Four Animals to See in Japan
Travellers come to Japan for various reasons. Some enjoy the winter sports on offer, others are interested in the traditional culture. Something you don't hear as often is people coming to Japan for its wildlife. Yet, there are numerous locations around the country where people can enjoy interacting with different creatures. Here are four worthy places for animal-lovers to include on their itinerary.
"Kitsune" Japanese foxes at Zao Fox Village
Japanese foxes, called kitsune, have long played a special role in Japanese culture. They were once believed to be messengers from the gods, and today, you'll see fox statues at shrines and fox masks at festivals. There's even a place to see real foxes.
Surrounded by forest and mountains, Zao Fox Village is a small zoo in Miyagi Prefecture home to more than 100 Japanese red foxes. These adorable animals live freely within the large, grassy enclosure and much like dogs, spend their days sleeping, eating or playing. Visitors can go in the enclosure and feed the foxes in a designated area. You can even get a brief chance to cuddle a fox and touch their soft ears, bushy tails, and fluffy coats—a very rare opportunity.
"Shika" Japanese deer in Nara Park
Long before Tokyo even existed, Nara was the centre of Japan. It has an incredible history spanning over 1,300 years and some buildings have remarkably survived to this day. Surrounding the UNESCO World Heritage Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine is Nara Park, home to almost 1,200 free-roaming Japanese deer. According to legend, they are divine messengers that came from the sacred hills behind Nara.
The deer descend on the town after dawn, mingling with humans without any fear. Special signs have been put up where they tend to cross the roads, and it's almost comical seeing them stop at the signs until the coast is clear. Visitors to the park can buy deer crackers called shika-senbei to feed them, but be careful as they are notorious for eating anything else you have—brochures, handbags, clothing!
"Saru" Japanese snow monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
In the mountains of northern Nagano is a mysterious place called Jigokudani Yaen-koen, popularly known as the Snow Monkey Park. Over 150 Japanese macaques, also called snow monkeys, inhabit the valley of steam vents and hot springs. This is the coldest region in the world where monkeys live, and the only place where monkeys soak in an onsen (natural hot springs). It's not known why they are here, but they have very much made themselves at home. The monkeys can be seen throughout the year, not only in the winter months.
The park has gained popularity in recent years, and even when there are dozens of tourists taking photographs, the monkeys don't bat an eyelid. As soon as they sink into the water, they seem to fall into a deep state of zen. Around the onsen, monkeys frolic in the snow, chasing one another playfully and grooming each other. They seem to lead a happy, carefree life.
"Risuzaru" squirrel monkeys at Yaima Village
Far from Japan's mainland are the subtropical islands of Okinawa Prefecture. On Ishigaki, one of Okinawa's 160 islands, is an open-air museum called Yaima Village. Visitors can explore a collection of traditional Okinawan buildings that were relocated here for preservation.
One section of the village is the Squirrel Monkey Garden, where roughly 40 cheeky, active monkeys hang out. These tiny Bolivian squirrel monkeys thrive in warm, tropical climates and are raised here in an environment similar to their natural habitat. They love climbing and won't waste any time jumping on visitors as soon as they walk through the gate—so be sure to keep your bag closed!