Japanese bug store

There are animal lovers all over the world, and the Japanese — famous for their love of cute — are no exception. Japan is probably America's biggest competitor in the fields of dressing dogs in adorable outfits and posting photos of cats on the Internet.

But there are interesting differences in how cultures express this love, and on a recent trip to Japan, that's what I wanted to see. The first thing on my list: a trip to the bug store.

Beetles as Pets, Not Pests

In Japan, large horned beetles are a favorite pet of children and adult hobbyists alike. Traditionally caught outdoors, nowadays they're more likely to be purchased, and the store I visited also sold supplies for keeping them, including tiny cups of special jelly in different flavors. The pet store had many smaller specimens, as well as one impressive adult Rhinoceros beetle for sale for around $50.

Keeping these beetles isn't simple, as I found when I talked to Evangela Suzuki, an American who has lived for 10 years in Ibaraki Prefecture, about an hour and a half outside Tokyo. Like most Japanese boys, her son wanted a beetle, but it's a pricey pet for a young child. So their first beetle started as a grub from a local store, which lets kids dig them up from a big pit of dirt for only 100 yen (about a dollar).

Pet beetles in Japan

The grub grows into a 3-inch-long beetle, but this process requires specialized care. The grub's home needs to be kept clean and just damp enough that mold doesn't grow. Different soil is required depending on the insect's phase of development: a soft peaty type to start, then later a two-layer setup with special oak leaves to climb on. In Suzuki's case, as often happens with a child's pet, Mom ended up doing all the work. Fortunately, she thought it was worth it. "It was actually quite fascinating to watch this big grub eat through its mulch and then transform into a Rhinoceros beetle over the summer months," she says.

Her son's current pet is a staghorn beetle, and Suzuki says it has a very different personality. Their orginal Rhinocerous beetle was "sweet and kind," but her son's staghorn is temperamental — once when it escaped, her son says proudly, it killed a cockroach. In fact, a traditional game with these horned beetles is having them battle each other, but Suzuki says she has only seen this on TV. She suspects children are less willing to play such games with an expensive pet, rather than with a beetle that has been gathered from the wild.

A Dog's Life

Aside from their interest in beetles, Japanese children are just like American kids when it comes to pets: The animal they most often wish for is a dog. When Suzuki asked 20 school-age children about their pets, only one had a dog, but 10 others said they wanted one.

Japanese dogs seem to live a fantastic life. In Tokyo I visited a cafe where owners and their dogs can eat together, with a special dog menu that included tiny waffles. And there's a chain of hotels especially for people who want to stay with their dogs. In Toba, I stopped by their lobby gift shop to buy a souvenir for my Pugs: rice crackers made with the special local beef. The hotel provides swimming, hiking and other dog-centered activities for guests.

Dog cafe menu in Japan

However, many Japanese live in very small apartments that don't allow pets. Their pent-up desire to commune with furry creatures is catered to by businesses such as cat cafes, where people pay a fee to have coffee in a room full of wandering felines. Americans who hear of these cafes often worry about the welfare of the animals, but the rules are usually quite strict, forbidding any contact that isn't initiated by the cats themselves.

A Different Kind of Dog Park

Dog lovers can enjoy a similar experience in a park near Suzuki's home called Wan Wan Land. ("Wan wan" is the equivalent of "bow wow" and is used as an endearment like "doggie.") Wan Wan Land has a school for dog groomers and dog trainers, but the main attraction is the petting zone where visitors can interact with the resident dogs.

There are two sections for larger and smaller breeds, with signs telling the name and breed of the individual dogs. When Suzuki's family visited, there were four to six staff on hand at all times to supervise. "If any dog started to look tired, a staff member would come and take it away to a private location to rest," she says. Staff also politely enforce the rules for humans: When she was standing with a pug in her arms, Suzuki was reminded to please sit down while holding a dog.

For an additional fee, visitors can pick a dog and take it for a walk. Suzuki was impressed by the cleanliness of the facility and the good condition of the dogs."They even smelled nice," she says. A few wore coats to keep warm, and there were even some elderly dogs in diapers. Visitors were of all ages, including children, which might seem like a recipe for trouble with a group of loose dogs, but that wasn't Suzuki's experience at all. Everyone sat and petted the dogs as they came over or allowed themselves to be picked up, and, she says,"it was really tranquil."