In the summer and fall of 2011, my son had the opportunity to study, do volunteer work*, and travel in Vietnam, Japan and South Korea. He of course came home with many fascinating tales: drinking snake blood and bile alcohol in a restaurant in Vietnam; escaping from a hot Tokyo night club – it literally caught on fire; and in Seoul, visiting a very special kind of café, one in which there are cats on the menu… But it’s not what you think.
My son, Ian, and his Korean friends were walking across the lawn in front of the Jeongdok Library, near the heart of Seoul, when they noticed some cats lounging carefree in the shade, with library patrons. The cats were friendly and truly enjoyed being petted. Ian joked “Maybe these are library cats and we can check them out, like library books.”
From here, the conversation turned to the therapeutic value of having pets and musing about the possibility of doctors actually prescribing a healthy dose of pet-contact. A depressed patient would take the MD’s prescription to a pharmacist, who would then fill the prescription by presenting the patient with a barrel full of kittens or puppies to play with for a while. The boundless joy and cuteness of the cuddly creatures would lift the cloud of despondence off the afflicted human – at least until the next time the prescription was filled…
“Or,” Ian continued in the hypothetical and semi-absurd vein, “there could be cat cafés, where you could just go and play with cats.”
Ian laughed at his own joke, but his Korean companions weren’t laughing. Jihyun, an animal lover herself and eager host, enthusiastically proposed, “Would you like to go to one?”
“To a cat café. There are several here in Seoul. There’s one I really like near Hongik University [홍익 대학교].”
Yes, in this too, Koreans prove to be far more practical than their U.S. counterparts; micro-processors, cats – it’s all about efficiencies, I suppose. I understand there are cat cafés in Japan as well.
Cat cafés are indeed popular spots for Seoulites. According to one of Korea’s largest English language newspapers, the Korea Herald, the original cat café in Seoul was started in 2003 by Yu Sang-Wook, owner of Gio Cat café (Jihyun’s favorite). Yu had been running a cat adoption service; his primary interest in opening a café was to find people willing to adopt cats, and providing these potential adoptive families the opportunity to interact with felines beforehand.
Generally speaking, unlike Westerners, Asians do not have a long history of growing up with pets living in their homes. This unfamiliarity with domestic animals means that Koreans may be leery or afraid of cats and dogs, or have canine and/or feline allergies they are unaware of. It also often means new pet owners would like to know more about how to care for the new family members before taking them home.
Gio Cat can also be written as one word, Giocat (지오캣in Hangeul, the Korean script). I initially thought the café owner had surely chosen this name because of the Italian verb “giocare”, which means “to play” in English. “La Gioconda”, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting known to most English speakers as the Mona Lisa, in Italian literally means “The Playful One”. Perhaps it is her coy smile.
“Giocate” is 2nd person plural present indicative and imperative [“you (all) play” or “Play, (you all)!” in English] of the verb, and the Italian word for “toy” is “giocattolo”, so a logical enough guess, no? It turns out to be merely a happy coincidence. For website creation considerations, Yu was told he needed to use a word having no more than 6 letters and included the word “cat”, and “gio” had a nice ring to it.
Actually, it turns out there is an Italian wholesale company in Ferrara, called “GioCAT” [http://www.giocat.it/ ] which does indeed deal in toys, “gioccatoli”. Their teddy-bear logo seems to suggest they, too, like cuddly, if inanimate, things…
The menu at Gio Cat Café does look like a real menu but is called a "profile" – your basic cat bio sheet. The profile features flattering photos and lists gender, names, breeds, ages, and occasionally personality traits. On the profile sheet, we learn that Ho-ya is “kindly”, Sung-hwa is “Kao’s dad”, Andre is a “quiet cat” and Cho-long is “hysteric”.
If you ever happen to find yourself in Seoul and feeling a little “hysteric” like Cho-long, why not try calming your nerves by heading to a neighborhood cat café? I’ve heard it’s very therapeutic.
Dog-lovers will be happy to know dog cafés exist too. Dog café aficionados, please feel free to leave any information or tips in the comments section.
* Ian did volunteer work with Peace Trees Vietnam http://www.peacetreesvietnam.org/, an organization dedicated to demining and reforestation activities in Vietnam.