At the moment, Tokyo’s hottest owl café is Akiba Fukurou, located on a side street off the city’s buzzing Akihabara District, famous worldwide as the center of Japanese otaku — or super-geek — culture. A mandatory email reservation system curbs the lines of owl enthusiasts that might otherwise stand outside, and although booking an available time can require as much tenacity as a prime-time SoulCycle appointment, successfully securing a spot means one full hour of unbridled, up-close-and-personal time with actual owls for the mere price of 1,500 yen, or about $13. Which is exactly what I did during a recent trip to Japan.
While America has only recently caught on to the fascination with cat cafés and dog cafés, Japan is way out on the animal-café-trend curve. Born from the impracticalities of pet ownership in Tokyo’s tiny apartments, the city’s first animal cafés sprung up as a way to replicate the simple joy of having a cat or dog to play with. But like any appealingly eccentric idea, the concept was reproduced so many times over that the novelty began to wane. Owls, however, have reignited the craze. That’s because, in addition to being adorable, and very much playing to Japan’s kawaii — cuteness — culture, the birds are also a symbol of good fortune. The Japanese word for owl is fukurou; fuku translates to “luck.”
Inside, Akiba Fukurou feels a bit like the set of a Celine Dion music video: lots of gossamer white drapes and sconces that wouldn’t be out of place in Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. After checking in at the front door, guests stow their personal items and scrub their hands ER-style with an industrial-size Purell pump. Passing into the main area makes clear another evolution that owl cafés have over older animal hangouts: They’ve done away almost entirely with the actual “café” portion.
Instead of, for example, the apple tarts, brownies, and macarons served at Manhattan’s Meow Parlour, the only option at Akiba Fukurou is bottled water, though a clerk does offer a thorough choice of different labels (as if someone could discern the faintest difference between Vittel or Volvic). Really, the water buffet, a byproduct of Japan’s newly streamlined approach to animal hangouts, seems merely vestigial. Although a clear lack of food or drink is woefully misleading for a place that calls itself a café, nobody seemed to care that they couldn’t buy a cappuccino or a fancy scone. They were here for the owls.
With Evian in tow, guests are graciously instructed to take a seat at one of the shop’s tables before a soothing voice hums over a nearby speaker offers a brief tutorial on owl handling. The main thing to keep in mind is that while cuddling may be tempting, it’s best to hold the birds at arm’s length. The second most noteworthy fact is that owls will shrink into an adorable ball if they feel provoked, which is tempting because who wouldn’t want to play with a real-life owl Furby?
The owls themselves are in all forms of sizes and colors, and are gently tethered to several different perches around the room, with their names written on plaques behind them. The earnestness of the names — Mr. Yamashita, for example — only makes the experience feel that much more bizarre.
Once the actual petting starts, though, and everyone realizes owl feathers are as soft as an angel’s pillow, the designer water goes largely untouched. Instead, a resident photographer navigates the room, snapping away. Turns out it is surprisingly difficult to take a selfie while also holding one of these magical birds.
A five-minute warning lets guests know it’s time to get in one last cuddle before time is called and another round of mandatory hand-sanitizing occurs. Even without the option to buy food, or coffee, or anything else beyond the water (which was included in the price of admission), there is one item available to take away: The souvenir photo snapped by the in-house photographer, the perfect laminated keepsake from the strangest, most adorable hour of your life.