There’s nothing quite like taking a dip in a hot springs to warm chilled bones during the cold months. In Japan, soaking in hot springs water, or onsen, is considered the ultimate form of relaxation—so much that even Japanese animals, such as the “snow monkeys” of northern Nagano, seek them out.

But it’s not just native species who appreciate Japan’s thermal waters; every year, Izu Shaboten Park, a theme park and zoo located in Ito City Shizuoka, runs a hot springs for their capybara to help them make it through Japan’s cold winter season.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the capybara open-air onsen, and while you can now find similar sights at zoos across the country, Izu Shaboten Park prides itself in being the first to come up with the idea—albeit completely by accident.

“In the winter of 1982, we were washing the capybara’s exhibit area with hot water when one of the staff noticed the capybara relaxing in a puddle that had formed,” spoke Rui Ito, the capybara keeper at Izu Shaboten Park. “From that we got the idea of making an onsen for the capybara so they could bathe in it.”

Mr. Ito points out that the capybara onsen at Izu Shaboten is made from stones (iwaburo), giving it a flavor of refinement that can’t be found at other capybara onsens.  The capybaras also comment that out of all the onsen they’ve been to in Japan, Izu Shaboten is by far the best. It looks like you just can’t beat the original.

There are ten capybaras total at Izu Shaboten, including four pups that were just born this year. According to Mr. Ito, each capybara has a distinct personality and while the full-grown mother and father, Ikura and Rai, will soak in the hot springs for up to an hour and a half, the kids will jump out after a few minutes to go play around.

Following the Japanese tradition of bathing in citrus on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the zoo keepers even add lemons and mandarin oranges to make the waters more aromatic.

Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents and can grow up to be 130 cm long and weigh 60 kg. They love water and live mainly on the river banks of tropical South American countries, so it’s a small wonder that they’d appreciate Japanese onsen culture.

The onsen will be open every day until April 7. Bathing hours begin at 10:30 and run until the park closes. Check the Izu Shaboten Park official website (Japanese) or Japan Guide (English) for more information.

■  Izu Shaboten Park
Access: 40 min by #6 bus from JR Ito Station, 20 min by bus from Izukyu Izu-kogen Station

Admission: 1800 yen adult, 900 yen student (6-15), 300 yen children 5 and under
Hours: 9:00-16:00 (Nov 1 – Feb 28), 9:00-17:00 (Mar 1 – Oct 31)
※Capybara bathing can be seen every day from 10:30 until April 7
※English brochure available at the reception desk

Source: Excite Japan

▼ Another Capybara Onsen in Saitama