When friends come to visit me in Japan, cat cafés are always at the top of the to-do list — but my old college roommates were harder to please. One lives in NYC, where cat cafés are already so 2015. The other is allergic to cats. In Tokyo, though, you can pay to sip your matcha latte in the company of practically every animal in the zodiac: rabbits, dogs, goats, monkeys, and snakes. Not to mention owls, humanoid robots, or even human women dressed as panty-less maids. So, when I heard that Tokyo got its first hedgehog café this year, it didn’t take any convincing beyond the website’s description: “Lovely eyes, little hands and legs, fluffy stomach, but tingly back, their cuteness could make you so amazed that sometimes you need to pinch yourself.” Online reservations were immediately booked. Good thing, because it was spitting rain when my friends and I arrived at Harry Hedgehog Café in Roppongi and we were glad to skip the line of tired-looking tourists waiting on the front steps. The café’s name is a pun on harinezumi, the Japanese word for hedgehog, which literally means “needle mouse” (and is clearly superior to “hedgehog”). We checked in with the staff, who spoke perfect English and were the only Japanese people in the place. Their chambray shirts coordinated with the white interior, which was dotted with succulents and cacti (get it?). The space was very much Tokyo-sized, but as a testament to Japanese tidiness, it didn’t smell at all like a pet store. But it also wasn’t exactly what you’d call a café; the refreshments were self-serve and limited to a selection of packets of instant coffee and tea. (I found out too late that you’re allowed to BYO snacks and drinks, though alcohol is not permitted.) Stepping over other customers’ knees, we were led to our stools in one corner and asked to pick out our hedgehogs.
Harry Hedgehog Café describes itself as a “space to get in touch with and befriend a hedgehog.” The last hedgehog I’d gotten in touch with was my third-grade class pet, Vlad the Impaler. (My teacher was Ms. Frizzle-level eccentric and named all the class animals after historical figures. The chicken was Anne Boleyn.) Hedgehogs, though, are one of the things that Instagram’s mysterious algorithm has decided I’m interested in, along with the British royal family (inexplicable), and slow-motion videos of people digging into lava cakes (accurate). Hedgehog lovers have been blessing my feed with pics of the animal’s adorable antics since even before the New York Post called hedgehogs “the It Girl of exotic pets” in 2014. I couldn’t wait to finally get my hands on one. Technically, the collective noun for a group of hedgehogs is a prickle. Most of Harry’s prickle of 20 to 30 hedgehogs were busy snoozing, with their snouts burrowed into the corners of their glass tanks. Breeds on that day’s menu ranged from albino (which, if you fall in love, you can also take home for $275) to the rare cinnamon pied ($643), but my friends and I couldn’t resist the classic salt and pepper. Our three critters arrived in shabby-chic boxes fashioned out of old license plates. The café’s lack of drinks turned out to be fine, because we soon discovered that it would probably be impossible to hold a hedgehog and a mug of tea at the same time. One was an adrenaline junkie who, after hissing and sticking its tongue out at my friend when she stretched out her hand, spent the rest of the time trying to leap off the counter. (We hastily closed the open second-story window as a safety precaution.) For an extra $4.50, we sprang for a tiny glass bowl containing four live, wriggling mealworms, which our hedgehogs downed with a charming snort. After his snack, the second hedgehog nested under his box’s paper towel liner and promptly went back to sleep. My hedgehog was the perfect definition of genki, which means cheerful and chipper in Japanese.
He let me scoop him up with two hands; his belly was warm and soft and his spines weren’t any more prickly than, say, Zayn Malik’s scruff. Vlad II, as I decided to christen him, didn’t curl up into a ball like I thought he would. Instead, he made my role in his life very clear: I was to be his human hamster wheel for the next hour. I later found out that hedgehogs regularly run the hedgehog equivalent of a marathon every night, and my little guy was tireless in his efforts to race up my arms and attempt to tunnel under my shirt. I took about 30 photos of him, all of them blurry. In a stroke of originality, we renamed him Sonic. An hour is maybe too long to spend with a hedgehog, no matter how kawaii (cute). In fact, one honeymooning couple, after complaining loudly about the wait, finally got their hedgehog and then stayed only long enough to snap a quick hedgie selfie. Half an hour, which costs about $9 on weekdays or $12 on weekends and holidays, would’ve probably been just right for us. At about the 45-minute mark, my friends and I started doing what every millennial does when faced with a mere moment of boredom — scrolling through our phones. To be fair, we were using them to look for more info about hedgehogs.
While researching whether they’re native to Japan (they’re not), we made an important discovery: Hedgehog cafés might actually really suck for hedgehogs. Aside from the fact that they need a lot more space than a small tank for all that running around, hedgehogs are nocturnal by nature. As the jet-lagged two-thirds of our party could attest to, being sleep-deprived is hell. And while the animals in general are tiny poop factories, apparently a classic sign of hedgehog stress is green poop. This presence of this particular warning sign soon became visible to us — all over our hands and clothes. Suddenly the café’s abundance of hand sanitizer made sense. And after a few healthy douses, it was time to say a swift goodbye to our new friends.
Did I love Sonic? Maybe. But there’s not enough hand sanitizer in the world to make taking him home seem like a good idea.