In Japan, zoos are not the only place where you can meet adorable animals. You can find hundreds of cats or rabbits on some of the small islands, wild monkeys soaking in onsen hot springs, and deer roaming around the World Heritage Sites. There are also plenty of animal cafes where you will find not only dogs and cats but also various kinds of animals. In this article, we introduce some of the best destinations to see cute animals.
There are about a dozen places called Cat Islands in Japan because of a large number of cats living on the islands. The nickname is not an exaggeration because some of these islands have more cats than people!
Probably the most famous cat island in Japan is Aoshima, which belongs to Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku. On this small island of 1.6 kilometer long, cats outnumber human six to one. You can find as many as 120 cats here while there are only 15 to 20 human residents. Cats were originally introduced on ships because the fisherman had to deal with a rodent problem. Recently becoming popular online, tiny Aoshima has seen a steep rise in tourist visits. However, Aoshima Island is not a tourist hotspot. There are no cars, hotels, restaurants, or even vending machines on the island. It’s best to bring your water and food, and take your garbage with you when you leave the island. The cats are very cute but please treat them nicely and respectfully.
Another famous cat island is Tashiro-jima, a small island part of Miyagi Prefecture. While the population of the island is about 100 people, there are more than 100 cats. The island used to raise silkworms for their silk which naturally attracted mice, and the introduction of cats helped this production as the cats kept the mice population to a minimum. It is also believed by the local people that feeding cats will bring wealth and good fortune. Most people here take care of cats very well that no pet dogs are allowed on this island.
You probably have seen the famous picture of monkeys chilling in an outdoor onsen hot spring in the snow. These are Japanese macaques, also known as the Snow Monkeys, and can be found in Nagano Prefecture. The Japanese macaque is a monkey species native to northern Japan, and is the most northern-living non-human primate, surviving winter temperatures of below -15 °C. Jigokudani Yaen Koen (otherwise known as the Snow Monkey Park), created in 1964, was established as a conservation area in which the Japanese macaques would have a refuge within what was already their natural habitat. The Snow Monkey Park is a unique place where you can observe the daily lives of the wild monkeys including the unique behavior of bathing in an outdoor onsen hot spring. They are the only troop known to do so.
Planning your visit to the snow monkeys in Nagano
Deer in Nara and Miyajima
Nara Prefecture has many important historical sites such as the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple, however, the free-roaming wild deer in Nara Park also attract many tourists. Deer are considered to be the sacred animal, and it is a symbol of the city of Nara. They also have been designated as a natural treasure. It is estimated that there are more than 1,200 deer in Nara Park, and feeding the deer is an attraction in itself. You can purchase special crackers for deer which are sold all around the park. The deer in Nara Park are so used to the presence of humans, and some of them have even learnt to bow to you, especially if you bow your head to them first. They are adorable, however, they can be cheeky and sometimes even aggressive at the same time, so make sure not to provoke them with food.
Miyajima, located in Hiroshima Prefecture, is a popular destination for tourists for its giant torii gate which, at high tide, appears to be floating on the water. While officially named Itsukushima, the island is more commonly referred to as Miyajima, which means Shrine Island in Japanese. According to local folklore, the deer in Miyajima were considered sacred messengers from the gods, and they’ve been protected by Japanese law. Actually until 1637, killing deer was prohibited and people could be sentenced to death for it. Today it is estimated there are more than 500 deer on this 30-square-kilometer island. The deer on Miyajima are accustomed to people, and they wander around the same sites as the tourists in the day. However, unlike Nara Park, feeding deer has been prohibited here since 2007 because they are considered as wild animals.
Located in eastern Hiroshima, Okunoshima, so called Rabbit Island is a small island occupied by almost 1,000 wild rabbits. This little island, which is about 4 kilometers around, was once a center of chemical weapons research and production during WWII. The island was completely erased from Japanese maps to keep the operation under wraps. Rabbits were brought to the island as test subjects for the chemical weapons, and some people speculate the animals there now are descendants of the originals. The island is now National Park Resort and features a resort hotel, along with a golf course and the gas museum. Signs dot the island dissuading people from feeding the rabbits with human food, picking them up, or chasing them since rabbits are very sensitive. If you visit the island by car, make sure to check under your car before starting to run.
In big cities in Japan including Tokyo and Osaka, you can find places called Animal Cafes where you can sit close to cute animals, observe them, and sometimes interact with them. Animal Cafe industry has become huge on the market in the last couple of years, and the selection of animal cafes is large, especially in Tokyo. You can meet various animals including hedgehogs, rabbits, owls, fennec foxes, meerkats and even snakes.
One of the unique animal cafes in Tokyo is Capyneko Café, located just a minute walk away from Kichijoji Station’s south exit. Here you can meet capybaras along with several cats. Many of the cats here are adoptable, so let the staff know if you are interested in giving them a permanent home. The cover charge is 2,200 yen for an hour.
Another unique cafe can be found in Meguro and Harajuku in Tokyo called Mipig Cafe where you can cuddle with adorable miniature pigs. These tiny pigs are very smart and clean to remember where the toilet is, and they can learn verbal communication. The cafe has a floor for those who want to have the pigs as a family member. The cover charge is 800 yen for 30 minutes and one drink order is required.
Needless to say, Tokyo offers quite a number of great options for day trips to zoos.
Established in 1882, Ueno Zoological Gardens, or Ueno Zoo, is the oldest zoo in Japan. It is one of only three places in Japan where you can see adorable giant pandas. Located amid the downtown Tokyo, Ueno Zoo not only provides recreation, but also plays an essential role in wildlife conservation and public education.
Discover one of Tokyo’s Largest Parks: Ueno Park
Tama Zoological Park, or Tama Zoo, is one of the largest zoos in Japan located eastern Tokyo, about an hour from central Tokyo by train. Here animals are displayed under naturalistic and spectacular habitats. The zoo has three ecological areas; the Asiatic Garden, African Garden and Australian Garden, and the Insectarium, and exhibits Japanese animals such as sika deer, Yezo brown bears, and Japanese macaques, as well as animals from all over the world, such as African elephants, koalas, Indian rhinoceroses and orang-utans.
Zoorasia is one of the largest and best kept zoos in Japan located in Yokohama, about 1.5 hours from central Tokyo by train and bus. Zoorasia is designed to recreate the animals’ natural habitat. There are eight areas in the zoo: Asian Tropical Forest, Subarctic Forest, Oceania Grassland, Central Asian Highland, Japanese Countryside, Amazon Jungle, African Tropical Rain Forest, and African Savanna. There are a few areas where you can interact and feed animals such as horses, panda mice, guinea pigs, and small goats. You can even get a chance to ride on a camel!
At Izu Shaboten Zoo, you can see capybaras taking a bath during winter. It’s a great place for a day trip from Tokyo! Many people know about Snow Monkey but not so many people might know about capybaras. Usually you can see them relaxing in the bath from November to April. You can also have a chance to feed capybaras and find some cute souvenir gifts.
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If you are an animal lover, there are plenty of fantastic options in Japan to spend a day or weekend with adorable animals. We hope you find your favorite animals and have fun with them!
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