Imagine waking up in the city of the future, boarding a train.. imagine flying like a bullet through clouds of mist that finally break to reveal mountains above green fields, all the while opening small beautiful packages and eating the mysterious foods within.. imagine arriving in a small train station, unsure of where to go from here, and finding one cab in the rain, just as you’ve given up.. imagine the driver knows where to take you when you show him a picture of a fox on your phone.. imagine driving up a mountain covered in flowers in the rain to arrive at a place where foxes scamper beside you and watch you from every perch. This daydream is called Japan, and you, too, can have this day.
What it is:
Zao Fox Village is.. a village for foxes? It is NOT like some of the other Japanese magical-encounters-with-cute-animals attractions such as Nara’s deer or the rabbit island, in that the fox village is a deliberate creation by humans – enclosures and fox houses were built, foxes were brought in, foxes are bred and born here with human approval. That said… its still pretty magical. You can walk around inside the enclosures with the foxes, with very little human supervision, for as long as you want. Foxes will be playing, sleeping, fighting, lurking all around you. Some are curious and bold enough to approach and investigate you.
How to Get There:
From Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen north to Shiroishi-Zao Station. Its about a two hour ride through very scenic landscape. This is included in the Japan Rail Pass – I recommend the “Green” (first class) pass if your budget isn’t terribly tight. The seating is a bit nicer and roomier with the Green Pass, but the other advantage is that the reserved section is less likely to fill up. With the rail pass, if a train is full, you must wait for the next train.
When you arrive at Shiroishi-Zao Station, you can take a cab to the Fox Village. There’s a taxi stand just outside the station. We were confused about protocol here, but it seems like you just wait, and sooner or later a cab comes by. I showed the cab driver the Japanese website for the Fox Village on my phone; he instantly knew where to go. The ride up to the village is about 25-30 minutes.
When you are ready to return, the lady in the Fox Village gift shop will let you wait in the cafe while she calls a cab for you.
What Its Like:
Pay your admission fee in the entry building, and then you will be set free to wander among the foxes. There is one large main enclosure in a wooded area where you will likely spend most of your time. You walk around free inside the enclosure; foxes walk around free inside the enclosure. The enclosure is huge – probably at least two acres although I’m bad at judging area on sight. Around the edges of the enclosure are smaller enclosures/cages where young or breeding foxes are kept. Inside the enclosure there are houses, perches, shelters and other fox furniture for the foxes to occupy. There are paths inside the enclosure, but its likely to be muddy, and also.. the foxes gotta poop somewhere…
While inside the domain of the foxes, you must respect the foxes. You are not allowed to pet the foxes, or to bring food in except in a designated fox-feeding area. Its likely that no one will watch to be certain that you don’t pet the foxes, however… there are a lot of foxes in there, and they can kick your ass. I would not advise doing anything that might lead to being bitten by them – so there goes touching them, sneaking in food, leaning down in their little faces, insulting their mothers, etc. Seriously. Being so close to the foxes really drives home the point that they are not dogs, and if they chose to they could inflict some damage. One of the particularly brave ones came up and gave me and exploratory nip on the back of my calf. It wasn’t a hard bite, and it was clear he wasn’t trying to harm me, but it was enough that I could tell that a real bite from one of them would not be fun. (Think bite force of a reasonably sized dog, sharp needle teeth like a cat, possibly faster than either.)
You can purchase a bag of fox food which you can take into a designated area to feed to them. The feeding area is a raised pavilion with doors so that human visitors can sit in the ivory tower, throwing food to the foxes below, without being nipped by said foxes. However, some of the foxes have this song and dance figured out, and they can very quickly dart into the enclosed area and it can be very hard to convince them to leave.
At certain times throughout the day, if a handler is available and the foxes are in a good mood, you can also hold a fox for a photo op. You’ll be given a protective jacket to wear, because they can be a bit scratchy. I held a baby fox for my photo op. It was like holding a squirmy snake as big as your arm, wrapped in soft fur.
The Room’s Elephant:
I really don’t know if there’s anything going on here that an animal lover would be unhappy to find out about. I did look for any controversy online, but didn’t find much. As far as I can tell, it looks like the foxes here are just raised to create this tourist novelty. (The gift shop does have some fox fur items, but says that these were Russian raised foxes, not foxes from the village. It says that village foxes would not have good pelts, as they spend too much time being foxes, doing fox things, and tearing up their coats.) The foxes I saw seemed to be happy and healthy, and seemed like they were for the most part leading fox lives with a little bit of added safety from living in a protected space. But at the same time, I can’t 100% certify that nothing nefarious is happening below the surface. (Their coats do look disheveled in my pictures, but that’s because they are playing in the rain.)
Pro Tips and Practical Information:
For the train ride up, I suggest buying some packaged food in Tokyo Station. There’s a lot to choose from, and it doesn’t really matter if you know what you’re getting. Discovery is part of the fun. Ekiben are boxed bento meals that are sold in the train stations – you can see what’s in them (even if you’re not totally sure what that is) so you can just buy something that looks good. (Read about them in detail here.) Onigiri (aka “those rice triangle things”) are another portable and readily available option. In the station at Shiroishi I encountered another Japanese convenience novelty – the hot drink case. Its like a cold drink case.. but opposite.
Once you get out of major cities, most people will not have excellent conversational English skills. With most people we met, it was apparent that they’d studied English, and their English was a hell of a lot better than my Japanese, but it seemed like they maybe didn’t use English extensively in day-to-day life, and maybe especially not with American-accented foreigners. But, everyone we met was willing to communicate through whatever means worked – speaking slowly, hand gestures, pointing, nodding. Don’t freak out, its not the end of the world to be somewhere where your first language isn’t so useful. Just don’t approach situations expecting all English, all the time.
There is a small museum in Shiroishi-Zao station. Its basically one room, but its worth checking out. There are a few other things in and around Shiroishi that seem worth seeing, including Shiroishi Castle, some Edo-era samurai housing, and several hot springs. Unfortunately I didn’t get to make any of these stops due to time.
Suggested packing for a day trip:
- A small to medium backpack. (When you get to the village, put anything flappy or overly interesting inside it so as not to invite foxes to grab at your stuff.)
- Appropriate outerwear, depending on season; consider water resistant and light enough to pack away in your pack. This could be my mis-perception, but it seems a lot of the weather in Japan is variable, as in, you could get both too warm and too cool in the span of the same day.
- An umbrella. It rained quite a bit when we were there (early summer), and the fox village is mostly without roof.
- Your passport; a Green Japan Rail pass. (duh)
- Some yen in cash. Not all cabs take credit.
- The intent to have good manners; some knowledge of Japanese politeness. Again, you’re the visitor, not everyone will speak your language with ease, and you’ll probably need to ask for help somewhere along the way.
- Camera or cameras; maybe extra batteries and memory cards. If its raining, maybe a ziploc bag to keep cameras in.
Before you leave Shiroishi-Zao station, I do suggest loitering on the platform for a little while. The reason for this is that shinkansen fly through this station at full speed, without stopping sometimes. Standing a few feet from them as they fly by is an awesome experience – awesome in the biblical sense – novel, confusing, thrilling and humbling in the sense that you know you are powerless in comparison to this thing. To give credit where its due, this was something I had read about in The Passport Lifestyle’s blog, which I used to find my way to the fox village. I didn’t actually intend to make it a point to see the trains fly by, but it happened anyway, and it was everything she said it would be. (You may find that my blog gives a lot of the same info that hers does; again, I did use it as my primary guide. There wasn’t as much easy-to-find info on the fox village as there is now, even less than a year ago, so her post was a huge help.)