Owl cafes are Tokyo's latest animal craze

Euan McKirdy, CNNUpdated 24th February 2017
(CNN) — Akihabara district in Tokyo is an "otaku" paradise -- best known as a mecca for the legions of self-styled nerds who love "manga" Japanese comics -- as well as electronics, video games and models of cartoon robots.
But down an unassuming side street, away from the flashing, neon glare of the main strip, is an altogether more soothing environment.
Akiba Fukurou is the brainchild of Shusaku Yasu, an early-thirties owl enthusiast who has brought a little alternative night life to the buzzing district.
In the owl cafe sit around 25 owls, of varying sizes and breeds, quietly eyeing the human guests as they step around the quiet room. It's not a big space -- around 400 square feet in total, but the owls, which sit on perches around the room. are well behaved and entrancing, and the quietude lends the whole setup a certain serenity.

Branching out

Akiba Fukurou is the latest in a line of animal cafes that are popping up around Tokyo -- and further afield -- of increasing degrees of exoticism. First were cat cafes (now passe), then rabbits (cute, but ultimately a little boring), and reptile cafes (creepy?) and, now, owls.
Marta Kaczan is a Polish customer and finance worker visiting Tokyo from London, where she lives. She tells CNN that the owl cafe wasn't primarily the reason why she made her trip, but she's made it her mission to fit in as many animal cafes -- including an earlier pit stop at a snake cafe -- as she can during her brief period in the Japanese capital.
It's not just the novelty that attracts people, however. Yasu says that he's had people come back "60, 70 times" to the space -- although sadly there's no record of an entranced customer uttering the immortal line: "Owl be back."
This might be to do with the setup. Unlike some of Tokyo's other owl cafes, customers are allowed quite a high degree of interaction with the Akiba owls. For a fee of ¥1500 ($12) patrons are invited to pick an owl and sit at one of the small tables with it, stroking their impossibly soft feathers and cooing.

Word to the wise: Bring your own coffee

Sessions with the owls last about an hour, and at the end of it Yasu or his assistant with take a photo of you with your new feathered companion.
Contrary to its name, however, the 'cafe' element of the experience is significantly lacking. There is bottled water, but clearly the clientele is more invested in the owls than the prospect of a latte.
Thankfully, the owls' refreshments are also separated from the meeting experience, as Yasu says they get by on a diet of pink, frozen mice.

Diverse group

Confronted with the range of breeds in Yasu's flock, its clear how diverse the owl kingdom really is. There's Shrimp, a pygmy owl who is new to the gang, and a little nervous, eeking as customers approach.
Because he's just learning the ropes, this six-gram (0.2 oz) mite is spared the regular rounds of picking up, posing with photos and petting.
Others include the mesmerizing Charles Xavier, a black banded owl whose coal black eyes peer into your very soul. And then there's Snowman, Kabuki and Mr. Satoshi; Sweet Potato and Gorilla.
Naming them is a very personal thing, says Yasu.
"It's all about feeling," he says. "You don't really get to know the owls when you see pictures or read information about them.
"But when you get face-to-face you say, 'Oh, he should be called 'Okura,'' for example."

Ethical for animal lovers?

It's tempting to feel a pang of sadness for them -- little lines of owl captives -- but in reality they don't look like they give two hoots about their situation.
He gets them from a breeder friend of his, Yasu says, and they're a mix of native and imported species, largely from Europe.
"They're imprinted on humans as soon as they hatch," Yabe tells us. "Humans are the first thing they see so they grow up used to us."
At night, he takes them all home, for mouse dinners and bedtime. Although how much sleep he gets, in a Tokyo apartment full of nocturnal birds, is anyone's guess.
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