In Tokyo, coffee meets cuteness in the company of capybaras

Customers petting a capybara at Cafe Capyba in Tokyo, Feb. 9, 2024.
Customers petting a capybara at Cafe Capyba in Tokyo, Feb. 9, 2024. (Grace Xue/MEDILL)

By Grace Xue
Medill Reports

TOKYO – In Tokyo’s Sumida district, a quiet residential neighborhood, there’s always a bustling line forming in a little alley before 11 a.m., opening time for Cafe Capyba. Customers wait patiently to spend 1,250 yen ($8.53) for 30 minutes with capybaras.

Customers entering Cafe Capyba
Customers enter Cafe Capyba in Tokyo’s Sumida district, Feb. 9, 2024. (Grace Xue/MEDILL)

Growing to about 4.3 feet long and weighing up to 174 pounds, the largest living rodent on the planet is difficult to be associated with cuteness. Yet, it has become one of the most beloved animals worldwide, especially in Asia.

A native species to warm South America that inhabit areas near bodies of water, capybaras like soaking in hot springs in winter to prevent their skin from drying or cracking. They are known to be gregarious and rarely engage in fights with their own kind or other species.

On TikTok, videos of capybaras lounging in onsens with yuzu — hot springs with a citric fruit added to their bath water — received more than 40 million views. On Xiaohongshu, a Chinese version of Instagram, more than 160,000 tagged posts feature capybaras and related merchandise.

A rap song about capybaras created by Alexey Pluzhnikov, a 22-year-old Russian blogger, quickly went viral and now has become the background music of thousands of reels across all kinds of social media platforms.

Kalila Ziva and Denesto Rizky arrived at Cafe Capyba half an hour before it opened, joining others who lined up to secure a limited seat. They managed to snag a time slot four hours later, at 2:30 p.m.

“For that kind of experience, you can touch the capybara and let them sit next to you, it is worth it,” Rizky said. “You can’t find it elsewhere in Asia.”

Before visiting Cafe Capyba, Ziva and Rizky would often exchange reels of the creatures with each other and their friends. In their home country of Indonesia, capybaras are frequently used in memes and reaction images as “masbro,” employed similarly to “bruh” or “dude.”

“Because they are very chill animals and can be close to anyone,” Rizky explained.

Kalila Ziva and Denesto Rizky give vegetables to Cafe Capyba’s capybaras
Kalila Ziva and Denesto Rizky give vegetables to Cafe Capyba’s capybaras, Pinsuke and Kohaku, Feb. 9, 2024. (Photo Courtesy: Kalila Ziva)

Cafe Capyba opened in April 2023. Customers can pet and sit with two capybaras, Pinsuke and Kohaku, while enjoying coffee, tea or juice.

Pinsuke and Kohaku roam freely in the café, hopping on sofas and sometimes crouching next to people’s legs. They are relaxed and calm most of the time, except when customers get snacks for them. Rizky said one of the capybaras sat on his lap, trying to reach the vegetables in his hand.

“The waiter is very communicative,” Ziva said. “Even if you weren’t buying the vegetables or pellets, the waiter will help to get a capybara closer to you, so you can at least get a photo or pet them.”

Many customers were drawn to the café through social media. Emily Lauber, from Seattle, expressed her fascination with the animal, sparked by the capybara songs and videos of them bathing in onsens.

Lauber had visited a mini-pig café in Kyoto a few days prior, and this was her first time touching a capybara.

“I’m surprised that it’s bigger than I thought,” she said. “They are not very soft. Feels like a mini-pig.”

Emily Lauber takes a photo of her friend Brianna Chavez petting a capybara.
Emily Lauber, left, takes a photo of her friend Brianna Chavez petting a capybara, Feb. 9, 2024. (Grace Xue/MEDILL)

From Hong Kong, Kelvin Iu came to Tokyo to attend Taylor Swift’s concert. However, as a capybara enthusiast, he visited the Izu Shaboten Zoo to see them enjoying the onsens. The next day, wearing a white T-shirt with a capybara cartoon, he lined up in front of Cafe Capyba at 10:45 a.m. to secure a slot for petting.

Hours later, when the capybara Kohaku sat next to Iu on the sofa, he petted him with one hand and continuously took selfies with the other.

“This is not a place for me to have coffee but just to see and pet capybaras,” he said.

Iu noted that back in his hometown there is only one capybara in Ocean Park, a theme park, and visitors can only see it from a distance behind fences.

Kelvin Iu sits with a capybara.
Kelvin Iu, right, sits with a capybara, Feb. 9, 2024. (Grace Xue/MEDILL)

Cafe Capyba isn’t the first or only capybara café in Japan. In 2018, Capybara Land PUIPUI opened in Yokohama. Two years later, Capy Neko Cafe, the first-ever capybara and cat café, opened in Kichijoji, Tokyo. Inspired by cat and dog cafés, more animal lovers and zookeepers have begun applying the petting zoo/café concept to introduce less well-known animals to the public.

Izu Shaboten Zoo is one of the pioneers of this initiative, striving to bring animal-interaction experiences into cities. Its petting zoo, Ani Touch, opened at Aqua City shopping mall in Tokyo in July. Its residents now include capybaras, ring-tailed lemurs, sloths, panda mice, brown wood owls, hedgehogs, chicks, and more.

Jyun Yamada and Sayuri Yamada feed snacks to capybaras at Ani Touch
Jyun Yamada, left, and Sayuri Yamada feed snacks to capybaras at Ani Touch, Feb. 9, 2024. (Grace Xue/MEDILL)

Yu Takiguchi has been working at the zoo for 10 years and manages the new Ani Touch.

As a keeper and manager, she monitors the conditions of different kinds of animals every day. Her routine includes meal preparation, feeding, room cleaning, and ensuring the animals’ mental health with toys and games. She carefully watches for signs of diarrhea or soft stools, as it is the most common problem that can occur to them.

“I wanted to become a zookeeper since I was a child,” Takiguchi said. “I think it is a very rewarding job, but the responsibility is very heavy. Animals could die if you can’t stand up to it. Many people quit because their motivation is low, but I’m still here because I love animals.”

Yu Takiguchi with a ring-tailed lemur at Ani Touch.
Yu Takiguchi with a ring-tailed lemur at Ani Touch, Feb. 9, 2024. (Grace Xue/MEDILL)

Summer proves to be the peak season for Ani Touch, as more families flock there during vacations. Among the myriad creatures, capybaras and chicks reign as the stars of the petting zoo, cherished for their affable nature and velvety touch.

Caring for animals can be expensive. Takiguchi said electricity and water bills are high due to the incubators for chicks and other young animals and the capybaras’ warm bathtubs.

Despite these financial hurdles, Takiguchi remains optimistic about the long-term viability of the business, buoyed by its surging popularity. With four other locations throughout Japan, the managers at each outpost stave off monotony by shuffling the lineup of animals and organizing diverse events tailored to the seasons and holidays.

“People who are passionate about animals are willing to travel to zoos situated in the suburbs, but those with a more casual interest might find themselves drawn to petting zoos nestled within shopping malls,” Takiguchi said. “My aim is to cultivate a deeper understanding of animals among visitors and impart the importance of respectful interaction with them.”

Jyun Yamada and Sayuri Yamada touch chicks at Ani Touch
Jyun Yamada and Sayuri Yamada touch chicks at Ani Touch, Feb. 9, 2024. (Grace Xue/MEDILL)

Grace Xue is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Instagram at @ziyue_see or connect with her on LinkedIn.