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:
- Harry’s Hedgehog Café (Roppongi Tokyo)
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.
- Zao Fox Village (Sendai)
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.
- 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!
Choosing an ice cream in Nara
The Miyajima deer like to photobomb…
- 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.
Living the dream…
- 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!
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!