Tokyo, home to skyscrapers and all manner of other concrete constructs, is also home to several simulated jungles – its zoos.
The three parks below don’t represent the sum total of the animal experiences Tokyo has to offer when you travel here. Other, smaller zoos can be found around the city too. But this trio are certainly among the best.
1. Ueno Zoo
Japan’s oldest and most venerable zoological park opened its gates on March 20, 1882. The central location makes it perfect for tourists and locals alike. Some 3.5 million people made their way through its grounds in 2006.
Surprisingly spacious for a facility nestled amidst Tokyo’s sprawl and skyscrapers, the Ueno Zoo isn’t only home to the usual tigers, gorillas and hippos but also species uncommon to other zoos, such as the African okapi and the elusive Japanese giant salamander. Some of the enclosures could benefit from a little work to create a more natural environment, but overall, Ueno does pretty well for an urban zoological park.
The monorail running through the park, which is more useful as a diversion for visitors with kids than actual transportation, was the first of its kind built in Japan.
Trivia: Ueno Zoo is quite possibly the only zoo that offers visitors a chance to sample the same foods the animals eat. The “Momoko Healthy Lunch” is an exact copy of the fruits, nuts, vegetables and legumes fed to the zoo’s lowland gorillas (albeit in human-sized portions.)
Ueno Park: Ueno Park 9-83, Taito-ku, +81 (0)3 3828 5171
2. Tama Zoological Park
Located an hour west of central Tokyo by train, Tama Zoo is known for its large and realistic habitats. Roughly four times the size of Ueno Zoo, its spacious enclosures are arranged on and around a large hill, making a visit more of a hike than a stroll. (Shuttle buses also ply the paths for those who prefer a little assistance.)
Tama Zoo is divided into four areas: Asiatic Garden, African Garden, Australian Garden and the Insectarium. Other features include an orangutan skywalk, in which the simians can freely move hand over hand between enclosures, and a Lion Garden, in which visitors can take an armored, meat-festooned bus on a spin through the enclosure of the big cats.
Speaking of which, the tiger enclosure is worth a visit as well. It includes a giant cat toy made out of ropes and tires that visitors can jiggle for the predators to pounce on. (Just watch out you don’t get yanked into the air yourself when they start pulling back. It’s hard to imagine something like this existing in more lawsuit-obsessed nations.)
And watch out for the peacocks. Left uncaged and entirely to their own devices, the entirety of the park is their enclosure.
Trivia: The Insectarium’s Butterfly House, a massive greenhouse filled with tropical butterflies, is particularly fun to visit in the winter months for an early taste of summer.
Tama Zoo: Hodokubo 7-1-1, Hino-shi, +81 (0)42 591 1611
3. Mother Farm
Okay, so this isn’t really a zoo in the traditional sense. And it isn’t exactly in Tokyo, either.
Located amidst rolling pastureland in deepest Chiba, Mother Farm is a solid two hours from downtown Tokyo, making it more of a day trip than a destination for casual visitors. But then again, that’s the charm.
Billed as an entertainment farm, it’s closer to a county fair than a zoological park. The facilities include enough flowers and decorative trees to fill an arboretum (it’s a great place to see large stands of plum, azalea and cherry blossoms, among others), a small amusement park, flower gardens, orchards and farming areas devoted to raising cows, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, ostriches, donkeys, rabbits and pretty much any other barnyard animal you can think of.
As such the activities tend to focus on the pastoral, such as hands-on cow milking, horseback riding, sheepdog herding and a daily duck parade. Fruit and vegetable picking are offered as well.
You can enjoy fresh sheep meat in a Mongolian barbecue restaurant on the premises, although we recommend leaving a little space in between taking the tots to see the furry animals grazing before you graze on them yourself.
Trivia: The only place even remotely near Tokyo you’ll get to see a pig race.
Mother Farm: Takura 940-3, Futtsu City, Chiba Prefecture, +81 (0)439 37 3211
Access: From Tokyo Station, take the Sazanami express to Kimitsu station, then switch to the Kimitsu Bus (reservations required.) Alternately, take JR from Chiba station to Sanukimachi Station, then switch to a local city bus bound for Mother Bokujo.
Hiroko Yoda is the author of many books about Japan, including “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide,” “Ninja Attack!:True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws,” and “Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide.”
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2009. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.