Photo: Manhattan/Photo-AC
Snow Monkey2/8
Photo: Lim Chee Wah
Nara deer3/8
Photo: Devin Berko/Unsplash
Alpacas - stock photo4/8
Photo: Marcel Langthim/Pixabay
Okunoshima rabbit island5/8
Photo: Jpmanual/Photo-AC
Capybara in onsen6/8
Photo: Aruteshima/PhotoAC
Fuji Safari Park7/8
Photo: Fuji Safari Park/FacebookFuji Safari Park
Nasu Animal Kingdom8/8
Photo: Nasu Animal Kingdom/FacebookNasu Animal Kingdom

Best places to see or cuddle animals in Japan

Meet bunnies on Okunoshima, bow to the deer in Nara, see snow monkeys in onsen, plus more wildlife and animal parks

By Tabea Greuner

Who doesn't love cuddling and fawning over adorable animals? If you love interacting with friendly animals but don't want to see them cooped up in cages, Japan offers many animal parks and wildlife sanctuaries where the creatures roam free.

Some are secluded islands turned nature parks, home to local animals like cats and rabbits, others are dedicated farms and theme parks offering visitors a safari-like experience. Here you'll find some of the best places in Japan to get up close with animals, from walking amongst the felines on a cat island and bowing with the deer at Nara to feeding adorable capybara and taking a fluffy alpaca on a walk.

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Admission-free locations

Photo: Rhythm727/Photo-AC

Cats on Ainoshima, Fukuoka prefecture

This small island in Fukuoka prefecture is a must-visit for every cat lover. Only 20 minutes by ferry from Fukuoka city, Ainoshima is home to more than 100 stray cats who live in the island’s small fishing village. You’ll find them roaming around on the streets, sunbathing, snoozing or watching the local fishermen. Most are friendly enough that you can pet them, but keep in mind that feeding the cats is strictly prohibited.

The coastline of Ainoshima is only about eight kilometres long, so it’s a short walk from anywhere to the eastern part of the island, where you'll find a small shrine and more than 250 tumuli – mounds of stones dating back to the fifth century, believed to be ancient graves.

Ainoshima, Shingu-machi, Kasuya-gun, Fukuoka prefecture. Ferry from Shingu port ¥460, primary school students ¥230, free for younger children. The ferry departs six times a day between March and October, and five times a day between November and February. See the schedule here (in Japanese only).

Photo: Shimaneko/Photo-AC

Cats on Tashirojima, Miyagi prefecture

Another popular cat island is Tashirojima in Miyagi prefecture, where a few hundred cats call home. The number of felines on this little island increased during the Edo period (1603-1868), when the island was known for its silk worm farms and cats were brought in to protect the silk worms from mice. Once a flourishing island with over 1,000 residents, the population has dwindled to about 80 people – they’re outnumbered by the cats.

Nitoda Port in the south is home to the island’s largest village and most of the stray cats. Local fishermen believed the felines brought good luck, so they protected them and even built a tiny, cat-sized shrine in the middle of the island when one cat died in an accident. The cats are still pretty well protected – you’ll notice pet dogs are not allowed on Tashirojima.

There’s actually more cat-related fun at Tashirojima, which is also known as ‘Manga Island’. Between June and October, you can visit the on-site manga-themed camping resort, which boasts cat-shaped cottages, complete with cat-related artworks by famous Japanese manga artists.

Tashirojima, Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture. 45-min ferry ride from Ishinomaki port to Tashirojima; ¥1,250, primary school students ¥625, free for younger children. See the schedule here (in Japanese only).

Okunoshima rabbit island
Okunoshima rabbit island
Photo: Jpmanual/Photo-AC

Rabbits on Okunoshima, Hiroshima prefecture

If you love fluffy bunnies, then this island off the coast of Hiroshima prefecture is the place to be. About 1,000 wild rabbits inhabit the island, and due to their high fertility rate, they are considered a symbol of safe childbirth and the blessing of many children. The local fluffballs love being surrounded by visitors, especially when you bring treats like lettuce or carrots. The rabbits are mostly active in the morning and evening, so we recommend staying a night at the only hotel on the island, the National Park Resort Kyukamura Okunoshima. Bicycles are available to rent at the hotel and are the perfect way to explore the island’s roughly 4km-long coastline.

As peaceful as the little island seems, it has a dark history. Once so secret it was removed from official maps, Okunoshima was the production site for chemical weapons, including mustard gas, before and during World War II. The gas has long since been destroyed, but you can learn about Okunoshima’s former function in the small on-site museum.

Okunoshima, Tadanoumicho, Takehara, Hiroshima prefecture. 15-min ferry ride from Tadanoumi port; ¥310, primary school students ¥160, free for younger children. See the schedule here.

Photo: Manhattan/Photo-AC

Deer on Miyajima, Hiroshima prefecture

Itsukushima, better known as Miyajima, meaning ‘shrine island’, is a popular tourist attraction in Hiroshima prefecture. The island is famous for the Unesco World Heritage site Itsukushima Shrine and its massive red torii gate, standing partially submerged in water.

As soon as you get off the ferry, you’ll be welcomed by wild deer hoping for a little snack. You’re not allowed to feed them, though, so keep an eye on any loose food or even just paper you’re carrying, as the deer have been known to snatch things away. However, they’re used to humans and are not overly aggressive – you can even take a photo with them.

To avoid the crowds, spend a night at one of the island’s ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and watch the deer sleep in the parks and on the pavement. Miyajima’s deer have been worshipped as messengers of the gods for hundreds of years and are strictly protected.

Miyajima, Miyajimacho, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima prefecture. 10-min ferry ride from Miyajimaguchi port; ¥180, primary school children ¥90, free for younger children. See the schedule here.

Nara Park
Nara Park
Photo: Carl Flor/Unsplash

Deer at Nara Park, Nara

The most famous place in Japan for watching wild deer is Nara Park. Encompassing the areas around Todaiji and Kofukuji temples as well as Kasugataisha Shrine, the entire park boasts a size of 660 hectares in which about 1,500 deer roam around freely. Nara’s deer are designated national treasures and protected by law. Unlike on Miyajima, at Nara Park, you’re encouraged to feed the deer with special crackers sold at local souvenir shops and booths. The crackers are made from wheat flour and rice bran, and part of the profit goes towards protecting the deer.

Nara Park, Zoshicho, Nara, Nara prefecture (Kintetsu Nara Station). 

Parks which require entrance fee

Jigokudani Monkey Park
Jigokudani Monkey Park
Photo: Jonathan Forage/Unsplash

Snow monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano prefecture

To see Japan’s famous snow monkeys taking a dip in an onsen, you’ll have to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park, in the valley of Yokoyu River in Nagano prefecture. Jigokudani can be translated as Hell Valley, a reference to the area’s steep cliffs and the steam that comes from the hot springs covering the area.

Even though Japanese macaques have lived in the mystical valley for centuries, it was the establishment of Jigokudani Monkey Park in 1964 that turned the area into a popular tourist spot during the winter months. Keep in mind that you’re not allowed to touch the monkeys, and you should keep any food hidden. Taking photos is allowed, but make sure to keep a safe distance from the wild macaques. 

Jigokudani Monkey Park, 6845 Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano prefecture. 0269 33 4379. Apr-Oct 8.30am-5pm, Nov-Mar 9am-4pm. ¥800, primary, junior high and high school students ¥400, free for younger children.

Nasu Animal Kingdom
Nasu Animal Kingdom
Photo: Nasu Animal Kingdom/Facebook

Capybaras at Nasu Animal Kingdom, Tochigi prefecture

This 43-hectare animal park is located in Tochigi prefecture’s onsen (hot spring) town Nasu. The main draw here are the capybaras, which have plenty of space to roam around, swim and even take a dip in their own private hot spring come winter. For ¥100, you can purchase special capybara food and feed the adorable rodents from inside their enclosure. Take a rest at the on-site ashiyu foot bath area right beside the capybara pool, so you can watch them frolic while you keep warm. At the park’s farm zone, you can also ride camels and horses, pet kangaroos, feed sheep, watch a bird show and more.

Nasu Animal Kingdom, 1042-1 Oshima, Nasu-machi, Nasu-gun, Tochigi prefecture. 0287 77 1110. Hours differ per month, see here for details. ¥2,400, primary school students and children aged 3 and older ¥1,000, free for younger children.

Nasu Alpaca Farm
Nasu Alpaca Farm
Photo: Nasu Alpaca Farm/Facebook

Alpacas at Nasu Alpaca Farm, Tochigi prefecture

This spacious 110,000sqm farm is the largest of its kind in Japan, and is home to 300 fluffy alpacas. Thanks to its cool temperatures even in summer, the Nasu plateau provides an environment for alpacas resembling the highlands of the Andes in South America. At the Nasu Alpaca Farm, you can feed these funny creatures, pet them (¥500/10min) or even take your favourite furry friend on a walk (¥500/10min) – Instagram-worthy photo ops guaranteed! If you visit at different times throughout the year, you can also see the alpacas’ fur change through the seasons. Pro tip: they’re at their fluffiest in spring.

Nasu Alpaca Farm, 1083 Oshima, Nasu-machi, Nasu-gun, Tochigi prefecture. 0287 77 1197. 10am-4pm, closed Thu (open if hols), Fri in Jan & Feb. ¥800, primary school students and children aged 5 and older ¥400.

Tsukuba Wanwan Land
Tsukuba Wanwan Land
Photo: Tsukuba Wanwan Land/Facebook

Dogs at Tsukuba Wanwan Land, Ibaraki prefecture

This huge theme park in Ibaraki prefecture lets you play with its resident dogs, and you can even bring your own canine companion to play with the local pooches. Tsukuba Wanwan Land – wanwan is the Japanese equivalent of woof woof – is home to some 500 dogs of over 90 breeds, including Japan’s native Shiba and Akita inus.

There’s plenty to do here: you can cuddle your favourite furball at the fureai (petting) corner, or even take it on a walk (¥1,000/20min). There’s also a dog show, where the park’s dogs show off their skills, such as dancing the hula, balancing on top of a big exercise ball or shaking paws with the kids. You can also cuddle a few resident cats, however, the facility is currently closed due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Tsukuba Wanwan Land, 579 Numata, Tsukuba, Ibaraki prefecture. 029 866 1001. Mar-Oct 10am-5pm, Nov-Feb 10am-4pm daily. ¥1,500, primary school students and children aged 3 and older ¥700, free for younger children.

Fuji Safari Park
Fuji Safari Park
Photo: Fuji Safari Park/Facebook

Wildlife at Fuji Safari Park, Shizuoka prefecture

If you’re looking for a wildlife adventure, then a trip to this large animal park at the foot of Mt Fuji is highly recommended. The park’s safari area is home to about 900 animals of 70 species, which roam freely in the open-air enclosure designed to mimic their natural habitat.

During the safari tour – which you can take in your own car, in one of the park's rental car (¥6,000), by bus (from ¥1,400) or on foot (Mar-Nov; ¥500) – you’ll meet giraffes, elephants, zebras, lions, tigers and more. If you opt for the bus tour or rent the special car, you can even feed the animals through the caged windows. Exploring the park on foot, however, means you’ll confined to watching the animals from observation decks. You can also purchase food (from ¥100) along the 2.5km-long nature trail around the safari zone and feed some of the animals.

Fuji Safari Park is also home to a zoo area, where you can see species such as capybaras, kangaroos, lesser pandas, leopards, alpacas, hippos and more. You can even visit some of them inside their enclosures and feed them, too.

Fuji Safari Park, 2255-27 Fujiwara, Suyama, Susono, Shizuoka prefecture. 055 998 1311. Mar 11-Oct 31 9am-3.30pm, Nov-Mar 10 10am-3.30pm. ¥2,700, junior high and primary school students and children aged 4 and older ¥1,500, free for younger children.

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