Akiba Fukurou, Tokyo, Japan
Eye to eye. Which of us is going to blink first? Probably me. It’s pretty silly to challenge an owl to a staring competition.
In a city like Tokyo, it should probably be no surprise that I find myself in this situation. With an owl named Negi perched on my arm, I try to act calm. It’s easier said than done, considering Negi did just try to eat Peanuts a few minutes ago. Peanuts is the name of one of the other owls here.
By now, a lot of people have heard of the ‘cat cafes’ that began in Tokyo and have now spread around the world. They are places where people without pets can come for some animal interaction. Last time I was in town, I visited one and you can read about that cat cafe here.
But Tokyo is the kind of city that always needs something new. It has a reputation for being cutting edge and it never disappoints. One of the latest trends is the ‘owl cafe’ and it’s where I find myself one afternoon.
You enter the small room off a busy street in the Akihabara district at your allotted timeslot. After a brief introduction in Japanese – no flash photography, no sudden movements, don’t squeeze the birds – you then have an hour to spend with the owls.
There are about twenty owls in the cafe, perched on bars throughout the room. Each has a name and with that, presumably, comes a personality. Some are small and sweet, others bigger and evil-looking with vibrant eyes that are constantly watching their surroundings. There are owls that seem sleepy and owls that seem more alert, owls that barely move and others with heads constantly bobbing.
I’ve been told you can pat them but I’m hesitant. Apart from their sharp beaks, I’m worried the birds might not like it, but I follow the lead of the Japanese people in the room. So I approach one of the smaller owls and gingerly brush my fingers on the top of its head. It’s soft. Really soft. The owl just looks at me but doesn’t seem bothered by the attention. It starts to turn its head towards me and I quickly jerk my hand away in fear. I forgot I wasn’t supposed to make sudden movements.
Some of the Japanese people in the room have jumped straight in and now have owls on their arms. The workers – dressed in waistcoats and hats – take the birds off their perches and put them lightly near the customers’ wrists. A small rope stops them flying off if they are in the mood for flight, which most don’t seem to be.
It goes like this for an hour – patting, holding, looking. I don’t do much holding because I am still a bit nervous but I enjoy the looking and the occasional pat. I can’t tell whether the whole experience is supposed to be a novelty or whether it’s the kind of thing that people come back for repeatedly, which was the sense I got with the cat cafe.
The owners of the Owl Cafe say it’s about relaxation. In a world where people can get easily stressed and have busy hectic lives, this is supposed to be a bit of an escape. “We think owls can heal our tired hearts like a therapy,” they say.
The whole room is designed around this philosophy with soft lighting, drapes on the walls and mood music softly playing in the background. It’s certainly a more mellow environment than outside in Akihabara where neon, blaring sounds and bustling crowds fill the streets.
So it’s about “healing entertainment” apparently and I can see that to a certain degree. For the humans, at least. I do wonder, though, whether it’s fair on the owls. When I ask about that, I’m told that all the birds are raised from birth and are treated like pets. Maybe they would prefer to be out flying free or maybe they’re happy with this life. In many ways, it’s no different to keeping a dog, a cat or a budgie as a pet.
Is that what Negi is thinking about as we stare at each other? Is he wondering why I’m here at all? I guess I may never know. I blink first and the staring competition is over. My hour is up and I leave the mellow dim room and the owls behind, back onto the Tokyo streets.
All the things you need to know
67 Kanda Neribeichō, Chiyoda-ku, Tōkyō-to, 101-0022, Japan.
The owl cafe is on the ground floor in a small quiet street. You'll recognise it because it will have some photos of the owls on the window outside.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.