It is Saturday morning and Tokyo Station is packed with tourists. Today's destination is Shiroishi Zao, a small town two hours away on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. Once we are there, we get on a taxi and spend the next 5 minutes behaving like 5-year--olds that cannot wait to get to Disneyland. At some point I almost say the words "Are we there yet?" out loud but then our driver points to a small entrance and says "That's it right there. Have fun!"
And so we enter the Sendai Zao Fox Village, an animal sanctuary where over 100 foxes live together. After purchasing our tickets and getting rid of any snacks that might cause trouble, we enter the open-air enclosure and are immediately greeted by a young red fox. It's so fluffy and cute but something tells me hugging and squeezing it the way I do my dog is not going to get me the same reaction. As we continue further inside the enclosure some heads turn to look at us, then they go back to sleeping. I'm surprised to see white and black-furred foxes but my assumption that these are different species goes out the window when I learn that this is simply a mutation that is very common among red foxes.
We finally reach the feeding area and we can see animals running from every part of the enclosure to make sure they get a bite. We enter the small restricted area, meant to protect the visitors from the hungry (or greedy) animals and we start taking pictures of them looking up at us. You can almost see the disappointment in their faces but it's obvious this is not the first time they've fallen for this trick. They sit there patiently, in hopes that after we are done we will give them a snack to make up for their troubles. Before we have a chance to do so, another couple enters the feeding area and suddenly we are yesterday's news to the foxes that will no longer so much as look at us. The feeding itself it quite the spectacle. The foxes position themselves as close to the action as possible and as soon as someone throws food they jump to catch it. That's not the end of it, however. Once they've managed to catch it they have to get away from the other animals who are not happy with the way things have turned out. Fights occur almost every time , unless one of the larger foxes catches something, at which point it simply shoots everyone a dirty look and they back off.
As fun as this is to watch, we still haven't seen most parts of the enclosure so we resume our stroll. Soon we come across a small shrine dedicated to Inari, the shinto deity that uses foxes as his messengers. As with most Inari shrines, there are several fox statues here but there is also a big, fluffy live one, sitting right next to the torii gate. This is as authentic as it gets, I think to myself. The fox approaches us in the hopes that we might feed it but soon more of its friends arrive and we decide to move on. Foxes are not usually aggressive toward humans but bites are not unheard of. Keeping your distance and raising your foot to stop them when they get too close is a good idea.
We move on to other parts of the "village" where different species of fox and other animals live. At some point we spend a good 10 minutes watching a fox react to the bunnies that live next door. I don't know who's idea it was to have at such close proximity from each other but it feels a little mean spirited.
An hour and a few hundred photographs later we are ready to go. "Did you already pet Nori-chan?" asks one of the employees. "Who?" "Nori-chan, the one outside the enclosure. Come, I'll show you." Nori-chan lives in a dog house right by the entrance. "What happened to her?" I ask. "She lost her baby last month. She's getting better now. Come, you can touch her." We pet her on the head and it's the softest thing. "Get well, Nori-chan. Hope to see you out and about next time.".
- If you visit during the winter months, the animals' big winter fur against the snow is adorable.
- Be prepared for some not-so-cute sights as well. The animals live together so fights over food are bound to occur, much like in the wild. A missing ear or a bleeding paw is not out of the question.
- Follow the instructions of the staff. You don't want to get bitten and ruin your trip (along with everyone else's day).
Entrance fee: 1000 yen.
Access from Tokyo Station: Tohoku Shinkansen to Shiroishi Zao.
Website (in Japanese): http://www12.plala.or.jp/zao-fox/index.html