Japan’s Falconer Cafe

After visiting an adult bunny café in the funky Harajuku neighborhood a day prior (a place where adults go and play with bunnies, while sitting at traditional low to the ground tables sipping on tea or some other drink), our fixer suggests we also check out the Falconer Café.  It is not just a rad name.  This joint is home to a handful of- you guessed it – falcons, hawks, and owls.  COOOOL, I think as my eyes widen with excitement and intrigue.  There is something majestic and powerful about falcons.  Bunnies are for babies.

We purchased two food-styled cups of julienned carrots and bunny-shaped apple cut-outs to feed the rabbits at the bunny cafe

So, my friend Taichi Kitamura (executive chef/co-owner of nationally acclaimed Sushi Kappo Tamura) and I hop in a van with the production crew and head an hour outside of Tokyo to a town called Mitaka.  It is not random this niche cafe is situated in Mitaka as the town has a long history of falcon pride.   Mitaka was known as the place where the shogun (general officers) would hunt with their falcons.  The town has a huge reverence for falcons.

The cafe is called Takaho Chaya, which predictably translates to Falconer Cafe.  Upon arriving, we look into the window and see four rows of miscellaneous falcons, hawks and owls loosely tethered to their posts.  Is it natural to contain animals that are meant to fly, I wonder,  and what the heck is a giant grey owl doing up at this hour?  It is three in the afternoon, after all.  And do falcons and owls even like each other?!

Our talented Director of Photography, Nate Miller, bravely heading into the raptors' lair. Nate only survived because the shirt he was sporting made him blend right in.

I start to feel bad for these birds and am ready to go PETA on their owners’ asses using the only 3 Japanese phrases I know:  1) Sorry, I don’t understand;  2) I would like a meal fit for a king;  3) Thank you!.

But jumping to conclusions is lame.  The master falconer isn’t some huge Michael Vick psychotic-looking guy.  Within minutes of meeting Mr. Sasaki, Taichi and I feel at ease as we can tell the falconer is a zen, thoughtful, shy, and lovely man in his 40s or 50s.

We watch him gently interacting with the animals, while peering over and smiling as the waitress playfully teaches me the Japanese phrase  ”I really like this!” to add to my limited repertoire.

As Taichi and I sit down to interview the falconer and his favorite hawk, I see the genuine love and connection between the two, and I kinda melt like I have just seen a scene from “The Notebook.”

Sasaki tells us this particular hawk is his favorite because he has raised him since the bird was only a few weeks old.  Their mutual loyalty to one another is obvious.  This hawk, resting freely on Sasaki’s arm, is super well behaved, never deviating from his post.  The raptor’s eyes are laser focused on Mr. Sasaki as to send a message to all observers that it would be a bad move to try to rob or harm Sasaki.  I know that hawk would go ape shit on us.

Mr. Sasaki is a sweetheart. And props to Taichi for getting up close and personal to the intimidating hawk to take this photo.

The six tables in this petite cafe are all occupied and have the feel of a locals’ joint.  We are the only non-regulars there.  At one table, six falcon owner friends gather to make leg bands for the birds.  Apparently, they have special kangaroo skin imported from Australia as it is softer than cow skin.

These local café goers are part of a falconers club.  Most of them live in the Falcon city, own their own birds and bring ‘em in like a meet and greet.  It is an opportunity for their falcons to hang out and for their owners to socialize.  This group is a bona fide falcon community and the people are eager to talk with us and share their passion for their birds.

Falconer Cafe regulars chatting it up

Meanwhile, I wonder where the falconer has gone.  Apparently, when the falconer isn’t falconing, he is stir frying up dishes for patrons and pouring drinks.  A friendly introvert at heart, he seems most comfortable cooking up stir-fry in the kitchen and interacting with the raptors 1:1.

As the production crew is packing up and it is nearing time to leave, out of all the places we have visited, I feel hesitant to leave.  There is something about the falconer’s quiet and wise energy, along with the welcoming group of locals who he brings together, that makes me feel at home amidst the foreign language and other factors that are a constant reminder I am not from here.  Besides, the curry Mr. Falconer man is cooking up smells good, and I want in on that action.

Out of all the places we have visited, this is the first moment of the trip where I start to feel more like a local and less of a tourist.

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