Even on a guided trip to the savannah or a wildlife reserve, it’s often difficult to spot animals in the wild. On Japan, however, there are islands and areas where, by chance or design, have become sanctuaries for some animals to roam around freely without fear of being caged, hunted or hurt. Here are four magical places in Japan where you can have an up close and personal encounter with cats, deer, rabbits and even foxes.
Cats are seen as symbols of protection and good luck in Japanese folklore, so it’s no surprise that there are over a dozen islands in Japan where cats reign supreme. Most well known among them is Aoshima in Ehime prefecture, where felines outnumber humans six to one.
Originally home to a fishing community, the cats were brought along to hunt rats, and although many villagers have left, the cats remain. Today, the tiny island has a (human) count of less than 20, mostly retirees, who care for more than a 100 cats. There are no restaurants or hotels, but you can access the island (with a bag of feed in tow!) via ferry from the mainland.
Okunoshima is also known as ‘Usagi Shima’ (rabbit island in Japanese), where over 1,000 rabbits reside. It is believed that a few bunnies were let loose on the island several decades ago, and free from predators, they multiplied like, well, rabbits. Most are tame and will chase after you if they notice feed in your hands.
In stark contrast to the fluffy reputation of its inhabitants, the island holds a dark past, as it was once a key center in the manufacture of poison gas for the Japanse army in World War II. Visitors to Okunoshima will find many derelict, abandoned buildings and facilities, as well as a Poison Gas Museum.
Zao Fox Village
Foxes are known to be shy and elusive - so imagine a place where you can see not one or two but dozens of these beautiful, magnificent creatures. There are over 100 foxes living in Zao Fox Village in Miyagi Prefecture; mostly Japanese Ezo red foxes, but also some rare species of blue, cross, platinum, shadow and silver foxes. The animals roam freely in a large natural habitat. Visitors are welcome to feed and hold them, although caution is advised since there are still wild animals and can turn aggressive.
Another flighty creature that is difficult to approach in the wild is deer - unless you’re on Miyajima island. The place is known for the classical Edo-era look of its buildings and structures, as well as a World Heritage Site floating ‘torii’ gate. The island is also home to over a thousand Sika deer, mostly tame and used to humans.
In the Shinto religion, deer are considered sacred messengers of the gods and as such, it was forbidden to kill one - which might explain the flourishing population on Miyajima island. It’s not unusual to see these gentle creatures walking closely alongside tourists. Feeding the deer, however, is prohibited as the island is at its maximum carrying capacity for the deer population.