The Cafe Where You Can Sip Your Tea & Pet An Adorable Owl

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.

Ahead, Refinery29 takes you inside owl cafe Akiba Fukurou and speaks to founder Shusaku Yabe about his feathered friends and their fan club.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
During my visit to Akiba Fukurou, a 50-50 mixture of native Japanese and European species of owls were at the cafe. The owls all come from a breeder friend, the cafe's owner told Refinery29. The owls were so peaceful — content little creatures napping and winking, seemingly happy to allow a roomful of curious strangers to stroke their unbelievably soft heads. Their sense of calm made it easy to understand how people would come here after a day in the office.

As this photo shows, visitors get their pick of small, medium, and large feathered friends.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
Cat and dog cafes have been working their way to America, but a lot of Refinery29 readers might be wondering — why owls?
"In general, I think animal cafes are popular because they have a kind of therapeutic effect. They’re also great for people who can't have pets at home, so they can enjoy the company of animals. Owl cafes seem to have become popular in late 2014. Akiba Fukurou has a lot of repeat customers — some even visit us 80 times a year. You get a souvenir photo when you leave, but novelty isn’t the main reason that a lot of people come. I believe holding an owl on your hand and concentrating on him has a kind of 'healing,' meditative effect. You may feel a sense of peace when you realize that people and owls can communicate with each other."

Caption: Kabuki, a spotted eagle owl.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
Something that any visitor to Japan will inevitably notice is that the quality of cuteness is highly valued. Practically a commodity, it can be spotted everywhere, from street signs to desserts to toilets. In Japanese, the word for cute, kawaii, isn’t just a literal translation — it implies a cultural aesthetic, an almost cultish appreciation for all things adorable, fuzzy, and big-eyed. And who has bigger eyes than an owl? It makes sense that these little birds, the epitome of kawaii, would become a focus of the animal cafe trend.

Caption: My boyfriend and I pose for our “official” photo with our new buddies, Squirrel and Kuppii.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
Do the owls seem to enjoy the company of customers?
"The answer is 'yes,' but it is not so simple. Basically, when selecting our owls, we choose ones who like people. Our owls at Akiba Fukurou are all C.B., which stands for captive breeding. (There are no wild owls here.) They have all been raised to live with and be fed by humans. Owls who are unaccustomed to humans might have excessive stress when being touched by people — they could even die of stress — so we strongly avoid that. Some of our owls seem to enjoy the company of people very much, while other owls are shy and play with people only when they want to. Owls have different personalities, like humans do. [Our] paying close attention to them every day makes it possible for them to interact with people."

Caption: Here I am meeting my favorite owl, the mischievous Squirrel, who will later try to eat my dress and hair.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
With the rise of these cafes, some people have voiced legitimate concerns about the wellbeing of the animals in their care — an issue that becomes more pronounced for owls, which unlike cats, haven’t been domesticated for thousands of years and arguably aren’t suited for this type of environment. (Although, it should be noted, owls can be raised as pets in Japan.) Still, while I can’t claim to be capable of reading an owl’s feelings in the way I can read my dog’s, I can say that my experience at Akiba Fukurou left me comfortable that these owls, at least, are not only looked after but also loved. There are rules in place to protect them — speak softly, no flash photography, don’t disturb the ones who are sleeping — and several staff members on hand who diligently patrol the room.

Caption: I share a moment with the impossibly small and adorable Cherry Tomato.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
How do you ensure the owls stay happy and healthy in this unusual environment?
"We need to observe them carefully, as bird species tend to hide their pain. However, we can guess their health conditions and their feelings to a certain extent because we see them every day. As part of daily care, we measure their weight and examine them. After that, we mostly rely on our intuition based on our experience. If they seem stressed or in bad shape — sometimes because their biorhythms aren’t always regular — we let the owls rest in a different room and then take them to a veterinary clinic."

Caption: To pick up this large rock eagle owl, Spring Onion, you need to wear a heavy falconry glove that protects against his talons.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alexandra Owens.
Now that owl cafes have started to spread all over Japan — what do you think the next trend in animal cafes will be?
"Cafes with small animals, such hedgehogs or meerkats, are becoming more popular. I also think that cafes where different species of animals live together peacefully would create a sensation. There are some rare animal cafes, such as lizards or snakes, in Japan, but they haven’t really taken off. It’s important to remember that the animals will continue to live after the trend is over. Animals that are collected only because they’re trendy might not necessarily have a happy future. The owners need to cherish them with love and take good care of them as long as they live."

Caption: Gorilla, a spectacled (and spectacularly fuzzy) owl.
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