TOKYO: Animal-themed cafes are no longer strangers to Japan’s capital, with cat and dog cafes having sprouted up all over the megacity to offer unique dining experiences to locals and tourists alike.
As the rest of the world plays catch up to the trend of furry friend cafes, Tokyo, in its constant pursuit of the avant-garde, has since rushed full steam ahead and taken things to the next level – cafes with unconventional critters.
We scoured the city for three such cafes that, although strange and unusual, are fast becoming the masses’ cup of tea despite their less cuddly creature features.
We’ve all heard of snakes on a plane but snakes on your table while you sip tea?
Opened in 2016, Tokyo’s first permanent snake café is home to 35 non-venomous snake “attendants” that all live in their own plastic tanks. Housed in a nondescript high-rise building off the buzzing thoroughfares of the Harajuku district, the tiny cafe with a myriad of snake motifs – including pipes draped in snakeskin wallpaper – welcomes walk-in patrons.
Upon arrival, customers are encouraged to choose, from a wall of boxed-up colourful snakes, their scaly favourite and cart them over to their tables to admire over cakes and drinks.
The tanks that house the small snakes are labelled with the snake’s name, sex, and species, but human attendants are at hand to explain more about their serpentile attractions if you are curious. The English-speaking staff also supervise the feeding and care of the reptiles in the eatery.
The café, which has welcomed 40,000 customers to date, charges an entry fee of ¥1000 (S$12.50) and includes a drink. For an additional ¥540 (S$6.75), patrons can also choose to pet two of the eight larger snakes that make their homes at the back of the café.
Many people were spotted wearing nervous looks when staff handed them the substantial snakes, but the inquisitive natures of the gentle creatures became charming after a while.
Compared to the encased snakes, the larger creatures are much also more active: Sepia, a feisty seven-year-old California kingsnake attempted to crawl up our sleeves countless times when we interacted with him.
Fun fact: The staff make sure to place towels on your lap before you handle the snakes in case they pee.
2. The otterly fun cafe
Initially only meant to be a cafe for hedgehogs, the Harajuku café which sits on a breezy terrace, expanded in 2017 to include otters, chinchillas, rabbits and squirrels and became the only coffee shop in Tokyo to feature them. And while the shop is styled as a cafe, in true Japanese fashion, the beverages served here are of the vending machine variety.
Decked out from top to bottom in wood accents, the cosy store has designated areas for each of the animals and their visitors to hang out in. In one corner of the café, chinchillas scamper around on ledges and cautiously grab treats with their tiny hands from patrons. Some of these bushy-tailed critters enjoy snuggling with their human friends, but some are a tad flighty.
In another corner of the café, prickly hedgehogs lumber around in large troughs waiting to be picked up by gloved hands to face a camera for a selfie. These prickly potatoes are extremely friendly and rarely raise their soft quills, instead preferring to curl up in the warmth of your palm or nibble on mealworms when not napping the day away.
Right next to the troughs is a large glass case of hyperactive squirrels that, when not running at top speed in their wheel, stand as though in a trance and stare into space. The furry critters are more than happy to snap out of their reveries to accept a treat from you though.
The stars of the show, however, are Harrys’ three otters that always manage to earn coos from everyone. Housed in an open-topped glass tank outside the café, the playful otters frolic about their pen and enjoy squealing whenever visitors appear.
Often only seen in the wild, it is slightly bizarre to see the trio of otters revel in human attention and interaction: they gamely reach for toys and food through small holes in the tank and playfully follow customers around the tank if treats are dangled.
For ¥1500 (S$18.75), customers get to spend half an hour with the animals and pet them. An extra ¥740 (S$9.25) buys customers treats that they can feed to their furry friends.
3. Have a hoot at this café
The Owl Village Harajuku is yet another café hell-bent on creating unique dining experiences with animals one usually doesn’t get to encounter. Home to eight owls, the kitsch café and bar is – naturally – embellished with everything owl-inspired: from owl-shaped cups to beers branded by owl mascots to fluffy owl plushies.
Tucked away in an unassuming building off the busier roads, it’s easy to miss the owl haven save for a small poster of six owls peering at passers-by with their luminous eyes.
The actual owls hang out in a soundproof room separate from the dining area, and the glass panels that partition the rooms allow visitors to admire the birds while sipping on their drinks. When Channel NewsAsia visited the café, the owls were enjoying some down time after interacting with a previous group.
Following an amusing owl-handling video of human actors in owl costumes and spritzes of hand sanitiser, a small group of patrons is allowed to cross the threshold into the quiet room of the nocturnal birds
For ¥1500 (S$18.75), customers get to spend 30 minutes interacting with the tethered barn owls, Eurasian eagle owls, great horned owl, white-faced scops owl, elf owl and mottled owl. All the owls also have description cards behind them to educate onlookers of what to look out for. For example, the card for the elf owl – Ohagi – requested for patrons to show their hands to the owl first before petting him.
Other than taking selfies with the predatory creatures or getting into a staring contest with a set of baleful eyes, for an additional ¥500 (S$6.25), raw chicken livers are handed to the visitors to feed the owls. Customers also have the option of donning raptor gloves and letting owls fly from their perch to your arm.
While nothing sounds better than experiencing snuggling up to strange critters while enjoying a cuppa, some visitors at these extreme-dining venues left with a bad taste in their mouths.
“If they had a voice, I’m sure they would tell us to let them be free,” grimaced Joel Nai, as he gestured to the confined otters and squirrels at Harry’s cafe.
The 25-year-old public relations specialist hailing from Malaysia acknowledged that the animals looked healthy but questioned the issue of keeping animals that “loved roaming far and wide” in confined places.
“Perhaps the cafe lets them run around when they close for the day. And for all we know, these animals could have been bred in captivity. Releasing them back in the wild would probably endanger them,” he reasoned.
At the owl cafe, Gilbert Mok felt that the room was too small for creatures that enjoyed long flights.
“This is our second animal café and we’ve visited other cafes like the robot and maid cafes before – and I think I prefer the non-animal cafes better,” said the tourist from Hong Kong.
“I just feel strange seeing wild animals domesticated.”
But for others, the chance to get up close and personal with these strange creatures is once in a lifetime.
“How many times in my life am I going to get to come across a Brazil Rainbow boa?” exclaimed Dana Talbot at the Tokyo Snake Center.
“This is such a cool concept and I’m so glad I came despite my slight fear of snakes. The cafe’s setting just eliminates that fear and the snakes are actually so cute,” gushed the 43-year-old Frenchwoman.
In the same vein, for American holidaymakers Valeria Rowe and Shane Hall, the opportunity to interact with animals one doesn’t usually get to see daily is “fascinating”.
“Owls are nocturnal animals so there’s not much chance of seeing one of them up close — especially if you live in the city. It was surreal seeing and touching so many of them,” said Shane.
“We learned a lot about owls today too, so it was an educational experience as well,” added Valeria.