What Big Eyes You Have

The owls of Tokyo’s Pakuchi Bar give good stare-down.

In Tokyo, you can sit down with the animal of your choice—whether you prefer cats, dogs, rabbits, or snakes—for a quick coffee and a nuzzle at a specialized animal café. There are also at least eight owl cafés in the city. When photographer James Mollison visited Pakuchi Bar 8889, in the Takadanobaba neighborhood, last March, he encountered owls of various shapes and sizes, all named after the owner’s favorite musicians and bands. This includes Beck, a snowy owl; Cure, a western screech owl; and Marilyn Manson, a southern boobook owl.

Costello, a spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata).
Sid Vicious, a southern white-faced owl (Ptilopsis granti).
Strummer, a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia).

You need a special license to own an owl in the US, but anyone can buy one in Japan—if they can afford it. When Pakuchi Bar’s owner, Tomo Nonaka, first found an owl she wanted to buy, she was discouraged by the price: ¥2 million (more than $18,300). However, most owls can be purchased for a few thousand dollars, and five years ago Nanaka was finally able to afford one. Now she has 30.

Kurt Cobain, a northern white-faced owl (Ptilopsis leucotis).
Jónsi, a little owl (Athene noctua).
Queen, a Eurasian eagle owl (Bubo bubo).

Nonaka didn’t want to leave her owls alone while she was at work, so one of her friends proposed that she open an owl café. She followed that suggestion in 2014 and now receives 2,500 visitors a year. The owls live on-site full-time, but the birds are only available to the public on weekends and some holidays. The rest of the time, the space is a restaurant serving cilantro-themed snacks. (The name “Pakuchi” comes from the Thai word for cilantro.)

Cure, a western screech owl (Megascops kennicottii).
Jim, a long-eared owl (Asio otus).
Beck, a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus).

Included in Nanaka’s aviary are two “transformer” owls: Toto and Kato, both northern white-faced owls. When faced with a bigger, more threatening owl, they react with extreme physical transformations, either puffing out into a large fan of feathers or—if their opponent is too big to intimidate—compressing themselves to imitate a tree branch.

Owls’ night-vision eyes are striking in their enormity, weighing up to 5 percent of the birds’ total body mass. Their direct stare is a function of their physiology, since their eyes don’t move in the sockets. But the birds make up for it by being able to swivel their heads up to 270 degrees in either direction.

Marilyn Manson, a southern boobook owl (Ninox boobook).
Morrison, a long-eared owl (Asio otus).
The Chemical Brothers (aka Chemi), a black-banded owl (Ciccaba huhula).

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