This story was originally published on February 9, 2016.
While cat cafes slowly make their way to the United States, a visitor in Tokyo can now sip tea cuddled up with just about any species, from rabbits and dogs to the most in-demand date these days: owls.
Some may not understand the appeal of chilling with a flock of predatory birds (and we’ll get to that) but taking a step back, the general idea behind animal cafes is significantly more relatable. The very first one, designed for cats and cat-lovers alike, opened in Taiwan back in 1998. It took Japan — home to Hello Kitty and Maru — to make the trend explode in 2005.
“They started in Asian cities where, like New York, a lot of people live in small apartments and have crazy, busy lifestyles that don’t allow for pets,” says Christina Ha, the cofounder of Meow Parlour, the first cat cafe in New York City. “Animal cafes fit into that society really well, because customers can enjoy the atmosphere and the animals without the downsides of ownership.”
Alongside the convenience of a no-strings relationship, overloaded urbanites seem to appreciate the calming effect of socializing with animals, a therapeutic benefit that organizations such as the PUP Program at LAX and Pet Partners have recently tapped into, and that any city-dweller with a therapist will tell you is sorely needed. Emilie Legrand, Ha’s fellow cofounder, confirms that their cafe is a sort of “bubble” where customers can let go of stress (something that has reached a near-epidemic level in Japan).
But why choose an owl as company over a dog or cat? On a recent trip to Tokyo, I visited Akiba Fukurou, one of the city’s popular owl cafes that books up days in advance, to find out. Here, 1,500 yen ($12) gets you an hour-long session with the resident owls, access to a startlingly well-stocked international water bar, and a souvenir photo. Once you’re ushered into the space, decorated with carefully arranged tables and chairs, you immediately get the sense of eyes watching you — 50 eyes, actually, belonging to the roughly 25 owls that are serenely sitting on perches around the room.