Tokyo, Japan: Meet me at the Owl Cafe.
There is never a shortage of eccentricity, kawaii, and the unexpected in Japan.
One day, I took a train to visit the Koenji area of Tokyo.
I came across an Owl Cafe.
I heard about these trendy animal cafes featuring cats, dogs, and rabbits.
But Owls? That to me was unexpected (but then again, this is Japan, so it’s normal right?)
Out of curiosity I decided to go in and take a look.
A Strange Encounter.
The noise made by the antique bell knocker made one the creatures jump, flapped it’s wings, and gave me a solid fierce gaze. I soon realised there were three other huge Owls, looking at me with their curious and powerful round eyes. One of them gave me a slow but careful head-to-toe look.
‘Ohayo!,’ I proudly greeted the cafe owner utilising my limited Nihongo vocabulary. He gave a nod, and motioned me to take a seat.
The owner was a bit direct. Not the cheerful type. He reminded me of a retired military man who still carries that soldierly posture and demeanour post-army life. Although with his long silver hair in a ponytail, and impeccably groomed beard – he could also pass as a hippie x mad circus ring master. Overall, I quite like his look.
He proceeded to hand me the menu. The Owl imprinted cookies looked too cute for me to say No.
As I sat there, sipping my coffee, slowly munching on my “Owl” cookies (which were actually quite delicious), I started wandering my gaze around the room. There were at least seven or eight Owls in total. Some had thin ropes tied around their legs. Others were left to walk, run, and even fly around freely. One Owl strangely reminded me of an excited dog, roaming around, meeting and smelling the cafe customers.
Next minute, I heard a soft but speedy fluttering of wings as one Owl flew from one corner to the other. A little Japanese girl about 6 years old, clapped and leaped out of her chair in excitement as she pointed the bird to her dad, asking if she could touch it. The Dad smiled, but shook his head. Disappointed, the girl settled back in her chair and resumed drinking her milkshake, quietly watching the jovial Owl.
Flashback! My pet owl Bobo.
Then I remembered, I actually have my own personal memories with an owl as a child.
When I was about 6 or 7 years old, my dad bought an owl from a local farmer in our hometown.
My family kept it as a pet whom I got to name Bobo. At first I find the bird cute, fluffy, and gentle-looking. How can one not keep it as a beloved domestic pet?
Until I saw how it fed on its prey.
My dad encouraged the neighbours to hand in rodents or chicks (oh those poor, poor ‘lil baby chickens) as food for Bobo. Sounds gruesome, but the bird had to be fed proper food or it would cease to live.
Meal times for these cute little monsters are a sight to behold. That is, if you appreciate nature’s food chain in action- live, right in front of you.
Every bit of cuteness and likability of the fluffy little thing transformed into a nightmarish, gruesome, carnivorous-eating monster.
As a proper bird of prey, it pecks its victim using its razor-edged beak. Then, its sharp talons grab the entrails and/or suffocates the prey before swallowing it whole.
The whole process takes only a few minutes – sometimes even seconds, depending how hungry it is.
A show quite traumatising for a 6-year-old me at the time.
So I know what owls are capable of doing. Despite their solemn, peaceful, and cutesy appearance I was hesitant to get near them in the cafe.
However, me being me, I felt I needed to have a few photos of the Owls as they would be my living accessories.
The owner quickly turned his attention to me with a stern look. He’s really a person you’d not want to mess with. I understand the firm boundaries he puts in as some customers can be quite rowdy. So I tried my best to act properly, proceeded with caution, and kept a bit of a distance between me and the winged creatures.
Anyway, I was hoping the pictures would turn out slightly similar to an early 1900’s bohemian café tableau. Notorious eccentrics of the time like The Marchesa Casati would be amused by my efforts.
One of the owls started giving me a suggestive, mean look (that- ‘I’m warning you. My bite will hurt’, kinda look), with a skillful, slow-mo, one-eye wink. I took the hint, put the camera down, and stopped taking pictures.
Owl you alright?
I left the café ruminating on a few ethical questions.
Is it fair for these Owls to be contained in a coffee shop, surrounded quite closely by people and noise, working nine to five? As nocturnal creatures, wouldn’t such an environment messes up with their physiological functioning?
I wonder if going to an Animal Cafe was just as bad as going to Sea World watching mistreated dolphins doing acrobatic stunts.
Animal rights activists condemn Animal Cafes. They argue that these establishments are an unnatural habitats for the animals, subjecting the latter to enormous amounts of stress leading to fatalities in the end. Cats, as most of us know, need a certain amount of alone/nap time, and that these cat-naps are vital for their health and overall well-being.
However in a Cat Cafe they have no choice but to be awake and work to entertain their feline-loving customers.
I’m confident that there are strict regulations that café owners adhere to in Japan.
The Owls in this particular cafe appeared relatively comfortable. The owner seemed responsible both for the welfare of the birds and the patrons. He didn’t generally allow anyone to pet or even get near the Owls. I say generally, as seeing some pictures, petting or perching the owls on your shoulder would probably cost a fee? The owls roamed around the café quite freely, fed good quality food, and looked clean and healthy. Albeit major physiological concerns pointed above are still open for discussion.
My worry remains that if this kind of trade becomes popular in countries where there are no established laws and regulations for animal welfare – these creatures become highly susceptible to maltreatment.
So, would I go to another animal café again?
I’ll probably go to an Animal shelter; pet the animals (if safe and allowed), and donate instead.
x War Julian x
Hat with metal chain fringe and tassel from Fish Born Chips, (Koenji, Japan); 2-Pearl Minimalist Necklace I designed and made by HATHI (The Rocks, Sydney, Australia); Long Shirt from BEAMS (Japan); Skinny Jeans from Spunky Bruisers and Soto Smith (Sydney, Australia); Watch by Karl Lagerfeld;