For an animal on the verge of extinction, pandas have never been more popular than they are in zoos. And one panda taking Japan by storm is baby cub Xiang Xiang. Born to mother Shin Shin and father Li Li in June 2017, Xiang Xiang is Ueno Zoo’s symbol of adorableness (or as the Japanese would say in a high pitch, “Kawaii!”).
— 上野動物園［公式］ (@UenoZooGardens) February 26, 2018
Naturally, when the zoo introduced the first-come-first-served ticketing system to see the baby panda in February 2018, thousands of Japanese and tourists flocked to the zoo in the wee hours of the morning to obtain the viewing ticket (which does not include the entrance ticket). And it just so happened that I was in Tokyo around that time and decided to try my luck at seeing the celebrity panda.
I combed the Internet for information on the ticketing system, to see if an advance reservation was possible or if it was possible to purchase the entrance ticket beforehand. No such luck. Unless you have an annual pass, zoo visitors need to purchase the entrance ticket on the day itself when the zoo opens at 9:30 AM. There wasn’t much information on the ticketing system as well, but amen to Instagram, from which I was able to get a gauge of what time I need to be there to definitely get the tickets.
The answer to that is 8:00 AM. When I got there, there was already a long queue of more than 200 people ahead of me waiting to purchase the entrance ticket. On the right side, there was another queue for the annual pass holders. Equipped with my music, videos, coffee, and biscuits, I settled in for a 90 minutes’ wait for the gates to open. All around me, the locals pulled out their DAISO foldable chairs and mats to sit on. Most families had a representative in queue and they would hop in when the line started moving.
At 9:00 AM, the zoo staff would direct people into the vending machine lanes and at 9:20 AM, those first in line can start purchasing the tickets as the gates opened up. Of course, the annual pass holders got to go in first. It took me 15 minutes to purchase my ticket from the vending machine and as soon as I was through the gate, I got my ticket stamped and joined the stampede of people rushing to the left, towards the five-story pagoda, to join the line to get the actual tickets to view the baby panda and her mother. The panda viewing enclosure is on the right side and a queue had already formed consisting of those who got the first slot.
Visitors are allocated a specific 30-minute slot, starting from 9:45 AM right up to the last slot at 4:45 pm, according to their tickets. I scored the 11:10-11:30 AM slot, while a friend of mine who got in later got the 4:10-4:30 PM slot. (Note: This was when the zoo allocated 20-minute slots instead of 30.)
By 10:30 AM, all the tickets were given out. No collection on each other’s behalf to be fair to other people. If you’re worried that this would mean that you would have to spend the whole day at the zoo, well don’t be. Because as long as you have a panda viewing ticket, you can leave and re-enter the zoo later on for your viewing slot. Otherwise, re-entry is not allowed.
At 11:10 AM, I queued up to enter the enclosure and it was another 15 minutes before it was my turn. We entered in groups of 15 people and were required to follow the group’s allocated block as we moved along the enclosure. The enclosure was broken up into three sections, one outdoor and two indoors. Mommy Shin Shin was spotted lounging in the open area, munching on bamboo shoots, while the starlet herself was sleeping on her favorite perch indoors. This was to be expected of a panda.
Luckily for me, my friend gave me their afternoon slot and after wandering about the zoo for almost the whole day, I went back at 4:20 PM to join the last viewing group. And to my delight, Xiang Xiang was up and happily munching away at her bamboo shoot in the background of the enclosure while her mother was up front, still eating. The baby cub was definitely well worth the wait for me.
Mind you, when I went to the zoo, it was on a public holiday in Japan and it did feel like a majority of the visitors there were local. I reckoned the weekdays would be less hectic with shorter waiting time and queues. I don’t know how long this system will be in place, but for now, if you want to see the famous baby panda, queuing up early in the morning seems like the way to go. Alternatively, wait a few more months for the craze to blow over OR just go to see daddy Li Li.