Entering Capybara Heaven at Izu Shaboten Zoo (Shizuoka, Japan)

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Capybara freely bathe in an orange-filled hotspring at Izu Shaboten Zoo.

Last weekend on my backpacking journey through Shizuoka prefecture to see Carpainter perform in Hammamatsu, I decided to stop in Izu to see the infamous hotspring-loving capybara of Japan.  Izu Shaboten Zoo is one of the few places in the world where you can get up close with these large adorable rodents and see them bathe in a natural hotspring filled with oranges (which are a specialty of this prefecture).  Native to South America, capybaras are mammals with webbed-feet that are quite well-mannered around humans and other animals.  Like platypuses, capybaras enjoy being both on land and in water with a diet consisting of mostly grass and dried plants.  The ones at Izu Shaboten are easy to approach and very entertaining to watch in the bath!

Exploring Izu Shaboten Zoo

In addition to capybaras, there are also a number of other rare animals housed here including red pandas, kangaroos, unique species of birds, and reptiles.  I’ve been to a lot of zoos in Asia, but I highly recommend this one because it’s less like a zoo and more like a wildlife conservation area.  The natural habitat of each animal is preserved as much as possible and they all seem to be in great health.  Being up close to kangaroos reminded me of my trip to Australia last summer!  This place truly didn’t feel like Japan because other zoos in this country are comparably small in size.

I spent the most time in the Capybara Rainbow Pen (an area separate from the bath) feeding and petting the ones that wanted attention.  You can purchase capybara grass for 200 yen and they will be eternally grateful for your kindness!

Outside from the capyabaras, I enjoyed watching the red panda diligently march on its tree branch.  A Japanese couple beside me describe its movements as “ゴロゴロ” (I love accidentally overhearing people so I am able to learn new words everyday).

Another of my favorite places was the cactus garden, because you can purchase cheap capybara pots and customize your favorite cacti to take home.  Just all of the detail that was put into this attraction amazes me:

You can also take a boat ride around the park because it has a small river that runs through it and leads to other areas, but I chose to explore most of the park on-foot so I could capture more angles with my GoPro.  I would recommend spending at least 3 hours here because there is a lot to see and do━especially if you are a photographer.

Eating a Capybara Burger

At the Gibbon restaurant found near the entrance of the zoo, no one eats alone!!  That’s because there is a huge stuffed capybara sitting at every table to keep you company.  I came here on Valentine’s Day, so this cabybara date made it the most memorable one of my life.  Getting back to the food—the burger was made of fresh bread and was delicious (I customized mine to be vegetarian).  If I had more room for food I would have tried the omelet rice duck because it looked pretty aesthetic from the menu picture.  For a full list of restaurants, please see the official site.

Buying Capybara Souvenirs

My apartment in Tokyo is already full of stuffed animals that friends have won for me, but I could not pass up the chance to buy an adorable stuffed capybara holding an orange here.  I also bought some chocolat baumkuchen (cake) for my friend.  Everything here was extremely well-priced compared to other zoos because I only payed around 1200 yen for the plushie and 800 yen for the cake.  I already want to come back in the summer to buy more capybara merch!  Also, the restaurant signs here made me laugh:

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Mt. Omuro

Right beside the Izu Shaboten Zoo stands Mt. Omuro, which is an inactive volcano you can take a lift up for 700 yen.  Since I decided to go to the ropeway in Atami, I skipped this attraction, but it is worth seeing if you have time.  There are cute little shops you can look at while you’re waiting for the bus too.

Getting to Izu Shaboten Zoo

From Tokyo Station I took the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Atami, then the Ito Line to Ito Station, and finally a local bus to the zoo.  This costs around 5000 yen and takes 2.5 hours.  You can easily do this as a day trip, but I spent 3 days in this prefecture because there are a number of things to see besides the capybara (which I will get into in my next articles).

Entrance to the zoo is 2300 which may seem expensive, but with the diverse number of animals they have here I think the price is fair.

Address

Izu Shaboten Zoo, 1317-13 Futo, Itō, Shizuoka 413-0231

Final Remarks

Izu Shaboten Zoo was by far my best experience with animals in Japan because I got the chance to pet capaybaras in addition to seeing other rare species.  The zoo has a adorable theme with the hotspring and petting zoos which makes it a suitable attraction for all ages.  Since it’s more remote from the major cities of Japan that means it’s less crowded.  If I decide to go again, I will combine this with a trip to Shirahama Beach which is a little further south of here.  I will be writing more about my adventures in Shizuoka Prefecture over the next coming days, so please look forward to them because this is only the beginning!

Free the Bears: Volunteering as a Bear Keeper in Cambodia

Whenever I travel to a new country, I like to spend a day doing volunteer work with animals.  Not only does it help support them, but it also gives me the chance to meet rare species and learn more about the culture of the country I’m visiting.  In Thailand I signed up for a program at the Elephant Sanctuary, and I just recently visited the Cleland Wildlife Park in Australia.  While I was researching animal programs in Cambodia, the Free the Bears volunteer program really caught my eye.  In this program, you will become a bear keeper for the day and get the chance to meet some extremely fascinating Cambodian Sun and Moon Bears!

About Free the Bears

Free the Bears was founded in order to help bears that had been neglected throughout Asia in “coffin-size” cages and milked for their bile, which could be used as an ingredient in medicine.  Fortunately this cruel practice is becoming illegal, but many bears are still being held in captivity.  This program helps educate volunteers on what we can do to save them, and also gives its participants to safely interact with them.  In addition to Cambodia, there are also other locations in Laos and Vietnam.  The Cambodian location is within Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, and free transportation is included when you sign up for the program.

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Several Moon Bears feast on a nutritious lunch of vegetables and honey.

Itinerary

When I accepted to the program, I was sent the following itinerary via email:

09.30 to 10.00 – Arrive at the centre and have introduction and welcome.
10.00 to 11.00 – Guided tour around the bear sanctuary and introduction to the bears.
11.00 to 12.00 – Preparing bear enrichment.
12.00 to 13.00 – Lunch.
13.00 to 15.00 – Tour of other animals at the centre.
15.00 to 15.30 – Helping keepers put out enrichment, feeding bears etc.
15.30/16.00 – Leave centre and return to Phnom Penh by approximately 5.00pm.

Being a Bear Keeper for a Day

My day began with a cheerful tour around the wildlife center.  I lucked out because I was the only person on the tour and that gave me the chance to ask a lot of questions.  All of the staff was very friendly and spoke English.  I got the chance to meet several of the bears and they all seemed well-treated and happy.  Unfortunately you are not able to pet the bears, as their claws can be quite sharp, but you can get pretty close to them and take pictures with them.

After I met all of the bears, we started preparing meals for them.  I chopped up some vegetables and stuffed them in bamboo and plastic balls.  After the meal prep, I was guided to a fence where I could toss the food balls over to them, and pass them the bamboo sticks through the fence.

Watching them eat was extremely adorable:

We also took bits of food and scattered them across their playground.  This gives the bears a chance to exercise their bodies, and they actually looked like they really enjoyed going on the hunt:

I learned that sun bears are actually the smallest and rarest of the bear species.  My favorite bear was this extremely rare one that looks like a lion:

However, all of the bears I met were extremely cute!  I thought that some of them may be in rough condition, but all of the ones I saw had no visible injury or scarring.  They looked like they were living a happy life, and that made me extremely grateful.

Meeting the other Animals

In addition to bears, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is home to many other species of animals including gibbons, tigers, elephants, and more!  This was my first time ever seeing a gibbon, and I was extremely impressed seeing them climb and swing with their long arms.

In addition to the gibbons, I also met the most beautiful tiger in the world:

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Who knew such hidden beauty existed here in Cambodia!  Seeing this tiger was absolutely breathtaking.

Overall Review

I was overall extremely satisfied with my experience with Free the Bears, and would recommend the program for all animal lovers.  It doesn’t matter how much previous volunteer experience you have, because being a bear keeper here is actually quite easy!

The program costs $90 for which is a bit expensive, but you receive a free T-shirt which is actually quite stylish, and lunch and transportation is also included.  If you put things into perspective, Cambodia is an under-developed country, and these bears are in need of help so this is a good investment.  I took my money here rather than shopping at the night market, and feel extremely enriched because of it.

I really liked traveling in Cambodia, and I am happy that I made my money count here.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!

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Hanging out with Kangaroos and Koalas at Cleland Wildlife Park

One of the biggest reasons I came to Australia was to experience its unique wildlife parks and see some of the native animals here.  Whenever I go to a new country, I try to do some volunteer work with animals or donate to a sanctuary because I truly care about their well-being.  Unfortunately Japan’s zoos are quite cramped, and I do not have as many options to volunteer for animal programs here as I do in other countries.  That is why I was delighted to discover Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide, because it is one of the the two places in Australia where you can hold a Koala (the other being in Sydney).

What I liked the most about Cleland Wildlife Park was that it isn’t a zoo; it’s an animal sanctuary.  That means the animals are preserved in a natural enclosure, but are free to roam over acres of land.  Visitors are free to approach them with animal pellets purchased for $3 at the park and interact with them.  I had heard rumors that kangaroos in the wild can be quite territorial, but was surprised to learn that the ones here are extremely friendly!  They act a lot like huge hopping dogs when you approach them with food and are very soft to pet.

In addition to kangaroos, I also learned about wallabies, which belong to the kangaroo family, but are smaller and more timid.  You can also spot them by the slightly darker color of the fur.  I tried to approach a few, but they were adorably shy.

The Koala encounters are the most popular exhibit here.  Since we came to the park on a Monday, we fortunately had no problem being able to see one.  Meet Brownie the koala introduced in the video below:

I was happy to see that the koalas seemed to be well taken care of, and the zookeeper was very enthusiastic about her job.  She placed Brownie in a tree and fed her so we could pet and hold her briefly.  It was an extremely pleasant encounter, and I was so happy that I made the trip here!

After snapping many photos, we decided to walk around the bird sanctuary.  On the way there we saw Dingos, which are like wild Shiba Inu dogs in Australia.  We also saw a wombat that was lazily sleeping (I wished we could trade lives for a day), and a number of cockatoos roaming around.  I was surprised to see how large the park truly was.  It was extremely easy to spend at least 2-3 hours roaming around, because the experience is truly relaxing.

To get to Cleland Wildlife Park from central Adelaide, you will need to take 2-3 trams to get to Mt. Lofty, then you can easily enter the park and see a beautiful view of the city.  You can also use Uber to get there easily, but be wary of the park’s closure time.  We actually got locked in the park while riding our Uber because it was just past 5pm and the gate had closed, so we had to call a park ranger to let us out!

The entrance fee is $30 for one adult, which I think is well-worth the price.  For information regarding the Koala encounters, please see the official website.

Not far from Cleland Wildlife Park is a German Village called Hahndorf, so I recommend going there if you have time after.  We stopped by for drinks with a friend, but there are also a number of things you can experience during the day such as strawberry picking and goat-petting.   The possibilities are truly endless in the wilderness of Australia.