We have all gone to a zoo on a summer day and seen the animals snoozing or lying around doing nothing – just what you would expect animals to be doing on a sweltering hot day. As you shuffled past the enclosures disappointed did it ever occur to you that maybe it would be better to view zoo animals at night when they may be more active?
That thought occurred to the administrators of the Tennoji Zoo in 2015 and so they tried an experiment. The zoo was open at nighttime for one week last August as part of the zoo’s 100th birthday celebration. The program proved such a success that more nocturnal dates were added for an Autumn Night Zoo. This year more after-dark admission dates have been added and night visitors will likely be a part of the zoo going forward.
The concept of displaying wild animals to the public was slow to take hold in Japan. The National Museum of Natural History in Tokyo kept a small menagerie of animals in the 1800s and this became the Ueno Zoo in 1882. Today it is Japan’s largest zoo. The next city to get a zoo was Kyoto in 1903 and Osaka opened its zoo in Tennoji Park in 1915 as just the third zoo in Japan. The park had only recently opened in 1909 and its main attraction was a botanical garden. Today the gardens are decorated with many animal-like creations of wire and flowers.
Japan experienced a boom in zoo building after World War II and there are now more than 100 zoos in the country. As these modern animal parks and safaris opened, the aging Tennoji Zoo suffered in comparison. Conditions at the park began to improve in the 1990s with the introduction of many natural environments. A reptile house was added in 1995 and a hippopotamus house came online in 1997 that enabled visitors to observe the underwater behavior of the fascinating “river horse” that is the planet’s third largest land mammal.
These structures were followed by a rhinoceros paddock in 1998, a herbivorous zone in 2000, a Forest of Asia zone in 2004 and a carnivorous zone in 2006. The revitalized zoo is said to attract 1.5 million visitors a year to learn about the animals.
Tennoji Zoo is about two-thirds the size of Ueno Zoo and is home to 1,500 animals representing 300 of the earth’s species. During the night zoo, the enclosures are discreetly illuminated to give off the effect of a darkness pierced by a bright moon. Animals that typically become active at night go about their usual business and others who have spent a day resting begin to stir and survey the surroundings.
Of particular interest at night is the zoo’s kiwi bird, the only representative of the New Zealand genus of flightless birds living in Japan. These shy birds, which lay nature’s largest eggs in proportion to their body size, are night birds and members of Tennoji’s nocturnal animal house.
Zoo officials stage special events for night visitors and since this new program is evolving, expect bigger and betters shows to come. At any time of day, Tennoji Zoo, just a ten-minute walk from Tennoji Station on the JR Osaka Loop Line, is a bargain at only 500 yen for adults.