Yeah, we get it. On your social media feed, you’ve seen pictures of people petting cute owls and now you want one too. Over the last few years, owl cafés have mushroomed all over Tokyo. And while it might be a unique opportunity to get your picture taken with an owl or other bird and pet their fluffy body, it isn’t the greatest idea from an animal welfare point of view.
Recent research has shown that birds are far more sentient than we used to assume—and anyone with half a heart will probably already have guessed this. Did you know that pigeons can distinguish between male and female humans? I certainly can’t tell one pigeon gender from the other—and admittedly, these birds don’t exactly rank as the Einsteins of the avians. So one can imagine that a bird of prey with a sharp mind will need a lot of stimulation to be kept happy.
What’s wrong with owl cafés?
Tokyo’s owl cafés—often nothing more than a small, dingy room fitted with perches and newspaper spread underneath for the droppings—certainly can’t provide that kind of stimulation. Once you see behind the scenes of the cool pic someone took for the ‘gram, it doesn’t seem so appealing anymore. The term “café” is usually also a euphemism: in most cases, there will be a small fridge or a tea and coffee maker in the corner for you to select a drink from before you hang out with the birds. They can often be seen flapping around or picking at their leg as they try to free themselves from the leash that ties them to the perch. Not cool.
Alternatives to owl cafés in Tokyo
If you still want to see or interact with owls or other cute animals while in Tokyo, here are five suggestions for you that will keep both you and the birds happier (we hope).
Fuji Kachoen Flower & Owl Park
The park houses an astonishing variety of owls in enclosures that provide much more space than would be possible in the city. There’s a raptor show three times a day, at 10:30am, 1pm and 3pm, so time your visit around these slots. After the bird show, you can take a souvenir photo for ¥300 with one of the owls and also pet them. As the birds are not constantly exposed to this, but just for a short time every day, it’s a lot more bird-friendly.
When we were exploring the outdoor enclosures around closing time, we also saw staff flying the eagle owls outside, which was reassuring regarding their welfare.
As the park is located at the bottom of Mt. Fuji, you can combine it with a trip to the Fuji Five Lakes area. The journey from Shinjuku Station to Lake Kawaguchi (Kawaguchiko Station) takes around two hours, and several buses and trains leave every hour.
Access: To get to the park, take the Fujikyu tourist bus that circles Mt. Fuji and get off at the “Fujioka Iriguchi” or “Michi no Eki Asagiri Kougen” stop. From there, it is a 10-minute walk.
Hours: Winter period (December 1–March 31) 9am–4:30pm; summer period (April 1–November 30) 9am–5pm.
Entry: ¥1,100 for adults.
Tama Zoological Park
This zoo on the outskirts of Tokyo is huge! 52 hectares compared to Ueno Zoo’s 14 allow for generous enclosures that let the animals move around freely in a (more) natural environment. All the points for an ethical zoo visit right there.
If you’re a fan of birds of prey, check out the Raptor Dome, a large enclosure where different species of eagles can be seen soaring freely. Tama Zoo also houses Eurasian eagle owls and the elegant red-crowned crane—one of Japan’s national animals. While you can’t interact with the birds, you get to see them up-close in a very natural setting.
Access: Directly in front of Tamadobutsu-Koen Station on the Tama Monorail or Keio-Dobutsuen Line, about 45 minutes from Shinjuku. See what else there is to do in Tama.
Hours: 9am–5pm. Closed on Wednesday, or Thursday if Wednesday is a holiday, and December 29 to January 1.
Entry: ¥600 for adults.
Inokashira Park Zoo
May we divert your attention to another small animal perched on tree branches? This easily overlooked zoo in the beautiful Inokashira Park (close to the world-famous Ghibli Museum) has the most wonderful squirrel enclosure we have ever seen: it is one where you get to go inside!
The squirrel forest is the latest addition to this small zoo that mainly houses Japanese wildlife. The large enclosure makes you feel a little bit like you’re entering Little Red Riding Hood’s forest, and as you walk on the narrow path you’ll discover squirrels hopping from branch to branch left and right. While you can’t touch them, you get to see them play happily right in front of you. And for those who can’t do without touching an animal, there’s a petting zoo with guinea pigs in the park as well, which you can enter at no extra charge. The staff will put one of the animals on your lap for you to pet while the others freely run around the enclosure.
Access: 10-minute walk from Kichijoji Station’s Park (south) Exit.
Hours: Tue–Sun 9:30am–5pm. Closed on Monday, or Tuesday if Monday is a holiday, and December 29 to January 1.
Entry: ¥400 for adults.
If you really can’t let go of the idea of getting a pic with a bird for the ‘gram, your best bet (and definitely the birds’ best bet) would probably be Kotori Cafè—meaning “small bird cafè” in Japanese. Located in Ueno, the cafè has small birds in a large enclosure, where they go about their thing all day and fly around (semi) freely.
You can have cute—and definitely insta-worthy—bird-inspired cakes in the cafè space right next to your feathered friends. For the hands-on experience, you can pay extra and step into the enclosure for a picture with a parrot, finch or budgie on your shoulder.
Access: 8-minute walk from Nezu Station (explore Nezu) on the Chiyoda Line, or 15 minutes walk from Ueno Station.
Hours: 11am–7pm every day (with irregular closing days announced on the website).
Entry: Cakes start from ¥600; ¥1,000 for a cake and tea/coffee set.
Tokyo Sea Life Park
Another option for a hands-on animal experience is Tokyo’s big aquarium located in Kasai Rinkai Park. Here, you can pet small sharks and rays, as well as some invertebrates. The sharks are horn sharks, which are bottom-dwelling and docile in character. In other words, their very nature is to be quite sedentary, and they do not require as much space as a very active raptor like an owl would, making the whole experience more acceptable from an animal welfare point of view.
Tokyo Sea Life Park gets bonus points for educating people on sharks, and spreading the word that they aren’t blood-thirsty monsters. The experience is only open a few times a day, so they get rest and peace in between, and staff supervise visitors the whole time, ensuring no one is man-handling the fish. When you get to the aquarium, just ask the staff for the daily schedule to find out when you can pet the sharkies and rays.
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Kasai Rinkai Koen Station.
Hours: Open 9:30am-5pm (tickets sold until 4pm), closed every Wednesday (closed Thursday if Wednesday is a holiday). The aquarium closes from December 29 through January 1.
Entry: ¥700 for adults. Children up to 12 years old are free. See free admission days.
Have you visited one of the places above and found that something has changed, for better or worse? Then please tell us in our community forum. And for more ideas, see our full guide to cruelty-free ways to see animals in Japan.
While we do our best to ensure everything is correct, information is subject to change.