I have a thing about zoos in Asia. I’ve seen my fair share and, aside from Singapore’s amazing wildlife Shangri-la, most of them fall quite short of the mark. Even in Okinawa, our local zoo’s cramped conditions made me vow not to spend my tourist dollars in support of such seemingly poor care for the animals.
Tama Zoo, on the other hand, is another story.
A decent hour’s journey outside the center of Tokyo, Tama Zoo takes some patience to get to and isn’t worth the trek on a whirlwind tour of Japan (try Ueno Zoo with its pandas, instead). But if you have kids who need a break from the sightseeing grind, this is a perfect solution, no matter the age. I went with my 19 month old, a friend, and her 6 year old daughter, and we all had an amazing time.
Tama Zoo covers a significant amount of ground and is quite hilly (a shuttle does run loops, though, so keep your eyes peeled); pick up a free park map and plan your visit carefully. We chose the butterfly atrium as our first stop, where our two girls flitted around the netted enclosure, fascinated with the winged residents. They were equally taken with our next stop, the Lion Garden, where we boarded an old converted school bus and leisurely circled a large lion park. Pieces of meat were hung on the sides of the bus and the big cats would come right up to our windows to tear off the daily special. Even my toddler was enthralled (not frightened) with the “big kitty”.
Tama has a great selection of other “must-sees”, such as giraffes, zebras, monkeys, elephants and a special Australian section with tree-lounging koalas. As it was a 100 degree summer day when we visited, we didn’t have the chance to cover the whole park but we managed to see quite a bit. If you aim to check all of the animals off your list, allow yourself at least 3-4 hours.
If you get hungry, there are some small snack stands and one or two restaurants scattered throughout the zoo. Don’t expect much – hot dogs, curry, noodles and ice cream are pretty much the standard menu across the board. Do, however, pop into the gift shop. You’ll find your typical offering of stuffed animals and tee-shirts but there are some very creative games and puzzles here that are kids had to be dragged away from when it was time to leave.
Tama Zoo is on the Tama Monorail line in the western part of Tokyo. If you’re staying in the city center, try to catch either a rapid or special rapid Chuo line train from Tokyo or Shinjuku. Get off at Tachikawa and transfer from the JR Station to the tinier monorail station. The stop for Tama Zoo is called Tama Dobutsu Koen. Check out Tama Zoo’s English webpage for more information.