Notes from Japan

Owls in the Ginza

Suzanne Kamata visits an ‘owl café’ in Tokyo

The last time I had found myself in Tokyo with some free time and the freedom to move about, I had tried to drop in at an owl café. However, after making my way to such an establishment on the heels of a couple of Chinese tourists, I discovered that a reservation was necessary. The place was booked weeks in advance.

A few weeks ago, I again had some business in Tokyo, so I contacted an old friend and suggested we do a bit of sightseeing together.

“What do you want to do?” she asked me.

I replied that I wanted to visit an owl café. She messaged back that she didn’t like birds.

We had lunch in a sushi restaurant that normally had a queue as early as seven a.m. Due to the coronavirus, we waltzed right in and had a leisurely lunch. After that, we went to a museum that normally required reservations, or at least a long wait. And since there had been so little time wasted standing in line, my friend agreed to take me to an owl café. She found one by using her phone and called the place up. Sure, we could visit, the owner said. No reservations were needed.

The Mofu Mofu Owl Café Ginza was down a side street in Tokyo’s tony shopping district, steps away from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel. As we climbed the three flights of narrow stairs, I wondered what it would be like inside. It would be dark, I imagined, because owls are nocturnal. But no, when we pushed open the door, we were met with light.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the place, and others like it, a café. Coffee is not served, nor is there cake or any other kind of food. There were no tables, no young women with aprons or maid costumes, just a guy wearing a T-shirt in a roomful of owls tethered to perches.

The owner seemed happy to see us. We were the only customers. He instructed us to disinfect our hands, and then showed us how to touch the owls – a gentle rub on the top of their heads, much in the way that my cat liked to be caressed. The owls were big and fluffy, like cats, and I wanted to hug them, but I figured they would probably try to bite me if I did.

My friend, the bird-hater, hung back while I went around looking at each owl. They were of various species from around the world. I wondered if they were bored, sitting on their perches all day, with nothing to do. Maybe our being there was their entertainment.

“They wouldn’t survive in the wild,” the owner said. “They have been raised from eggs by humans.”

He told us that they might live for thirty years in captivity, but only half that in nature. What was worse, I wondered? Thirty years of boredom, or fifteen years of being stressed out about their next meal, and where they would build a nest? Was keeping owls in this room any worse that keeping a parakeet in a cage? Or not allowing my restless cats to go outside, even when they meowed pleadingly at the door? (Actually, I sometimes did allow them to go out, knowing full well that they might be dodging cars, picking up fleas, and murdering songbirds and mice.)

The owner explained that before the pandemic, he’d operated two cafes – this one, and another in Roppongi — but due to the travel restrictions which prevented tourists from overseas from visiting, he’d had to close that one. All the owls were now gathered here. They’d been given names of nearby shops. Gucci was a Japanese Northern White-faced Owl, while the Little Owl from Belgium was named Bottega Veneta. There was also a Tawny Owl, born in 2016, named Tiffany.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of foreigners came here,” the owner said. Some famous people, too. He showed us a photo of the singer Akiko Yano, ex-wife of internationally renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, with one of the owls. Yano lives in New York City and had heard about the café while abroad. I looked around at the empty space. Apparently, Tokyoites didn’t have an urge to commune with owls. I worried about what would happen to them if the tourists weren’t welcomed back to Japan soon.

The owner let me pick out an owl and settled it on my hand. My friend finally got up the courage to stroke one of the owls between its eyes. The phone rang, and the owner went to answer it. I heard him booking another customer, and I felt a bit relieved. Apparently, this one would come at mealtime and watch the owls consume dead mice. That was probably an exciting part of the owls’ day.

Part of me thought that the birds might be happier in an atrium somewhere. But while they were here, I hoped they would be well looked after. I wanted to contribute as best as I could, so I loaded up on souvenirs – a pen encasing an owl feather, made by the owner’s wife; a handful of chopsticks with owl motifs; and a bottle of Hitachino Nest beer, which had an owl on the label. And I promised to post some photos on Instagram so that more tourists would come.

An owl in chains

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

Thanks to the columnist Suzanne Kamata for the photographs. 


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