Kichijoji – an area west of Tokyo, has a reputation for being one of the most livable places in Japan, and it’s easy to see why. One of its draw-cards is its lovely park, located south of the station. This park, perhaps one of the prettiest in Tokyo, has a beautiful forest-like feel to it. With its series of natural walkways and grass area, it makes you feel like you are immersed in some natural landscape, instead of 20 minutes from Shinjuku. The park also features a beautiful pond along with a series of romantic swan boats for couples to enjoy (although legend says that couples who take a swan boat along the river are doomed to break-up afterwards). However, a relatively hidden wonder in this park is its zoo – which is a real shame, because Inokashira Park Zoo is amazing.
The path to the zoo is lined with an assortment of coffee shops and small restaurants. The Kanda River runs parallel to the park, and feeds into the harmony. Inokashira Zoo is not like Ueno or other, more formal, zoos. It does not have large fences or clearly marked caged areas. Rather it’s like the park and the zoo have merged into a single blend of nature. This absence of structure gives guests a unique and tranquilly atmosphere to enjoy. Within the zoo you will find not only animals, but also lovely open green areas, a wonderfully ornate statute museum and a traditional ceremonial tea house, reminiscent of Kyoto.
Most of the animals housed in Inokashira are native animals. The zoo does not have the big animals – tigers, elephants and the like – although Inokashira did have an elephant, “Hanako”, the first Asiatic elephant to come to Japan after WWII. The elephant was donated to Japan by the Indian government, sadly, Hanako recently passed away. The zoo has dedicated a large area to her memory with a series of photos, her preserved old enclosure and other memorabilia.
The zoo focuses on native animals and boasts a wonderful interactive squirrel enclosure. Here you can see several squirrel families as they go about their daily routine of eating food and scurrying up trees. Inside the enclosure are several guides who can explain the behavior of these cute animals.
Other Japanese critters include rhesus monkeys, fennec foxes, Japanese serows, martens, red-crowned cranes and, of course, the iconic Japanese Raccoon Dog – the tanuki. These mischievous, not so clever, creatures are well known in Japanese legends, and can even shape change into humans! They have been written about in ancient literature. Studio Ghibli even made film about their fight against a human housing development in Tama called Pom Poko. The reality is that these animals, like the fox, have a howling style which mimics singing. They eat meat scraps and are primarily foragers. They are shy and rarely seen – although often heard, and inhabit many forest areas especially in Tohoku. They have grown to ‘live’ with humans, but are usually not as successful as foxes.
Finally there is a lovely lake which encompasses one section of the park zoo. This is dedicated to water birds, including swans. From this part of the zoo you can see some of the buildings and park lands that form the wider park, including a small Benzaiten shrine.
Located within 10 minutes walk from Kichijoji JR Station and linked by a quant coffee-filled street, Inokashira zoo is one of those places to relax, and enjoy tranquility with some cute Japanese animals. It does not have the rush of Ueno Zoo, rather, it is a zoo that perfectly blends into its surroundings; making it a most magical place to visit.