To celebrate the Year of the Snake, why not cuddle with one while you wait for a plate of hot, fragrant curry? At Café Little Zoo (little-zoo.jp) in Narashino, a suburb in Chiba Prefecture outside Tokyo, you can do just that. Or, if you prefer, you can hold a number of different snakes, like the café's resident ball python or cozy up with an iguana. Not into snuggling with reptiles during meals? No problem. Watch a turtle enjoy its own lunch, or pet falcons and a variety of owls. And don't worry about getting your hands dirty: each table at Café Little Zoo has a dispenser that squirts alcohol-based cleanser so you can wash up, nosh, and go back to petting pets.
Sound strange? Not if you live in Tokyo. Trendy 'cat cafés' started cropping up within the past decade around this bustling yet immaculate city of 13 million have paved the way for other types of animal cafés, ranging from domestic critters and livestock to wild birds and the exotic. Tokyo is now home to more than three dozen cat cafés with several other cafés featuring snakes, turtles, goats, geckos, dogs, birds and bunnies.
The idea behind animal cafés is what's commonly known as 'pet therapy.' Many apartment buildings forbid pets and 'pastoral' is not a word anyone would use to describe modern Tokyo - renting time with animals while enjoying a snack and a cup of tea provides novelty, relaxing companionship, and helps minimize the stresses of urban life. Bonding with animals is also thought to have emotional and physical health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, depression and lowering blood pressure. Some Japanese converts report pet cafés help them cope with shyness and feelings of isolation.
A new kind of pet therapy
Open since 2011, Café Little Zoo continues to attract mostly locals along with a handful of tourists who seek to bond with animals typically kept behind glass.
On one visit to Café Little Zoo for lunch, the man at the next table patiently allowed a skinny white snake to curl through his jacket sleeve as he sipped tea with his other arm. Another woman watched a red snake circle up her arm like a bracelet. The café owners and service staff readily offer diners multiple chances to hold the snakes, bringing them to your table if you haven't already approached the snake terrariums lining the shelves alongside empty decorative beer bottles.
Café Little Zoo seats only about 20 people so you don't have to look far or go far within the restaurant to enjoy the animals. Outside there are falcons and owls on a front railing, including a stunning rock eagle-owl and a fluffy African milky eagle-owl, and the staff encourages visitors to interact them, showing little concern about orders up or customers losing patience. That's because at Café Little Zoo, the animals are the focus, not the food, and visitors are content to pet snakes and owls all afternoon. While not the main event, the food that comes out of the open galley kitchen not too far from the terrariums is good, and the restaurant itself looks like the rest of Tokyo: spotlessly clean.
The only goats in Downtown Tokyo
Not all animal cafés are as interactive as Café Little Zoo, and many others have rules and regulations visitors must follow for the well-being of the animals and the safety of the guests. Some cafés are simply restaurants with animals you can gawk at, which is the case with Sakuraoka Café where two goats named Chocolat and Sakura live. Currently the only goat café in Tokyo, Sakuraoka Café is about five minutes from the JR Shibuya Station in a very heavily trafficked part of the city.
The Japanese might be reserved, but Chocolat and Sakura are not — these goats eagerly interact with people, nibbling on a tasty-looking shoelace or nuzzling with strangers' hands while diners enjoy pasta, salads or rice with pork. Sakuraoka Café opened in 2009 with a bar, seats about 50, and is decked out with funky goat decor and Warhol-esque pictures of Mao Zedong.
The clientele are mostly young, hip-looking Japanese men and women wearing loud printed clothing, smoking cigarettes, talking over tea or typing silently on laptops and took little interest in the goats. Instead, the goats get nonstop attention from people walking along the street who reach through the goats' gate to pet them. The café is promoted as place to connect with nature, and in the spirit of loving nature, the goats droppings are used to fertilize the flowers beds.
Cats, coffee and calm
Japanese culture associates cats with good fortune, so it may come as no surprise that modern-day Japanese are willing to pay to hang out with cats.
Before even entering Hapineko Café (which translates to Happy Cat - www.hapineko.com) in the Shibuya district, visitors must read and agree to the rules (allow cats to approach you; no chasing cats for cuddles), leave shoes in a cubby, place belongings in a bag, and select from a menu - not just a menu of what you want to drink, but a menu of how much time you want spend with the cats. For about US$10 per person, you can enjoy 30 minutes of cat time. The price includes a cup of coffee, hot chocolate or tea. For a few extra yen, you can purchase a fox tail toy or other types of cat toys to dangle before some wide-eyed feline, or cat treats.
Once inside, it’s extremely interactive with cats freely pouncing around everywhere. Moms, dads, kids, men and couples relaxed on floor pillows, pink sofas and at tables cooing over cats prowling for treats, hiding in carpeted 'cat apartments' or curled up and tuning people out. Cat cafés are in several neighbourhoods, so it's easy to find one if you want to give it a try. Thirty minutes will fly by, and afterward you’ll emerge back outside into downtown Tokyo, humming with people and blazing with lights, feeling surprisingly rejuvenated. Could it be this rent-a-pet café culture is barking up the right tree?