Photo:merec0 on Flickr

Animal Antics: Japan's Best Wildlife Sanctuaries

To many visitors Japan is a land of immense cultural and historical significance. Others love the high technology and the “Geek Chic” of places like Akihabara in Tokyo and Nipponbashi in Osaka.

However, an increasing number of visitors to Japan are now developing an appreciation for the country’s biodiversity. Japan is home to wide variety of unique creatures, plant life and other natural wonders.

Of course most tourists make time to see Ueno Zoo and its wonderfully cute pandas during their visit to Japan, but today I’m going to go a little bit “off the beaten track” as it were.

Today we will look at some of the best places to see Japanese wildlife outside of the greater Tokyo area. Here are the top five best places to view animals and nature outside of Tokyo.

1) Sapporo Maruyama Zoo, Sapporo, Hokkaido

Photo : MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr

Opened in 1951, Sapporo Maruyama Zoo has the distinction of being the oldest zoo on the northern Island of Hokkaido. It is owned and administrated by the Sapporo Municipal Government. By no means Japan’s largest zoo, it covers a somewhat modest 22 hectares. In spite of its diminutive stature, the Maruyama Zoo houses 737 different animals, from an impressively diverse 168 different species.

Primates are one of the main attractions here. The 15 m high jungle gym is a focal point of the Chimpanzee Pavilion and Monkey Mountain area.

The Bear House, which houses 6 different breeds of bear is another highlight. Those of you who are into the science of nature will also want to check out the adjoining Hokkaido Brown Bear and Animal Science Museums.

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2) Atagawa Tropical and Alligator Garden, Higashi-Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture

Photo : merec0 on Flickr

If you like your animals fierce and cold-blooded, then why not take a trip to Higashi-Izu, in Shizuoka Prefecture. Here you will find the Atagawa Tropical and Alligator Garden. Focusing exclusively on reptiles, Atagawa Garden’s Zoo area contains 349 different animals across 29 different reptilian species. The alligators are of course the stars of the show and watching them feeling is a veritable tour de force of nature at its most brutal.

It’s not all blood and guts however, as the tropical gardens offer a fascinating peak into the diversity of Japanese plant life. In a typically Japanese example of symbiosis between nature, technology and innovative design, the botanical and fruit garden is heated by water from the on-site hot springs. There is a special Lotus Greenhouse devoted exclusively to the various types of Lotus Flower. The main greenhouse hosts the usual suspects like orchids, hibiscus and so on. An adjoining annex contains fine examples of local fruits such as pineapple and papaya. In summer time, this place is definitely worth a visit.


3) Shimane Vogel Park, Matsue, Shimane Prefecture

Photo : kenichi nobusue on Flickr

We’ve already covered monkeys and reptiles, so how about some birds. If you have a taste for all things avian, then you could do a lot worse than visit Shimane Vogel Park. Sandwiched beautifully between the Northern shore of Lake Shinji and the Sea of Japan to the west, Shimane Vogel Park rests perfectly amongst the rolling green hills. There are four aviaries in total, each connected by an elegant paved walkway. In each of the aviaries you will find a variety of tropical birds, such as hornbills, toucans and turacos. As a globally recognized bird sanctuary, the aviaries also house a wide range of exotic, rare and endangered birds from around the world.

One area is devoted exclusively to aquatic bird species and in here you will find ducks, swans and various other water-loving birds. Emus and penguins also have their own areas. I also recommend checking out the Owl flight show, which runs several times daily. Seeing these magnificent creatures up close in full-motion really is an unforgettable experience.

It’s not all just about the birds however. Vogel Park also plays host to one of the world’s largest greenhouses with most of the flowers blooming all year round. No matter what time of year you visit, the green fingered amongst you are in for a treat.


4) Amami Islands Botanical Garden, Amami, Kagoshima Prefecture

Photo : kntrty on Flickr

Many lovers of nature say it is the great contrast that the peace and tranquility of the countryside brings with their usual daily urban grind that makes an escape to the relative wilderness more appealing. The Amami Islands Botanical Garden in Kagoshima is such a place. Although the address says Kagoshima, to the uninformed this could be somewhat deceptive. Amami City is actually located almost 200km south of Kagoshima’s mainland on the southern tip of Kyushu. The city is the biggest on the island, Amami Oshima, but still has a population of less than 45,000. This makes it an ideal place for that urban retreat.

The Botanical Gardens themselves are reflective of the tropical location. In addition to a collection of 500 varieties of cacti and other exotic plants, you will also find banana and various other tropical fruit trees. The wildlife is quite different from what you may expect in other areas too. Meerkats, ring-tailed lemurs and squirrel monkeys also call the garden home. For those with a taste for the artistic, you’ll also find an excellent museum of indigenous Southeast Asian art.

5) Osaka Kaiyukan, Osaka Prefecture

Photo : Geoff Stearns on Flickr

Botanical gardens, national parks and nature reserves are all well and good when it’s a bright sunny day and you have the time to venture far beyond the city. But what about when it’s cold, wet and you have neither the time nor the inclination to wander to some far-flung corner of Japan. Osaka Kaiyukan (Aquarium) is just the place for you. Located in Osaka’s Minato Ward, only 20 minutes from the urban hubs of Namba and Umeda (and only 5 minutes’ walk from my house!) Osaka Kaiyukan is one of the largest aquariums in Asia. A long-term fixture on the Osaka tourism scene the aquarium underwent a large scale refit in 2013 expanding many of its exhibits and creating a whole new area to view penguins, sharks and skates up close. In the case of the sharks and the skates, visitors can actually touch the animals. Don’t worry, the sharks don’t bite!

The nearby Tenpozan Market Place shopping centre offers some great options for food and drink after your aquarium visit, as well as a variety of souvenir shops. To the rear of the centre, you will see the Tenpozan Kanransha. One of the tallest ferris wheels in Japan, the Tenpozan Kanransha gives magnificent views of the entire Osaka Bay area. It’s the perfect way to round off a great day out.


With so many great options for exploring Japan’s tremendous natural resources, perhaps it’s time you took a walk on the wild side.

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