Seiji finally visits the zoo that pretty much everyone else who lives in Tokyo has already been to.

Our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa lives pretty close to Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood. Ueno is best known for Ueno Park, and one of the most popular attractions in the park is Ueno Zoo.

But even though it’s Japan’s most famous zoo, Seiji has never been inside. Part of that is because pretty much every time he’s walked by the main entrance to the zoo which is connected to Ueno Park’s central plaza, there’s a long line of people waiting at the ticket booth.

That was the case again when Seiji walked by on a recent day. After spending so much time in the big city, though, Sejii was in the mood to destress by seeing some cool and cute animals, so he decided to line up, which was when he got his first surprise of the day. Even thought the line was long enough to snake back on itself more than once, it moved very quickly, and the wait to get up to the front wasn’t very long at all.

Pleasant surprise number two came when he looked at the admission prices and saw that adult tickets are just 600 yen (US$4). That’s a bargain, less than half the cost of a movie ticket, and far below the 1,500 yen or so Seiji expected it would cost to get into the zoo. He also noticed that kids middle school-age or younger who either live or go to school within the Tokyo city limits are admitted free of charge, and tickets are free for any and all kids elementary school-age or younger. Having grown up in a rural part of Japan where there wasn’t much entertainment of any kind, Seiji couldn’t help feeling just a little jealous of Tokyo kids who can just pop into the zoo whenever they want with their friends without spending a yen of their allowance.

Seiji had another surprise once he was inside, but this one might be kind of unique to him. See, while Seiji likes animals, he hasn’t been to a lot of large zoos. Instead, he’s got more experience visiting specific animal parks out in the countryside, which tend to be smaller-scale and have smaller buffer zones between the human guests and animal inhabitants. Because of that, he felt like Ueno’s habitats were set back pretty far from the viewing areas, though he can understand that being a necessity with a larger number of people.

What wasn’t a surprise, though, was that Ueno’s pandas are the most popular creatures in the zoo. Ueno Zoo has had pandas for decades, making the animals the de-facto mascots of the neighborhood, and that fascination has only gotten stronger with the birth of a pair of giant panda cubs, Lei Lei and Xiao Xiao, who were born two years ago. Even now, there’s a long wait to be admitted to the panda viewing area, 70 minutes on the day Seiji visited, and it closes at 2:25 in the afternoon, two hours earlier than the rest of the zoo at this time of year, and so he didn’t get to see them.

▼ The line to see the pandas

The silver lining, though, is that despite its downtown location, Ueno Zoo has a pretty wide variety of animals to see, so if the lines for one or another are too long or the creatures are sleeping, you can stroll over to a different habitat.

▼ The Ueno Zoo map

For Seiji, the highlight of the day was seeing Ueno’s polar bear, who was actively swimming, frolicking, and even standing up when he stopped by.

He also got to see Ueno’s tiger, who doesn’t always come out in such an easily photographed spot during the day, Seiji later learned from fellow reporter P.K. Sanjun.

P.K., it turns out, is a veteran Ueno Zoo guest, and used to even have an annual pass, which costs just 2,400 yen for adults. Ueno Zoo and Park are located across the street from Ueno Station, which is connected to the rest of the city by several train and subway lines, and that convenient location means it’s easy to fit a quick visit into the rest of your day, especially if you’re not pressuring yourself to see the whole place before you leave, and P.K. would often pop by with his daughter, who didn’t need a ticket at all.

All that, Seiji feels, is the real appeal of Ueno Zoo. It may not be big and exciting enough to devote a whole day of your Tokyo trip to, but it doesn’t have to be. At just 400 yen for adults, the admission cost is negligible, less than a cup of coffee at a mid-tier Tokyo cafe, so it’s always a viable option if you want to spend some time with Tokyo’s non-human residents.

Photos © SoraNews24
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