Zao Fox Village: a Paradise for Animal Lovers
Foxes are an important part of Japanese culture. They are the messengers for the god Inari, and you can find their likeness in many shrines. In folklore, foxes are a common character, often depicted as intelligent, shapeshifting creatures. However, one rarely gets a chance to see real foxes. This is where Zao Fox Village comes in. The Fox Village is a fox preserve, nestled up in the mountains of Miyagi prefecture. It has been open since 1990, and it is currently home to over 100 foxes. For 1000 yen, you can enter and watch the foxes to your hearts content.
There are two areas. The first is more like a typical zoo; the sides are lined with cages where all kinds of foxes are held. They even have rabbits and guinea pigs, which you can hold or feed for a small fee, as well as ferrets and crows. I will admit I was a little dismayed at first. While I loved being able to see the foxes up close, I was disappointed to see the small cages. While the animals all seemed healthy and cared for, it seemed like a rather sad environment though not all that different from most Japanese zoos. There were larger enclosures though, that gave the foxes more room to roam about — or just sleep, as most of the foxes were doing when I visited.
The second part, however, is much more fox-friendly, and this is what makes the village so popular. You can enter a large gated area where the foxes have plenty of space to run around. There are many trees, logs, benches, and fox houses to give the foxes shade and places to sleep. It does a good job of mimicking their natural environment, which was certainly a relief after seeing them in the cages. There is also a small shrine on the grounds, and when I visited, a fox wisely decided this would be a good place to take a nap.
In the center, there is a raised building and from there, you can buy food pellets to drop down to the waiting foxes. The foxes are quite excited to receive snacks, so it is a lot of fun to feed them. Although, of course, you cannot feed them by hand. You can also buy food pellets when you purchase your ticket, but if you do, make sure to keep it well hidden until you reach the designated feeding building; the foxes may bite or go after your things if they think you have food. Along the sides, there are also other smaller enclosures that house the younger foxes. You cannot enter these spaces, but the foxes are still such fun to watch; when I visited, many were curled up together in an adorable fox pile, and because they're younger, I could even see them playing.
I was astounded by the variety of foxes. They have many different breeds, 8 in total, in many different colors. The variety was unlike anything I had ever seen in a zoo. I had expected to see red foxes, but they also had black, grey, and even gold colored foxes. I hadn't even known some of these breeds existed so it was a joy to be able to see so many different kinds of foxes. This is also the only place in Japan where you can see arctic foxes. When I visited in August, they even had two arctic fox pups. If you go in March or April, you are also likely to see baby foxes. The village is open even in winter so if you go then, you can see the foxes with their thick winter coats.
The foxes generally have no problem with people, and most simply ignore you, even if you approach them. Since they're nocturnal, many of them will simply sleep through your visit though the ones waiting for food are certainly very alert and attentive. It was amazing to see these beautiful creatures up close. Keep in mind, though, that these are wild animals although they may seem tame. You are not allowed to touch or feed the foxes outside of the designated area, and signs also advise against running and other activities that could scare the foxes. Also make sure not to bring any food inside with you. While there are many paths you can follow, there are also areas that are off limits to humans so it's important to pay attention to where you walk.
However, they do offer a chance to hold one of the tamer foxes for 400 yen. This is only offered at select times so keep an eye on the sign near the entrance if you are interested. The foxes were all clearly loved by the staff, and most showed no resistance to being petted or held. In fact, the fox I held curiously sniffed my face before licking my cheek. If the a fox did get agitated or seemed stressed or unhappy, the staff was quick to return them. Because they had quite a few foxes, no one fox was overworked. I was relieved to see the care they had for these animals, and it did not feel at all exploitative.
Unfortunately, Zao Fox Village is a little remote. The easiest way is by car, and it's an hour from Fukushima and an hour and a half from Sendai. You can take a train to Shiroishi or to the shinkansen stop at Shiroishizao, but from there, a twenty minute taxi is required. To return, the staff in the gift shop can call a taxi for you. The taxis are fairly expensive, costing around 4000 yen each way, so if you have a valid license, a rental car is likely cheaper. The Castle Kun bus bound for Kawarago Dam can be used every Tuesday and Friday. It departs from Shiroishi station at 7:58 and 13:35 and the return bus is at 14:32. It costs 200 yen but be sure to ask to be dropped off at the Fox Village. Zao Fox Village is open every day from 9 until 5 (4 from November until March).
While it is hard to get to, it is absolutely worth a visit for all animal lovers. As foxes are often elusive or skittish in the wild, Zao Fox Village gives you an unique experience to see foxes up close and to observe their behavior for yourself. If you can read Japanese, it's also a good chance to learn more about foxes as there are many signs that offer information about them. If you are coming from far away, it might also be worth it to pair it with Mt. Zao, famed for its stunning crater lake, as it's only a 50 minute drive away. Ultimately, it was an amazing once in a life experience and it will certainly remain one of my favorite spots in Japan.