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By Momentum Editor (@momentumtravels)     30 Sep 2016

The latest addition to Tokyo’s legendary cafe culture—think maid cafes and soneiya, or ‘cuddle cafes’—is none other than the adorable, if not always happy, hedgehog

Cat and dog cafes have been popular in Asia for years, thanks in most part to Japan and, most likely, Tokyo. Many landlords in the city prohibit pets, so animal lovers who can’t afford their own homes often resort to spending time with four-legged friends at a local cafe. But, as new research into the scene reveals, cats and dogs are so last decade. These days it’s all about reptiles, goats, owls and other exotic pets.

One rainy day in Tokyo, I was looking for options to while away an afternoon. Having pinned a few places on Google Maps, I headed for Harry in Roppongi, where you can cuddle―or cup in your hands, since they’re so tiny―hedgehogs.

‘Sorry, we are full,’ the staff told me. Thankfully, my disappointment was short-lived as I was led upstairs to Harry’s small but brightly lit sister cafe. Ms Bunny doesn’t just have rabbits, I was informed―against the wall were three shelves of cages: hedgehogs at the top, and bunnies in the middle and at the bottom. A small staff area, a dozen seats and a few tiny coffee tables filled the rest of the space.

Gray bunny here is not a fan of random petting

Before I could choose my new friend, I was given a form that detailed the rules for handling the animals as well as the various fees―a cover charge for every 30 minutes spent at the café, where you can pet a maximum of two animals, each for no longer than 10 minutes. (It costs extra to feed the animals or take them out for a walk.) There’s no food on offer, despite it being called a cafe, but customers are welcome to bring their own.

Once I signed the form, I eyed the shelves and decided to start with a bunny―all balls of cuddly fluff―and pointed to a gray one in front of me. The staff showed me to my seat and, with a fleece blanket and puppy pad on my lap, I was all set to snuggle.

Up to that point in my life I had never held a bunny. Its fur was soft to the touch, as expected, but I didn’t know quite what to do. I gingerly put it on my lap and instinctively started petting it like I would a cat. What I hadn’t expected, however, was it starting to tremble after a few failed attempts to escape.

Determined not to stress it further, I stopped touching the bunny and it gradually calmed down and proceeded to do something equally puzzling: chew on the puppy pad. I looked helplessly at an attendant and since time was up, she took Bugs Bunny away and put it back in the cage. I looked down and saw some brown pellets on the torn pad. Was the bunny so stressed it pooped?

A balled up hedgehog doesn’t take kindly to being disturbed

A new pad was placed on my lap, which signaled hedgehog time. I browsed the top shelf and picked a medium-sized one with brown spikes.

I should mention that it wasn’t my first time handling a hedgehog. I once saw a curious dachshund getting a bit too friendly with a friend’s hedgehog and poking its nose (literally) into its prickly business, which resulted in the dachshund running away with its tail between its legs. So I have a pretty good idea what an unhappy hedgehog looks like―it curls into a ball, which is exactly what the hedgehog in my hands did this time.

I let the spiky ball sniff my fingers, which resulted in angry hisses and some finger-nibbling, but the hedgehog finally relaxed and I was able to stroke its spines―I wouldn’t go as far as to say it enjoyed it, but it tolerated my petting which was all I needed.

Sitting across from me, another customer was petting a chestnut-colored rabbit who seemed perfectly content and made no attempt to run away. For the rest of my 10 minutes, I stroked my hedgehog absent-mindedly, half wondering what my neighbor did differently that made his furry friend so docile.

My time was up, as was that of some other customers. While many of them decided to continue the drill―choose an animal, pet the chosen animal, repeat―for another 30 minutes, I paid and said goodbye to the prickly and the furry. It’s not that I didn’t want to spend more time with them―I just wasn’t sure if my petting was wanted. As I was leaving, a few people waiting outside were ushered in. I guess it didn’t matter―it’s not like the hogs and bunnies have a choice.

This one here seems to find petting tolerable

The smell of ramen prompted a loud growl from my stomach, and my next mission was to track down lunch. At the restaurant, my bowl arrived quickly and I slurped the noodles, washing them down with plans to visit Tokyo’s famous owl cafe. I wondered how owls would fare in a confined space such as the one I just left.

Mentally reviewing the things I saw at Ms Bunny, I tried to understand why it felt wrong. It was run like a petting zoo and the animals were displayed as if in a pet shop, but they seemed to be well looked after― cages were sizable and clean, adequate food and fresh water were supplied, bedding was appropriate and they all looked healthy, even reasonably happy until taken out of their cages to be handled by strange humans. If the bunny and hedgehog I petted had seemed happy, there’s no question I would go back, probably with a few friends.

Then I remembered a woman I saw at a cat cafe in Kyoto. Obviously a regular―the staff all greeted her by name―she sat down on the floor in a familiar corner, took out a tattered old blanket and laid it across her lap. Patiently she waited―for a good 15 minutes, perhaps more―until a ginger came to her and settled comfortably on the blanket, purring as she rubbed its chin. The look on both their faces was one of pure joy.

Have you visited an animal cafe before? What was the experience like? Share your pictures with #momentumtravel.

Main photo: Alamy

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