger is if you buy a cat treat, an edible wand that looks a bit like a sugar popsicle. The cats will suddenly become your BFF — until the treat is consumed. After that, they the go back to their usual lan-guorous disdain. Because they’re cats.

The Shiba Inu dog café we visit in Kyoto is a fairly similar experience, with a few differences. For one thing, there are no tables or chairs. Our group of 10 people sit on the ground, on tatami mats, waiting for the proprietors to bring out the pooches. Eventually the Shiba Inus arrive – about 4 of them. Yes, they’re adorable. And no, they are not one iota interested in us. They only have eyes for their trainers (and their snacks). Before entering, we’re admonished not to touch or grab the dogs; if the canines are interested in us and come up to say hello, we can lightly touch them. We most certainly cannot snatch a dog and put it in our laps! During my 30 minutes in the dog café, I don’t think I touch a pooch even once. Mostly I just watch them wander around. Think a petting zoo – without the petting. When our time is up, we grab our coffees (if we bought one from the vending machine) and, wave goodbye to the Shiba Inus (and the $30 we expended to be around canine energy half an hour).

Would I do it again? Of course I would. When traveling in a foreign country, I want to try eve-rything. Cat and dog cafes are an experience – if only to get a glimpse into the way the Japanese live. Now go home and give and give your pet a treat.

(To be honest, I’m not sure what the “lesson” of this post is supposed to be. Perhaps it’s “spend the money” when traveling, even if the experience, itself, winds up being underwhelming. You never know if you’re going to go back to a particular country, so don’t skimp while you’re there. Regardless of the quality of the experience, check that item off your bucket list! Or perhaps the lesson is, “appreciate your space.” Most of us live in countries where we can own a home or an apartment large enough for a pet (or three). Cherish your freedom.)