TOKYO: In the U.S., hanging out in a cafe with animals is such an exotic concept that people can't get enough of it. A pop-up cat cafe in New York last year had lines down the block. Online reservations for another Manhattan cat cafe are almost fully booked more than two months ahead.
But in Japan, cat cafes are just the start. You can hang out in rabbit cafes or have coffee in Tokyo with two goats. And you're not limited to domestic animals. You can also spend an hour at a cafe holding a great horned owl.
Judging by how complicated it was to get a reservation at Tokyo's Fukuro no Mise ("Shop of Owls,"), the owl cafes there are just as much of a hoot there as cat cafes are here.
To get a spot, visitors are supposed to line up an hour before Fukuro no Mise opens. But when I showed up an hour early, I was lucky to get the last seat for a session two hours later. There are no refunds on the 2000 yen ($17) fee. If you're late, you lose your slot.
Inside, I was given a list of detailed English instructions. For example, only touch the owls on the head or back. And while the owls are very tame, "they can't be potty trained like dogs. So please be generous when they potty on you!" The woman in charge also gave a long talk and demonstration in Japanese before allowing each guest to hold a bird.
The owls come in various sizes and species, from tiny to quite large, including a great horned owl with large sharp claws and impressive beak. Each bird has a tether around one foot, which you hold in your hand as they perch on your arm. Sleek and clear-eyed, the owls seem calm despite the fact that the small room is crowded.
The attentive staff will place the owl on your shoulder or head if you like (I declined in light of the warning about the lack of potty-training). Staff can also help if your owl starts to flap. Raising your hand in the air usually settles them down, but apparently I was holding my arm wrong, so a worker repositioned it. If you've had enough and want to just watch everyone else's owls, they'll relieve you of the bird.
Photography is forbidden in some of the oddest places in Japan, but this isn't one of them. No flash is allowed (and no video) but posting a shot of yourself on social media holding an owl is clearly a goal for many visitors.
Unlike some other animal cafes in Japan, this place is only nominally a cafe. There's no food but a small drinkis included (alcohol costs extra). The drink arrives covered in plastic wrap, decorated with a magic marker illustration of an owl. But no one pays attention to their beverage until the final activity, which involves distributing souvenirs. Each item is held up and guests raise their hand if they want it. If too many people raise hands, winners are chosen by playing rock-paper-scissors, which seems to be the same in Japan as it is in the U.S. Souvenirs included a photo book, cell phone charms, chopsticks and a cloth decorated with owls.
If owls aren't enough to satisfy your longing to commune with birds of prey, there's also a Falconers Cafe in Mitaka, the same area of Tokyo as the Ghibli Museum. When it's not busy, the only birds there will be the owner's, four Harris hawks and a peregrine falcon that can't be petted, only watched. But hawk owners also come to the shop with their birds, and some may allow you to touch them. This one's a proper cafe, with dishes on an English menu named after raptors, including Harris Curry and Eagle Ginger pork.
There are other owl cafes in Japan. All have different hours and procedures, so it's best to have a Japanese speaker help navigate websites and make calls. Fukuro no Mise also had limited and somewhat erratic hours, so you'll want to check its website — also in Japanese — for current information:http://profile.ameba.jp/fukurounomise/ .
And while the cafe is off the beaten tourist path, it's easy to find from exit 10 of Tokyo Metro Tsukishima Station - just cross and head up the street lined with oddly pruned trees and you'll see its storefront on the right, covered with posters in Japanese and English explaining the reservation system. Once you have your reservation, if there's time, you can head up to the next cross street and stroll an old shopping street with lots of monjayaki restaurants. Monja is the Tokyo version of okonomiyaki, the meat, seafood and vegetable pancake that's cooked on a griddle on your table.
The cafe suggests English speakers come on Fridays when they have English-speaking staff, but I had no difficulty on a different day.