Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan

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Japanese culture is very animal-centric; from the animal shrines in temples, to the kitsch and cute animae characters plastered on every billboard in Tokyo. It is hardly surprising therefore that Japan is awash with animal experiences to be had: cafes, zoos and even just wild animals roaming the streets!

However, Japan isn’t exactly famous for its animal welfare laws, and we certainly saw some pretty distasteful things in Tokyo’s pet shops. With this in mind, it is important to do some research before attending any animal experience, or you may run the risk of funding something that, in many other countries, would probably be shut down.

And so, here is our definitive ranking of all the animal experiences we took part in:

  1. Harry’s Hedgehog Café (Roppongi Tokyo)

Cons:

The reason this came in fifth is for the fact that, despite hedgehogs being nocturnal, the café is open throughout the day, meaning that the spike balls get petted and played with when they should be asleep. However, the staff do seem mindful to this and will prevent you from petting any hedgehogs that they feel need to rest.

Once inside, the staff teach you how to hold the hedgehogs and you also have the chance to buy some mealworms (¥500/£3.50), which you can feed them with a pair of tweezers.

The hedgehogs are pretty adorable, and it certainly is fun holding them whilst enjoying a cup of tea. The space is quite small and the number of customers is limited, so be sure to reserve your place in advance, as there can often be a queue out the door. The café is open until 2100, so perhaps go as late as possible to prevent disturbing the little prickle monsters.

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  1. Zao Fox Village (Sendai)

Cons:

The main problem we had with this place was the seemingly unnecessary number of foxes they had. It was almost as though they were breeding them for the sake of the attraction, rather than having the best interests of the foxes at heart. Admittedly however, the foxes did seem well looked after and happy.

The village itself is annoyingly tricky to get to. If you want rely on public transportation alone (usually not a problem in Japan), be prepared to get up early and spend 5 hours at the fox village. It is in the middle of nowhere and only 2 buses a day run from Shiraishi station, one at 0800 and one at 1335. If you’re short on time however, consider paying for a taxi at least one-way.

The fox village is made up of three main areas: the hospital, (where they treat injured or sick foxes) the nursery, (where young cubs are placed in a fenced off area next to the main park, to allow them to integrate safely) and the main area (where foxes can roam around freely). These foxes -in all red, white and black varieties- really are beautiful. You can feed them from the feeding tower, and although you are not allowed to touch them as they roam their home, you can pay about ¥200 (£1.50) to have a cuddle with one of the cubs.

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  1. Deer in Nara and Miyajima

The only wild animals to make this list! The towns of Nara and Miyajima are not only famous for their beautiful temples and shrines, but also the wild deer that roam the streets like pedestrians. In Nara you can buy crackers called senbei to feed them, which they go absolutely mad for. Seriously, if they think you have some in your backpack they will not hesitate to follow you down the street. The deer have had this relationship with tourists for so long that they have actually learnt to bow for their food.

In Miyajima however, senbei is not typically sold to tourists. So, the deer are a bit more…desperate. We actually had to help a guy wrestle his rail pass from the jaws of a peckish deer. You have been warned!

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Choosing an ice cream in Nara

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The Miyajima deer like to photobomb…

  1. Cat Café (Nyafe Melange, Shibuya)

Cat cafes have taken the world by storm. You can now find them in London, Manchester and New York…but none of them will be as kitsch and cute as the original Japanese ones. There are plenty of cat cafes across Japan to choose from, and they can really vary in quality, so research is crucial!

We visited ‘Nyafe Melange’ in Shibuya. They have a range of time and price plans, the cheapest being ¥600 (£4) for 30mins. This large loft space is home to 23 cuddly friendly cats that can sit in the main room, or if they want some alone time, there is a separate human-free room for their use only. Overall, it’s exactly what a cat café should be- totally chilled. The cats may come and sit on your lap and play with you, or –because they’re cats- they may choose to ignore you completely. But that’s the risk you take.

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Living the dream…

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  1. Sahoro Bear Mountain (Shintoku, Hokkaido)

We really wanted to see some bears when we were in Hokkaido. We also really didn’t want a wild one to kill us. So, the only option was to see bears in captivity. Whilst travelling around Hokkaido, we had seen a lot of advertisements for bear parks, such as the Noboribetsu Bear Park, and we were confused why it didn’t appear in our Lonely Planet guide. Just Google image search it and you’ll see why. It’s essentially a small concrete pit with no vegetation or stimulation where at least a dozen bears (who are solitary animals) are crammed in together. They have learned to perform tricks for the food tourists throw at them. It looks pretty grim to say the least.

Bear Mountain (which does appear in the LP Japan guidebook) is a world away from this. 15 hectares of forest house 12 bears. Ponds are stocked with fish; there are trees, grass and plenty of stimulation. Tourists can walk along an elevated walkway, and gaze below at the bears going about their business, as if in the wild. The walkway (which is only 370m long, so takes up a very small amount of the bears’ space) then leads into a room with a glass wall which allows you to watch as the bears frolic in the water together. At the adult price of ¥1836 (£13), it is also half the amount of the terrible Noboribetsu Bear Park. If you can make it to the slightly remote location- we highly recommend it!

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And that’s a wrap! There are about a bazillion other animal experiences in Japan that we simply did not have time to try. Let me know what you think of our list, and if there are any other animal experiences you would recommend!

Hokkaido: The Wild Wild North

Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island is a mere 5 hour ferry ride from the Russian island of Sakhalin which -perhaps surprisingly- makes Russia Japan’s closest neighbour. This location means that Hokkaido is effectively an extension of Siberia, with temperatures in the winter reaching as low as -20°c and snow that falls too quickly for ski resorts to accurately measure.

However, summer in Hokkaido is a different story. It seems the whole of Tokyo moves to escape the stifling humidity of the south for the ‘cool’ highs of 28°c in the north. We don’t blame them one bit. Exchanging the southern cities where we couldn’t walk around for five minutes without our eyelids sweating for somewhere which occasionally required an extra layer was nothing short of magical.

This northern Siberian island is Japan’s wild child. Unlike the main island of Honshu where you are never far from a town or city, Hokkaido is made up of masses of untamed forests packed with brown bears and surrounded by sulphurous volcanic craters. We originally only gave ourselves a few days to explore Hokkaido but within an hour of stepping off the train station in Sapporo, we knew this wouldn’t cut it. We made the impromptu decision to cancel our Fuji climb, rent a camper van and travel Hokkaido for an entire week. Best decision ever.

Sapporo

Our first stop was Sapporo, which quickly became our favourite Japanese city…and that had nothing to do with the beer festival that happened to be going on at the time. It had such a youthful vibe and its busyness lacked the corporate rush that seems to fuel other Japanese cities. Highlights included the Willy Wonka-esque Sapporo brewery and witnessing a skateboard practice, A Capella group jam, breakdancing session and a rap battle by the fountains in Odori park.


Lake Toya

Next we visited Lake Toya, and, after 5 weeks of rushing about Japan trying to cram in as much as possible, we spent two relaxed days camping on the shore, swimming in the purest water and getting rather sunburnt.

Noboribetsu 

The onsen town of Noboribetsu had been on our hit list ever since it featured in a BBC series about Japan (this is the second time I’ve mentioned this series, but seriously, it was amazing). It is a small town built in the midst of some serious volcanic activity. Jigoku-Dani, or ‘Hell Valley’ is the most notable area: a vast expanse of steaming craters, bubbling water and sulphur stained rocks. We visited a local onsen (Japanese bathouse) which uses the same volcanic water for people to soak in. Imagine the Prefect’s bathroom in Hogwarts but with more naked Japanese people, more eggy fumes and fewer ghosts.


Furano

We then visited the small town of Furano which, in the summer months hosts fields and fields of flowers planted in colourful strips. It seems here even the most humble farmhouse has at least a small patch of lavender or sunflowers in their front garden. Whilst in Furano we also stumbled across a beautiful mountain onsen, and bathed in this mixed gender (!!) pool. Even though algae got into places algae should never get into, it was one of our favourite onsen we’ve been to; our embarrassed averted gazes were met by pine trees and waterfalls (well, mine were at least, Jasper can see bugger all without his glasses).

Bear Mountain

Next was a trip to ‘Bear Mountain’. As mentioned, Hokkaido is home to a large number of brown bears. They are far more aggressive than their reclusive black cousins residing in Honshū, and Japanese hikers are encouraged to wear bear bells to scare them away. Bears are extraordinary creatures and we really wanted to see one, but in the wild? Maybe not. Bear Mountain is like a cross between Jurassic Park and a safari. 15 hectares of woodland surrounded by the heaviest duty fences you’ve ever seen is the home of 12 brown bears. A large bridges runs through part of the park so you can watch the bears without fear of having your face ripped to shreds. There is also an area where you can watch behind glass as they play in the water. Seeing them so close confirmed our feelings of apprehension of stumbling across one in the wild. I don’t think we fully appreciated just how big they are, and that one bat of their gigantic paw would certainly knock you out cold. It really is a conundrum how something so terrifying can be so adorable!

See where Bear Mountain ranked on our ‘Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan’!


Lake Akan

One last trip we took before heading excitedly back to Sapporo, was to Lake Akan in the east. Unfortunately is was more of a whistle stop tour as it was pissing it down and really cold (it was probably only like 22°c, but that feels sub-Arctic to us now). We visited ‘Suna yu’ a lakeside area where you can dig your own onsen! If you dig into the sand, hot water rises up and you’ve got your own foot spa.

Ainu Village

We then ‘hot-footed’ it to a nearby Ainu village. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido who have a rich culture and history, which is totally different from Japanese culture and is slowly being lost. The village showcased traditional arts, music and food of the Ainu people. In our opinion, a trip to Hokkaido isn’t complete without paying a visit to one of the (unfortunately) few Ainu villages still in operation. And try the frozen salmon sashimi- it’s delicious!

And that was our Hokkaido trip! It was one of our favourite weeks in Japan, and we are already dreaming of when we can make it back there. Everything about the island resonated with us: the people, the culture, the landscape, the food! Sayonara Hokkaido- but hopefully not for long!