Cat cafes are cute and all, but they’re so 2017. Japan is now embracing a new kind of critter culture — the reptile bar and cafe scene. Lizard- and snake-centric establishments are popping up throughout the country’s biggest cities. Bar Yatonokami is one such bar with a quirky vibe that feels like a secret pet store with a liquor license.
— BAR 夜刀神-YATONOKAMI- (@yatonokami_0722) September 7, 2018
Just west of downtown Tokyo, down the well-traveled pedestrian street Renga Zaka, lies one of the capital city’s newest niche bars. Its nondescript entrance — a dim, fluorescent-lit staircase papered with hundreds of amateur photos of snakes, lizards, and other reptiles leading to an even dimmer second story bar — seems designed to maximize its mystique. The sign on the entrance, Bar Yatonokami or “夜刀の神” in kanji, translates curiously to “God of the Night Sword.” At first glance, it’s reminiscent of a hideaway for a Law & Order: SVU perp. It’s dark, weird, and oddly inviting.
Inside, the “decor” feels more like an exotic pet store than a trendy bar. Rows of commercial shelving surround the tiny space, lined with more than 100 terrariums, each home to a scaley critter or two. A basic desk serves as the makeshift bar with only the most essential liquors. You’ll find no 30-year-old Scotch or Frozen Coronaritas served here. It’s a no-nonsense space with only functional seating and lighting. Here, the reptiles are the stars of the show.
Typical kitten cafes are noisy and active. In contrast, because reptiles are naturally quiet, the atmosphere at Bar Yatonokami is serene. This allows visitors to chat one-on-one with owner Nishikawa about his collection. Guests can stay as long as they like and handle any critters they choose including everything from crested geckos and bearded dragons to tarantulas and jungle snakes, but only for 30 minutes at a time to minimize stress on the animals.
Japan’s niche animal cafes — including cat cafes and more exotic establishments like the Tokyo Snake Center — have exploded in popularity in recent years. Bar Yatonokami isn’t the country’s first reptile cafe; the current list includes Kobe’s Reptile Cafe and Bar Arrive, Yokohama’s Reptile Cafe, and Osaka’s Reptile Cafe Again. But, Bar Yatonokami is unique in that it’s primarily driven by Nishikawa’s deep passion for reptiles. He hopes to break down visitors’ preconceived notions about the oft-maligned creatures, namely that they’re creepy, dirty, and less than ideal as pets. On the contrary, Nishikawa promises they’re actually quiet, relatively clean, low maintenance critters that only require food every few days.
Bar Yatonokami is open seven days a week. While the Japanese bar scene often feels insular, even downright unwelcoming, to outsiders, Nishikawa actively invites foreigners, first-time visitors, and anyone with a curiosity about the animal world. Be warned, however: you may even wind up taking one home.