Compassionate Travel: A Guide for Animal Lovers in Japan

By Kylie Goldstein, travel writer for Tourist Japan

As most animal lovers already know, Japan is a haven for feline-friends, from cat cafes to entire cat islands, there are endless options to enjoy those cute kitties.

Beyond this, Japan is a paradise for animal lovers, from natural parks with frolicking deer and free-roaming monkeys bathing in natural hot springs. From squirrels to dogs, owls, aquatic life and even bears, Japan has a lot to offer those who are compassionate and loving towards animals.

While Japan was once under scrutiny for unfair treatment of animals and animal welfare, changes have been made and the situation for animals has steadily been improving. With the positive advocating work of volunteers and animal rights groups, major improvements have occurred in Japan such as mandatory microchipping for animals to keep better tabs and prevent overbreeding. Animal groups are bringing about change for both domestic animals and the treatment of animals raised for meat consumption.

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Due to an unusually high demand for kittens and puppies for domestic pets in Japan, many breeders have overbred creating an overabundance of animals, leading to strays and abandonment. As more awareness and education is brought forward, the numbers are decreasing and the culture in Japan is becoming more aware of proper animal treatment as well as fostering and adopting animals. Some of the recent improvements that serve the rights of animals include a mandate that babies must not be removed from their mothers for 56 days after birth, which previously animals could be removed from the litter at 45 days. Additionally, the new law regulates that in stores, animals can only be displayed during certain hours and are not permitted to be in 24-hour shops.

Places like Animal Refuge Kansai, a non-profit organization that works to promote the safety and well-being of animals in Japan has made a large impact, predominantly in the fostering and adoption of animals from the center.

Julie Okamoto from ARK says, “We ask that foster families treat the animals as the would (or do) their own pets. Foster families help animals learn to trust humans and enjoy their company”. Okamoto continues to explain that, “One of the goals of fostering is to help the animal make an easier transition from a shelter to a permanent home”.

For foreign visitors looking to get involved, there are many ways to connect with ARK. Okamoto says that the shelter does not send animals abroad although they considered it after the large earthquake and tsunami in Eastern Japan. Instead, many of the animals from the shelter are adopted by members of the international community and will eventually end up living overseas. There are plenty of volunteering opportunities at ARK that opens its doors to foreign tourists who are eager to connect or help out. Additionally, for those who plan to spend a longer period of time in Japan, there are fostering opportunities for animals.

Additionally, Okamoto says, “Tourists or travelers who have visited our shelter or adoption fairs can help even after they return to their home countries either by fund-raising or simply letting their friends who may visit Japan that there are animal shelters here that welcome volunteers from all over the world”.

Rebecka Norman, part of the reservation team at Tourist Japan and passionate about animal welfare recently adopted a small terrier mix, giving her a forever home out of the shelter. This process made Norman more ardent about spreading compassionate awareness for ethical treatment of animals not just in Japan, but globally. Norman notes that there are an increased number of tourists and locals interested in animals rights and the protection of animals in Japan. While there are many zoos, and animals cafes in Japan it is important for travelers to make informed decisions and ensure that the animals are living in humane conditions and are properly cared for.

A few points of interest in Japan for animal lovers who are visiting and looking for ethical choices are the following:

Nara Deer Park

Deer are beautiful animals which are actually symbolic in Japanese culture and mythology, as such they are considered a treasure, a national gem and protected accordingly. Nara Park is a precious example of deer in their natural habitat protected from any external threats. Visitors can explore the park, enjoy the tranquil quiet and calm, natural beauty and interact with the deer. Deer will roam freely, and for those visitors who purchased designated food, they may feed the deer.

Bunny Island

The island of Okunoshima actually has a rather tragic past as it was once the location of many poisonous gas factories in WWII. Nowadays, the island is filled with furry, frolicking rabbits who inhabit the land. Visitors are welcome to feed the bunnies (must provide their own, most often lettuce or carrots), but there is also a place to purchase rabbit food. Although it is a sad history on the island, it is now a safe haven for these cute bunnies to roam and enjoy open green space and quiet.

Cat Cafe Nekoen Asakusa

While there are many, many cat cafes to choose from, ensuring the cafe is ethical and humane is important. Most take good care of their cats and kittens, but Nekoen is notably a good choice. The cafe is in the historic district of Asakusa and it is easily one of the most inviting and warm spaces, filled with cute and friendly cats who are all rescued. The fact that the cats are all rescued is unique and makes the space even more special and meaningful knowing that these cats are being saved and their lives drastically improved. The owner is very kind, speaks English and welcomes everyone with a smile. A note for visiting cat cafes, that shoes are not permitted, only sock feet. For those who do not have socks, the cafe sells cat socks for purchase.

Jigokundani Monkey Park

Found in the northern region of Japan in Nagano, the Macaque monkeys roam the snowy area enjoying the many natural hot springs in the Jigokundai Monkey Park. While there are some elements in place to protect the monkeys and keep them safe from human involvement, the monkey’s are friendly and approachable. This is a unique experience to visit and interact with the monkeys as they relax in the hot steamy water. Hundreds of wild monkeys roam within the park making it the perfect place for animal lovers.

While it is easy to visit other destinations in Japan, from cafes to zoos, it is important to research first to ensure that the animals in the facility are treated humanely, and if not, reach out to the organizations that serve to protect the animals. It can be somewhat heartbreaking and bittersweet to see animals in captivity that may be mistreated, but the importance of spreading awareness and education is vital.

As animal tourism increases and Japan continues to evolve and strengthen the laws and regulations over the treatment of animals, it can only continue to get better for the cute, furry friends living in Japan.

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