Quiet green lanes, low-rise wooden houses, generations-old tofu stores, atmospheric temples, cycling grannies, small creative ateliers — and cats. Lots of cats.
Yanaka, an east Tokyo neighborhood hugging the fringes of the JR Yamanote circle, is something of an urban time capsule, with its growing population of young artisan makers and unusually well preserved buildings (a lucky legacy of surviving the wartime blitz that razed other parts of the capital).
Yet architecture and creativity are not the only reasons to visit the seductively slow-paced district: it’s also heaven for cat lovers. This doesn’t take long to register among visitors: Cats in all shapes, sizes and colors (often walking purposefully, with heads held high, as if on their way to a very important meeting), are frequent protagonists in countless daily scenes.
Many attribute the soaring population of stray felines in the area to something quite simple: the appeal of an unusually high concentration of temples and green spaces, something of an anomaly in an otherwise neon-lit capital. In short, these felines have good taste.
Whatever the reason, Yanaka is nirvana for cat-lovers. Those who look closely can find signs of them throughout the neighborhood — from cat trinkets and sweets for sale in local shops to a scattering of statues in the streets.
We recently put the neighborhood’s kitty credentials to the test with my two young daughters, with a Sunday trip to a tiny cafe that specializes in all things related to maneki-neko — that instantly recognizable Japanese lucky cat charm, with its forever-waving front paw.
Cafe Nekoemon has a classic Yanaka feel: Located in a wooden house dating back more than 90 years on a quiet sloping street, it has a latticed facade with a sliding door and white noren curtains on a bamboo pole.
Stepping inside reveals an interior that is simple and charming, with around half a dozen small tables and a sedate atmosphere that brings to mind an old-school English tearoom.
Not to forget the cats: While there are no living cats in the vicinity, distinct feline forms can be spotted throughout, from the wooden cat-shaped plates and the cat clock ticking on the wall to a life-sized tabby cat sculpture sitting by the window.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my daughters are instantly transfixed by the display of cat cakes in all their glory at the front of the cafe — with highlights including Black Cat Chestnut Cakes; White Cat Cheese Cakes; Black Tabby Cat Eclairs; small glass pots of cat puddings; and roll cakes in pastel shades with mini cat ears.
The cafe specializes not only in eating cat-themed treats, but also decorating little ceramic maneki-neko. After the girls request having a go at decorating their very own lucky cats, staff appear with several different white models of cats and ask them to choose their favorite.
We learn that a cat waving its right paw invites money, while a left paw-waving cat helps attract customers or friends, and the girls are allowed to choose from a large or small size. After selecting a cat each, they are presented with examples of prettily decorated cats for inspiration, alongside containers of rainbow-bright pens, and they become unusually quiet as they work out their designs on paper.
As they diligently draw on the cats — one daughter opts for a yellow cat with purple ears; the other has green eyes, yellow ears and a pink bib — they are given a drink and cute little cat cookies.
Meanwhile, my husband and I enjoy this rare quiet moment over tea at a nearby table. It’s clear that Yanaka is a place where the whole family can enjoy the slow-paced charms of a cat-loving neighborhood.
Cafe Nekoemon is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (5-4-3 Yanaka, Taito-ku; 03-3822-2297; www.yanakado.com). Decorating a maneki-neko costs ¥1,650 for a small cat and ¥2,200 for a large one. Prices include a choice of drinks (coffee, tea, ginger ale or cola) and a cat cookie.