If you had told me that one day I would hold an owl on my arm, and pet and ruffle its neck feathers, I would have secretly thought you were perhaps in need of some therapy. And yet, there I was earlier this year, holding a variety of owls on my arm, petting their heads, ruffling the feathers on their necks, and absolutely loving every minute of the experience.
Animal cafes are BIG in Japan. Whether you want to interact with cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, goats, or heaven forbid, snakes, there’s a cafe where you can do that. Some are better than others – much better – where the animals are well-cared for versus just a commodity.
The cafe we visited only allows in a few people at a time, and reservations are required. On the day of our visit to the Fukurō-no-Sato (‘owl village’) Cafe we stopped by a little before noon, but the first available opening wasn’t until 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. At some of the more popular cat cafes there can be up to a two-day wait for an opening.
The Fukurō-no-Sato Owl Cafe in Harajuku is located on the fourth floor in a building just to the side of Takeshita-dori in Harajuku, and across from Harajuku station. We paid a fee (1500¥ per person, a little less than $45 for the three of us) when we made our reservation, and then reappeared at our appointed time and were served a cup of green tea in a charming owl cup along with some crackers (other beverages and snacks were available, but cost more). While we sipped and munched an employee came and spoke to us about the owls, the different types and their temperaments, how to handle them, which ones not to touch, and especially emphasized the importance of keeping the big owls away from the smallest ones because they could be seen as prey. We had been concerned about the overall treatment of the owls before we arrived, but it became apparent as we listened that the staff loved the birds and they were very well-cared for. Interaction with humans was as limited as possible, and the owls got ‘down time.’ The cafe is located very close to the Meiji-Jingu shrine, and apparently the owls are taken out several times a week to fly and hunt inside the grounds. We have learned since that other cafes do not treat their owls as well.
After the presentation, we sanitized our hands and were taken into the owl room where we spent around a half hour with the birds. It was honestly pretty darn thrilling! The owls ranged in size from over two feet tall (great horned owl) to tiny ones that were only around six inches tall (the little owls were not handled). What was very surprising was how light they all were, especially the big owls, but then again they would have to be light in order to fly.
Was it worth the expense? In my opinion, yes – it was an experience unlike any I’d ever had before and am unlikely to have again, and I learned quite a bit. Although I believe that the best place for owls is in the wild, I felt the owls were respected and well cared for.
Animal cafes have opened recently in the United States, but for the most part they remain a quintessential Japanese experience, and can be a fun and interesting addition to a Japan visit (although you will never find me in a snake cafe!). I do recommend though that research should be done before choosing a cafe, as they are not all equal.