Kyoto famously provides an unparalleled glimpse into Japan’s beautiful and storied past, but for even the most ardent cultural enthusiast there comes a time when a change of pace is required; there’s even the chance that (whisper it) maybe, just maybe, the shrines and temples of Kyoto don’t hold the fascination over you that they do for so many tourists. Luckily, the city does indeed have various locations more suitable for those who have less patience for the city’s sometimes seemingly endless procession of traditional cultural properties. With attractions ranging from hairstyle museums to theme parks, there are a range of places that are well worth considering making a part of your visit, and this article will introduce you to one of them; Kyoto Municipal Zoo.
Opened in 1903, making it the second oldest zoo in Japan after Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, Kyoto Municpal Zoo is located in Sakyo Ward, not too far away from notable landmarks such as Nanzenji and Heian Jingu. Access is relatively straightforward; by taking the Kyoto Subway to Keage Station on the Tozei Line (¥260 from Kyoto Station, requires a change of line at Karasuma Oike), you can reach the zoo’s east entrance by walking five minutes from Exit 1. The zoo runs alongside the Lake Biwa Canal, located against the backdrop of lush, tree-covered mountains that are the calling card of the eastern side of Kyoto City, has opening hours of 9:00am until 5:00pm (4:30pm from December until February, closed on Mondays) and is reasonable priced at ¥600 for adults with children 15 years and younger able to enjoy the zoo free of charge.
First things first; it’s an unavoidable fact that Asian Zoos have different standards for animal care than the west and those who are particularly squeamish about animal welfare may be upset by aspects of the conditions on show, with some animals being housed in old fashioned concrete and/or steel cages which can date back as far as the 1920s. That being said, efforts are clearly being made to modernise and bring the zoo up to more modern standards, with extensive construction being undertaken ahead of new areas opening in July and September of 2014, and the more recent additions – such as the Ape Room – are much more inline with western expectations of what living standards a zoo should give its animals. With that in mind, what animals can you expect to see?
The first area is dedicated to birds, with Emu, Peafowls and Owls among the attractions. It’s here you will notice that, unfortunately, the information presented on the cages for each animal is only in Japanese meaning that the educational opportunities usually associated with zoos won’t be a factor for those unable to read Japanese; the only English available is the name of the animals and the date in which they were either born in or brought to the zoo. This shouldn’t have too big an impact on your enjoyment of the zoo itself, but it’s still regrettable. From here, you will enter into the Monkey World zone of the park, with it’s sizeable Gorilla enclosure hosting three occupants, a large circular concrete pit filled with Rhesus monkeys and a separate Chimpanzee enclosure, as well as the aforementioned ape house. North of here is the Elephant’s Wood area, which hosts three Elephants, two Tapir and some Hyrax, and a Tropical Animal’s house that is home to a variety of reptiles, fish and amphibians.
Approaching the middle of zoo, you will find Fairy Land, a fairly old-fashioned play park with a ferris wheel and the like, with tickets costing ¥200 a ride, which is a nice diversion for very young children, but will be best avoided for the more discerning child. For them, look no further than across the way, where you will see the Petting Zoo, home to traditional farmyard animals such as goats, chickens and a donkey; this is where the zoo encourages interactions between people and animals through petting and feeding them.
Entering into the west side of the zoo, you will see the sizeable and well designed Red Panda cage which bridges between the zoo’s final two sections; Wild Animal World and the African Savannah. Wild Animal World holds various big cats in, unfortunately, rather grim cages, and the African Savannah, which is probably the best part of the zoo, is home to, surprisingly, an array of wildlife from the African plains, and offers an elevated platform allowing you to get on eye level with the giraffes and look down onto the cages of zebra, meerkats and hippos below.
Kyoto Zoo isn’t particularly big – you will comfortably be able to see everything on offer in an hour or two – but it does offer something a little different to what is normally associated with a trip to Kyoto. While the lack of focus on Japanese animals is a little disappointing and the conditions are not always what one would hope them to be, it serves as a pleasant distraction and will be especially appreciated by those who can’t always enjoy the subtle differences between Buddhist and Shinto religious architecture.