In modern Western culture, owls have a reputation for wisdom. Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, took the owl as her personal symbol. In the original Clash of the Titans, when Perseus needed a companion, her owl Bubo (or at least the steampunk robot version of him) was sent to be his advisor. Out of the many downfalls of the remake (and there were many), the most egregious was that they dissed the original Bubo.
But it doesn’t stop there. Mensa, the international high I.Q. society, uses the owl as their unofficial symbol; it is sometimes used to mark the location of their meetings to newcomers. Owl, the blowhard counterpart to Winnie the Pooh, provides the services of a straight-man in E.E. Milne’s classic stories. In the comics, Batman himself battled the fiendish Court of Owls at the beginning of the New 52, and they nearly brought down the Caped Crusader. And there was (the second) Owlman, who stole the girlfriend of a god in the Watchmen comics (we do not speak of the movie around here).
But what of the actual animal itself? Have you ever held one? Have you ever seen one up close? Ever had one steal a lollipop from you under the guise of some scientific experiment to find out how many licks it takes to get to the center? Well here’s your chance!
Fukuro no Mise is one of the best-known animal cafés in Tokyo. It is also difficult to get into. You cannot call ahead or make an appointment online. You can only show up early and hope that you can get in one of the waiting list slots. Only ten people are admitted into the café each hour.
I arrived one hour and fifteen minutes before the opening, and line was already long. Forty-five minutes prior to opening, the staff began accepting reservations. I was able to get in the second group, so I only had an hour to wait. I had to pay immediately (2000 yen per person) and the lady put my name down on the wait list. She asked me if I was sure–if I didn’t come at least fifteen minutes after the appointed time, I would lose my spot, and there are no refunds. I confirmed that I would return, so she told me to come back five minutes prior to my scheduled appointment.
But Once Inside…
The first thing I saw when I went inside was the semi-circle of larger owls. Owls, like cats, seem to regard humans with poorly-disguised contempt. I understood why visiting was limited once I was inside. The entire café is very small, and is dimly lit for the comfort of its feathered residents. As expected, it is decorated in owl motifs–pillows, lamps, and the pictures adorning the wall were all things Strigiforme. Even the TV was playing Harry Potter.
The drink counter is in the back, where I was invited to sit. Perpendicular to the counter was another row of owls, all much smaller than the ones at the door. A small Spectacled Owl named Dave started mean-mugging me as soon as I got close. I was the last person to come inside for this group, and the only available seating was next to him. His head bobbed and swiveled as I passed. His chest puffed out, and his little white mustache bristled. He was adorable!
Besides Dave, the owls were disinterested in my arrival. The hand-sized burrowing owl right next to my seat woke up long enough to watch me sit down before nodding off again.
Drinks are included with the cover charge, unless you want something a little stronger (beer and wine are available for another 200 yen). But why would you? That’s not what you’re here for.
An Owl-Handling Tutorial
The first ten minutes of the visit consists of a handling tutorial. The spoken instructions are in Japanese, and there is a sheet written in English for tourists. The rules are easy; allow the staff to help you pick up and put down owls, touch them on the head and back only, and make sure the flash is off on your camera (and no videos, please). Also, there are a few residents who should not be touched.
The day I went, one owl was taking the day off and another was cranky because he was on a diet (“eats like a bird” apparently didn’t apply to that guy). Another no-toucher is Amachan, a blind spectacled owl who lives by the door and becomes frightened if people touch her. Please respect the birds and do not touch them if they have been placed off-limits.
After the tutorial, it’s owl-time! Three staff members circulated through our small group, putting owls on people’s outstretched arms. As birds, none are particularly heavy, not even the larger ones. I held several owls, and their talon grip on my hand was not strong, as one might expect. Even the large horned owl I held was like holding any other bird on your finger. The one possible exception might be the barn owl. I did not hold him, but the people I saw who did wore a thick glove.
Making Owl Friends
At the front of the café, staff members helped patrons hold the larger owls in a falconer’s pose, or you can opt to have one put on your shoulder or head. I passed on the chance to have an owl crap in my hair (“owls cannot be toilet-trained,” said the note card). The staff was also better able to attract an owl’s attention for pictures, given their propensity for turning their head the other way as soon as a camera came out.
About ten minutes prior to the end of the hour, we were invited to sit back down. The staff passed out gifts (also included in the price of admission), after which they thanked us and sent us on our way. There were other items for sale (jewelry and such), so ask a staff member if something catches your eye.
Given Japan’s “casual” attitude towards animal welfare (people here still buy dogs and cats from pet stores and “puppy mills”), questions as to the owls’ welfare dominate online discussion.
As far as I could tell (given an hour to observe), none of the owls were being mistreated. Yes, they are lashed into place with a little bit of room to move, but it was no different from the way you would tie up a dog or put a bird in a cage. Mention was given to flight training (the reason the one owl was on a diet, according to its card), but that occurred elsewhere–the café was definitely too small for an owl to get very far. I love animals too, and I would certainly object if I saw evidence of one being mistreated, but I also understand the realities of domesticated animals. In my opinion, the owls looked clean and well-cared for.
Other Helpful Tips
My group consisted entirely of adults. Fukuro No Mise does not allow children under the age of two, but it would probably be better not to take children under age ten here. Some children are obviously more sensitive than others, but I know more than a few kids who consider WHACK-WHACK-WHACK as an ok way to “pet” a dog. We don’t want to hurt our feathered friends, do we?
Fukuro No Mise has an English speaker on Fridays (a Hawaiian, given the number of times I saw “Mahalo” on the written materials), but the staff that was on duty while I was there were able to understand and speak English. There are also many signs in both Japanese and English, which was very helpful.
Fukuro no Mise is a great place, but it might be a bit difficult to get to for visitors. Luckily, Harajuku also has an owl cafe. Let Voyagin help you book your reservation at the Lovely Owl Cafe!
Owl Cafe Fukuro no Mise Tsukishima
Check out the Owl Cafe Fukuro no Mise Ameba Blog (via Google Translate)
Nearest Station: 6-minute walk from Tsukishima Station exit 10 (click on the Google Map for walking directions)
Hours of Operation: Wednesday and Thursday 2 p.m. – 6 p.m., Fridays 2 p.m. – 9 p.m., Saturdays 12 p.m. – 9 p.m., Sundays 12 p.m. – 6 p.m.. Arrive early to get a slot!
Price: 2000 yen per person