Visit any islands with free-roaming wildlife in Japan and you’d hear incessant shrieks of this resonating through the air. ‘Kawaii’ translates to mean ‘cute’ in English, which adequately sums up any experience on these islands. The animals have free reign of the place and roam around freely — inadvertently creating multiple tourist attractions that allow travellers to observe (and interact!) with these creatures in their natural habitat.
If you’re an animal lover, a visit to these places might be just up your alley:
1. Feed the deer at Nara or Miyajima
Yes, you read that right — you can actually frolic amongst free-roaming deer at Nara or Miyajima. Nara Park, in particular, is home to around 1,200 of these curious creatures. These deer are regarded as sacred creatures and enjoy continued protection as National Treasures.
You’ll find the deer everywhere — along the sidewalks, in front of the shops (some of which even put out water for the animals), in front of the temples and lounging on the grass. If you’d like, you can purchase a packet of deer biscuits to feed the deer and if you bow to them, they’d bow right back! You’ll be able to find free-roaming deer at Miyajima Island as well, which is famous for its floating torii gate.
2. Cuddle with bunnies at Okunoshima
Credit: @travelynns, Instagram
It’s rabbits galore at Okunoshima, an island accessible via train and ferry from Hiroshima. The island is inhabited by hundreds of sniffly bunnies, all of which will come clamouring once you step off the ferry — especially if you arrive with a head of cabbage and a couple of carrots in hand.
The rabbits usually congregate around the ferry terminal, hotel, shrine, observation platform, and the visitor’s centre, so do be sure to hit those spots if you want to be surrounded by all that bouncy cuteness! However, the island isn’t without a dark history; Okunoshima was previously used to manufacture poison gas for the war. No one knows how these rabbits came to be on the island; however, one theory is that they were brought to the island to be used as guinea pigs for the poison gas factories, and abandoned when the operations shut down.
3. Walk with foxes at Zao Fox Village
Now, this is something that most travellers normally wouldn’t expect to do in Japan. Get up close and personal with 6 different fox species at the Zao Fox Village, a sanctuary that’s home to over 100 foxes. Till this day, wild foxes still approach the village in search of water and food — in turn finding a forever home where they’ll have a safe space to roam and play.
Take a stroll through the free-roaming area, where you’ll be wandering among multiple foxes! Watch as they play in the shade, stretch out on rocks, or take a nap on the grass. If you’d like, you can purchase some food to feed them from an elevated platform. If you’re lucky, you might even have the chance to hold a baby fox in your arms — at an additional cost, of course.
4. Check out the monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park
Every winter, the snow monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park make a prized appearance. These monkeys are of the Japanese Macaque variety, all of which normally reside in the Jigokudani Valley. The monkey park is home to one giant natural hot spring, which the monkeys flock to in search of some respite from the cold. Indeed, it’s quite a sight to watch these monkeys soaking in the waters of the hot spring!
Granted that you won’t be able to interact with the monkeys but they’re mostly accustomed to the presence of humans, so you’ll be able to observe them from up-close. Sightings of these monkeys are common all year round but the best time to visit is during winter, where the contrast of the monkeys in the steaming pools amidst the surrounding snow makes for an utterly unique scene.
5. Hang out with cats at Ainoshima Island
Both aloof and affectionate, cats make for some of the world’s most beloved pets. However, for those that don’t have the privilege of having a pet of your own, you can head to Ainoshima Island to get your fill of all things furry and cute! Ainoshima Island can be easily visited from Hakata Station in Fukuoka and has a small area of just 1.25 square kilometres. The island is home to around 500 fishermen and, you guessed it, plenty of cats.
There are about 150 to 200 cats on the island, most of which usually congregate around the port, around the warehouses and at the shrine. Ainoshima may be the most famous cat island in Japan, but the cat islands of Aoshima and Tashirojima are well worth a visit as well — especially if you can’t get enough!
Arm yourself with some bribes in the form of food — yes, animals can be rather superficial creatures — and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an animal whisperer at any of the above locations. Are you ready for all that cuteness?