Hello kitty

In a crowded city, Dave Tacon discovers a cafe where people can make some feline friends.

It is 1pm on a Sunday at Cat Time cafe in Osaka and the lunch rush is just starting. But none of the customers are eating. Although they have paid at least ¥850 (about $9.80) just to step in the door, they are more than happy to sip their coffee and gaze in wonderment as an assortment of cats make their way around the cafe.

There are 21 cats residing at the cafe, which specialises in "cat relaxation". It opened in 2009 and was inspired by a similar institution in Taipei, Taiwan.

Today, Osaka, Japan's third most populous city, hosts 10 such places and the phenomenon has spread to Tokyo and Seoul.

Customers have one hour of "cat time" to enjoy. Various beverages are available, as well as cake and a limited number of cat treats. Cat toys can be hired in 10-minute blocks from ¥210.

Cat cafes have found a niche in Japan, where tiny apartments are common and pets are often forbidden by landlords.

Cat Time is one of many pet rental options in Japan. Tokyo has more than 100 such businesses leasing animals from one hour to a week.

Upon arrival at Cat Time, guests must remove their shoes - as is the custom when visiting someone's home in Japan but not usual at a cafe. Once they have paid and have been sprayed with hand cleaner, they are free to interact with the cats. There are a few simple rules: no shouting, sleeping cats are not to be disturbed, no toys are to be brought in from outside and no smoking. And any cruelty, such as pulling tails, is not tolerated.

Some cats stop and stare at newly arrived customers, while others keep sleeping or simply ignore their guests, preferring to saunter nonchalantly about like lords and ladies of the manor.

One cat, Yo On, a five-year-old female exotic shorthair, intently runs laps up and down the polished hardwood floor of the narrow room, skidding sideways as she goes. The cafe's mascot is BJ (Blackjack), a placid rag doll - a semi-longhair breed - who was born with one eye.

Tomoe Ishikawa, 26, is one of two staff working today. She does not bat an eyelid as she prepares coffee, flanked by BJ, asleep on a plastic container to her left, and Konyini, a grey Maine coon, lazily draped over a food display case.

Meanwhile, Miu Miu, an American curl, has wedged himself in a narrow gap between the ledge of the kitchen sink and a wall, perfectly comfortable and also fast asleep.

"The cats can be annoying when they're naughty," says Ishikawa, who trained in veterinary science. "I love them all, though, and know each of their personalities."

Customers at Cat Time usually only stay for an hour and spend it moving between various cats and, occasionally, stopping to stroke a receptive feline or photograph it with their mobile phone. If they feel like taking a break, they can make an entry in the cafe's guest book or browse any of Cat Times's cat-related reading material.

One middle-aged woman visits regularly with a sketchbook in which she renders some of her favourite cats using lead pencil.

Naoko Shimohila, 21, visits Cat Time once a week. Doll-like in a frilly white dress, her face framed by long, black hair with a severe fringe above her eyebrows, she sits serenely on the floor with a copy of Japanese cat enthusiast magazine Neko Mon.

In no time, Holly, a grey Persian, who looks not unlike a furry, four-legged owl, has climbed onto her lap. "I read about this place on the internet and got interested," Shimohila says. "I come here to relax."

The young woman's working hours are spent dressed up as French maid in a Meido cafe, which is much like a regular cafe except that it is staffed exclusively by young, attractive and attentive women in fancy dress who greet guests with: "Welcome home, master."

The Meido concept is hugely popular with male fans of Japanese animation and video games that fetishise an ideal of feminine innocence. In comparison, perhaps the cat cafe is not such an odd idea after all.

Cat Time, 8-8 4-Chome, Kita-ku, Osaka Tenjinbashi. Phone +81 66 4801 0224, see nekonojikan.com.