Cream, coffee, and cats – my first cat cafe in Japan

For two weeks, a friend from the States came to stay in Japan with me for the holidays. She’d left most of the travel planning up to me, but there was one thing that she said she absolutely had to do while in Japan: go to a cat cafe.

Cat cafes are, well, just that – cafe’s with cats. For a small service fee, guests can watch and play with the cats for as long as they want. These themed cafes are super popular in Japan, and have inspired the creation of a number of other small animal themed cafes, like hedgehogs, and even owls! Apparently, cat cafes have become so popular that several have begun popping up in the States, though I’ve never been to them myself. In fact, I hadn’t been to one in Japan yet either despite their popularity, so this was my first experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since I’ve never owned a pet cat before – and never planned to – but I was curious to see what all of the fuss was about.

Luckily, I found out that there happens to be a popular cat cafe in Minoh, just outside of the train station. So the first weekend that my friend arrived in Japan, we packed our bags, ensured our phones were fully charged to prepare for the many pictures we were bound to take, and headed to Cara Cat Cafe.

We arrived the minute that the cafe opened – the owner had just come downstairs. She unlocked the front door for us with a wide smile and invited us to seat ourselves. As we moved toward the back of the cafe to sit at a table, a lovely white and tan striped cat walked between our legs. The other cats were still in their beds, some just waking up for the day.

After taking a seat, the owner handed us a list of pictures of the cats and general information about them to help us get to know the cats a little better. For example, underneath the picture of Daru (see below) are facts about him, including: “He likes snacks. He does not like being touched. He likes playing with the ゴム紙 (one of the many toys available to play with.) There were 5 cats in the cafe on the day we went, two male and three female, and theirs ages ranged from a few months to a few years old.

IMG_7988We were also given a list of rules, in English, for how to behave while in the cafe to ensure the cats’ – and guests’ – safety as a precautionary measure, like, “When being moody, treated in an unpreferable way, and/or over-excited, cats might scratch or bite you…”IMG_7989After reading the rules, my friend and I ordered our drinks – a latte for her and an iced coffee for me. The owner prepared our drinks in the kitchen and brought out our drinks on a tray within a few minutes.IMG_8002 Alongside our drinks was a little sticky note which indicated the starting time of our visit, since the total service fee is calculated by the amount of time spent in the cafe.

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Once our drinks arrived, we were free to roam about the cafe and play with the cats at our leisure. Luckily for us, the cafe was completely empty during the length of our stay, so we had the whole room – and all 5 of the cats – to ourselves.

Every one of the cats was friendly, affectionate, well-behaved, and very calm. One of the cats, named Beemo (who, by the way, was the softest cat I’ve ever petted in my life), did nothing but sit in one place and yawn occasionally throughout our entire stay.

The younger ones, named Daru and Tsururu, were a bit jumpier and not too fond of being petted or touched, but they were more active than the older cats and were more easily distracted by the toys, which made it easier to play with them. Because they were livelier though, luring them to our table at the back of a cafe was nothing short of a challenge. If we wanted to be close enough to the cats to pet them, we usually had to stand up and roam around the cafe ourselves, following in their footsteps, since they rarely came to us.

IMG_8007IMG_8044Behind our table were a few shelves nailed to the wall that the cats could jump onto. Occasionally, the younger cats would climb onto these shelves, giving us a chance to tease them with the toys the owner gave us to use. Though, they usually lost interest within about 30 seconds and set off to meander around the cafe again, forcing my friend and I to follow after them with handfuls of cat food – which we didn’t mind, since it kept us entertained too!IMG_8036After an hour of petting, teasing, and feeding the cats, and sipping our freshly brewed coffee, my friend and I decided it was time to say goodbye – mostly because we weren’t interested in paying more than the initial 500 yen service fee.

I’ve never been especially fond of cats, but after an hour in the cafe, I loved them! I even found myself tempted to take Beemo home with me. But I’m pretty sure the owner would do a much better job at taking care of Beemo than I ever could, so I suppose I’ll just have to plan a return visit to the cafe to see him again… which doesn’t sound all that bad to me. IMG_8042

For directions to Cara Cat Cafe, click here.

A tribute to the Momiji

Winter has made itself at home in Minoh. The trees – once painted all kinds of yellows and reds and oranges – are brown now, bare and grim. As I make my way around the city, biking to the grocery store or lugging my dirty clothes to the laundromat, I can’t help but feel a bit somber at the sight of all the brown, leaf-less maple trees. So once in a while, I’ll look back at pictures that I took during a hike up the path towards Minoh’s waterfall in mid-November, just as the maple leaves were turning red. I’ve walked that path several times, but it was especially beautiful that day. I thought I’d dedicate a post to the photos from that hike, in honor of the momiji、or maple leaves.

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Little stalls and shops selling souvenirs and Momiji tempura line the street.
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A humble foot bath for weary travelers.

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For access to the Minoh waterfall, here’s the link to the website.

My fascination with wrinkly persimmons

It’s 柿 season in Japan!

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柿, pronounced “kaki” is the Japanese word for persimmons. If you’ve never seen one before, they’re perfectly round, the color of pumpkins, and have cute clover-shaped stems. Persimmons aren’t very common where I’m from in the States. I rarely saw persimmons in my local supermarket, and if I did, they were either expensive or of mediocre quality, or both. But in Japan, persimmons are everywhere – literally! Not only is there a section in every grocery store dedicated to persimmons, there are also persimmon trees in nearly every backyard and all along the streets, which means that there are persimmons on the ground sometimes too.

At first, I was shocked by the sudden explosion in persimmons. As I’d make my way through the produce section during my weekly trip to the grocery store and come face to face with yet another persimmon display, I found myself questioning the appeal. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the taste of persimmons, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase a pack of six.

But everything changed when I tried my first 干し柿、or hoshigaki – dried Hachiya persimmons:

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I know what you’re thinking – ew, right? I know, I know. That’s what I thought too the first time I saw one. In comparison to their fresh counterparts, hoshigaki are shriveled and wrinkly and much less appealing in appearance. But what they lack in presentation, they make up for 10 fold in taste.

As dramatic as it sounds, when I say that my first bite of a hoshigaki was life-changing, I’m not exaggerating! It was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The insides were nothing like a fruit at all – they were more the texture of softened jelly. The chewiness of the outer skin, in addition to the jelly-like insides, provided a unique and wholly satisfying bite. The hoshigaki itself was also incredibly sweet, like sucking on a spoonful of pure honey.

Unfortunately, hoshigaki are twice the price of regular persimmons – about $8 or $9 for four. Desperate for another succulent dried persimmon, but unwilling to cough up nearly 1000 yen, I wondered if I’d be able to make my own instead. I mean, leaving something out to dry can’t be too difficult, right?

Well, it turned out to be much harder and a lot more intensive than I thought – making hoshigaki requires care, effort, attention, and quite a bit of time. In fact, the process is so detailed and so intricate that I’d go as far to say that the act of making hoshigaki is an art.

Other articles online do a much better job at explaining the process than I can; I highly recommend reading this one if you’re interested in learning more. But in short, hoshigaki are made by hanging peeled Hachiya persimmons for about two weeks until they’ve shriveled and formed a white coating on the surface from natural sugars.

HoshigakioutsideMost hoshigaki are made on farms, where they can be mass produced by the hundreds, but occasionally, I’ll find some hanging outside of someone’s home. Here’s a picture of a balcony I pass on the way to work every morning:

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Once I realized how difficult it is to make hoshigaki from scratch, I gave up on trying to attempt it myself. Splurging every so often on a pack at the store is much simpler than hanging them by a string on a bamboo rod from my balcony.

I have a strong feeling that hoshigaki won’t be available in stores when I return to the States, so I very well may end up needing to try drying persimmons from scratch in the future! For now, though, I’ll let the experienced farmers do the hard work for me.

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Mochi-tsuki in Minoh

When it comes to preparing for the new year, I think it’s safe to say that Japan does a pretty good job. For weeks leading up to New Year’s, and on the day itself of course, Japan has lots of festivals, events, and traditions that have long been a part of the country’s history and culture, and which just about every family in Japan faithfully participates in – like cooking traditional New Year’s food called O-sechi, or decorating the house with a statue made of rice cakes and a tangerine.

But out of the many traditions in Japan meant to start off the New Year on the right foot, one in particular has always stood out to me – mochi-tsuki. After first hearing about this country-wide event, I knew that my year in Japan would not be complete if I didn’t attend a mochi-tsuki.

Mochi-tsuki is an important traditional event where friends and families gather together to pound rice to make mochi, or rice cakes. It’s usually performed at the end of the year around December 25th to 28th. Historically, mochi became a popular food to make for New Year’s since it keeps for a fairly long time at room temperature and is also a convenient, portable food. Japanese people eat homemade mochi at the start of the year, usually grilled and flavored with soy sauce.

Though there are quite a few mochi-tsuki festivals throughout Osaka meant to attract large crowds, the closest temple hosting a mochi-tsuki was at least two hours away from me, and would’ve require multiple train rides to get there. Luckily, though, I happened to find out about a smaller mochi-tsuki event happening in Minoh!

So on the morning of December 28th, I took a short bus ride to the address where the event was set to take place, and ended up stumbling upon a small gathering of a few families, several young adults, and a handful of children and elderly people in the middle of a neighborhood. When I arrived, I could tell that everyone was surprised to see me there, but they were very polite and welcoming. One of the attendees even took the time to explain the mochi-making process – which is super simple, actually.

First, a special type of sticky rice that’s been soaked in water overnight is steamed in metal crates until the rice is cooked through and soft.

IMG_8174Once the rice is ready for pounding, it’s placed in an usu, or a large bowl made of wood or stone. The one at the event I went to was made of stone. IMG_8141A heavy, hammer-like mallet made of wood is used to pound the rice into paste. IMG_8140Once the steamed rice is placed in the usu, the pounding begins!

IMG_E8144IMG_E8145Pounding requires a two person effort – while one person pounds the rice with the mallet, another shifts the rice in the usu to ensure evenness and prevent the mochi from sticking to the sides.

The steamed rice is shaped and pounded until it becomes a large, sticky mass, which usually takes about 10-15 minutes. Once the desired consistency is reached, it’s ready for shaping.

The pounders transferred the sticky heap into a wooden crate and brought the crate to an elderly lady who began shaping it into bite-sized cakes.

IMG_E8191The process continued for a few more hours after that until all of the steamed rice was pounded and formed into hundreds of bite-sized mochi cakes, and then set aside to be stored until New Year’s. It was a fascinating and memorable experience overall, and I’m grateful that the small gathering of locals who put on the event were quick to welcome me into their group this year.

I’m happy to say that I can officially cross “attend a mochi-tsuki” off my Japan bucket list. 🙂