Kumamoto City is most famous for Kumamoto Castle – its historical and cultural sites are top attractions for any budding historian. But if you’re traveling with young kids, it is only a matter of time before museums and attractions like that no longer hold their attention. Wherever you are, visiting a zoo is a great choice for an outing if you’re aiming to please the kids, and the Kumamoto Zoo is no exception. Aside from being much loved by children, this zoo is a great option on many levels – it’s easy to get to, it’s cheap, it’s well laid out and great value for money. What more could you want?
Parking is free (except for National Holidays and on the weekend) but if you choose to come by public transport, the easiest access is by tram. In the Kengun direction (‘A’ or ‘B’ line depending on where you’re boarding from, both will get you there) take the tram to Doshokubutsuen Iriguchi Station. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but don’t worry, the overhead announcement will clearly say ‘Kumamoto Zoo’ and it’s marked on the map under that name too – and you’ll know you’ve reached the right station by the pictures of animals all over the station walls.
Get off the tram and it’s a 10-minute walk down past the tennis courts and through the public park – there are signs to guide you and it’s easy enough to find. The location of the zoo is fantastic – right next to Lake Ezu you are enveloped in nature and have a great view of the waters beyond.
Through the main entrance of the park, the first thing you will see is ‘Monkey Island’ – one of my favorite exhibits. On separate patches of land, you can see the ring-tailed lemur and the black spider monkey, which are particularly cute and playful when they are young.
From there, I tend to follow the usual course and see the exhibits as they are ordered on the zoo map, from 1 through to 33, in a snaking loop around the Eastern side of the park (the left-hand side of the map). Exhibits 2, 3 and 4 are some of my least favorites – it’s very difficult to comfortably and ethically accommodate large animals in zoos, and sadly the Kumamoto Zoo is another example of big animals being put into cages that are just too small for them. As such, the bears, lions, and tigers in this section have a sad, crazed look about them and tend to pace in an unnerving way. The snow leopards seem a little happier (and as they are an endangered species it’s nice to have the chance to see them) but in general I tend to skip by these enclosures.
Exhibits 5, 6 and 7 are some of my favorites – monkeys! Mandrills, squirrel monkeys, golden snub-nosed monkeys, and the lion-tailed macaque, with the super-cute squirrel monkeys being the most popular. Because of the small bars on the cage it’s difficult to take a really good photograph of those cheeky little things, so my advice is to forget the camera and just enjoy them in the moment.
Section 8 and 9 are birds (parakeets, birds of prey, cranes) and following that, some more big animals including zebra, rhino, hippo and kangaroo. The hippo is particularly fun to watch as it lollops in and out of its little splash pool. After visiting the kangaroo, be sure to explore in all directions as the exhibits are a bit more spread out here and you don’t want to miss anything!
The polar bear, sea lion, and penguins are top enclosures, but the often overlooked capybara (hidden away behind the penguins) and the secluded enclosure for the Japanese macaques are some of my favorites, so be sure to seek them out!
After that, you’re on the home straight with sections 20 to 33 showcasing the last of the animals for you to see. In that section, you can see deer (of many varieties), lama, camels, elephants, giraffes, reptiles, chimpanzees, flamingoes, ostriches and much more.
As the name suggests, the Kumamoto Zoological Park is also a Botanical Garden, and once you’ve seen all the animals there is still much more to enjoy. There are different gardens that are at their best at different times of the year, so there is always something to see. The Japanese Landscape Garden is particularly lovely, with lush moss and dappled light filtering down through the trees making for an ethereal atmosphere that looks like it’s straight out of Princess Mononoke. Relax in the Chinese Friendship Pavilion and enjoy the view across the garden and out onto Lake Ezu.
Touch Love Land
If you do so happen to visit with young children (who will no doubt become bored even by the plethora of amazing animals) the park has other attractions to keep the little ones busy. First of all, there is the hilariously named ‘Touch Love Land’ which is a ‘Wild West’ style petting zoo for the little ones to get some first-hand experiences with animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chickens. There is a play area, a game center, and other large rides such as the cup and saucer, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and more.
Monorail and the Sakura Bullet Train
Other rides that are good for kids (and big kids too!) are the Monorail and the Sakura Bullet Train rides. The monorail is elevated above the park, and taking a ride offers you a birds eye view down into the animal enclosures. The route takes you sailing above the elephants, giraffes, deer.. and the staff car park – not so scenic! The bullet train ride takes you around the Swan pond, in the center of which you can see the flamingoes and chimpanzees.
Aside from all these attractions, in the Kumamoto Zoological and Botanical Gardens, there is naturally a gift shop (by the main entrance), food stalls, and a restaurant in the ‘Flower Rest Area’ building. If you fancy having a look around the picturesque Lake Ezu after your zoo visit, you can use one of the free rental bikes at the south exit of the zoo to go for a spin by the waterside.
The park is open from 9am – 5pm (closed on Mondays, except the 4th Monday of the month when it is closed on Tuesday instead, and if both Monday and Tuesday are National Holiday days, the next weekday is a closed day instead, and it is also closed over the New Year period from December 30th to January 1st.) As for the price, the Kumamoto Zoo is fantastic value (especially compared to how expensive aquariums usually are). Adult entrance is only 300 yen, Elementary and Junior High entry is 100 yen, and young children go free, with discounts for pre-booked groups of 30 or more. At this price, the Kumamoto Zoo is one of the most affordable and good value outings that the city has to offer!