The first time I came to Japan I barely spoke Japanese; as a result, I barely spoke at all. It wasn’t a problem; pictures and gestures communicate a lot, and I stayed the entire time in Tokyo proper, which is heavy on English subtitles.
I’ve had two semesters of Japanese since then and now. I’ve done poorly, and yet I still retain enough knowledge that I can say “Where is the station?” or “I want to go to Kawagoe.” At least, I hope that’s what I’m saying. I sometimes wonder if I haven’t said something entirely incomprehensible, and the locals are just humoring me so I’ll go away.
While school was still in session I’d spoken to my Japanese teacher about my trip to Japan; later I received an email from her recommending the Saitama Children’s Zoo, not far from where I’m staying. I sometimes feel silly visiting zoos while traveling, as they’re the sort of thing you find anywhere, and yet I always enjoy myself just the same. In any case, the Saitama Children’s Zoo has something unique that definitely made it worth the trip.
I was on the train when I realized I hadn’t actually looked up directions from the station to the zoo. Having turned off my phone service to avoid outrages international charges, I had no way of looking it up, and so I departed the station with keen eyes to a map or sign or anything, but nothing of the sort was to be found. I’d remembered reading that the zoo was a 20 minute walk from the station, or you could take a bus, so on a whim I struck out walking in the direction that the busses were going. (Why not take a bus in the first place? Simply put– I’m broke). It was a longer walk than I’d expected, and surprisingly warm, so that I ended up taking my coat off and slinging it over one arm. The sun was in my eyes half the time, and the further I walked the more I doubted my decision, but I continued on and was eventually rewarded with a sign: “Saitama Children’s Zoo — 1km”. I’m not sure if my substandard American education is a blessing or a curse because I walked that 1 km without knowing how long it actually was, and finally arrived at the zoo.
By all accounts it appeared deserted, far from the crowd of schoolchildren I’d encountered at the Ueno Zoo last year. I walked up to the ticket booth and confidently said “Hitori” (or did I say futari? I don’t remember), and somehow we figured out the payment and she handed me my ticket. The signs were all in Japanese, of course, but included adorably helpful illustrations to aid in navigation. I made a beeline for the Capybara pen.
I arrived at the Capybara pen a little before 2 and already there were people with video cameras set up on tripods, awaiting the filling of the stone bath in the center of the pen. The Capybara family– two adults and several little ones– were all curled up together in a box filled with leaves. The largest living rodents in the world, Capybara are semi-aquatic creatures with blocky heads and webbed feet. At 2 on the dot a zoo worker, wearing a coat with an onsen symbol on the back, came out and switched on the water. As the bath began to fill she launched into a long speech in Japanese, which I soon gave up trying to interpret. Presently she pulled out a small plastic noisemaker– the cue that it was time to take a bath.
The young ones were the first to take to the water. Not bothering with the built in staircase, they scrambled right over the side of the tub and splashed into the water. Mama Capybara took a bit more persuading, but finally she joined the young ones in the tub. It was plain to see they were truly enjoying themselves, the little ones splashing and swimming and playing as Momma rolled and lounged in the water. The worker came over and began dropping yuzu, a yellow citrus about the size of an orange, into the bath. Yuzuyu, or yuzu baths, are a Japanese tradition said to warm the body and relax the mind.
After a bit the mother Capybara climbed from the bath and munched on some grasses and lettuce while the little ones continued to romp in the water. Despite her enormous size, she seemed very docile, and I’ll admit to the urge to cuddle her and the young ones both. Finally the tub was drained and the Capybara retreated from the water, as did I retreat from the pen. I still had the rest of the zoo to explore.
True to its name, the Saitama Children’s Zoo is littered with children’s attractions, from animal shaped bumper cars to enormous colorful playgrounds. The animal exhibits themselves often had degrees of interaction, from walking a bridge over habitats to walking through the habitats themselves. I stepped through a double gate and found myself face to face with a herd of kangaroo whom seemed fairly oblivious to the people watching them in awe. At one point I entered a small building with benches and learning material and cried out in surprise to see a pair of kangaroos crouched casually in the corner.
In the end the zoo proved too massive for me to conquer and my stomach was growling (the zoo food was too pricey for my liking) so I departed, choosing to take the bus back to the station rather than walking. When the bus pulled up, I boarded and held a conversation with the driver.
“Eki wa ikimasu ka?” Are you going to the station?
“Hai, Eki wa Ikimasu.” Yes, I am going to the station.
“Ah, arigatou!” Oh, thank you!
This trifling conversation thrills me greatly because it was done without book or dictionary, without following a script, and I’m fairly certain I actually said things correctly. Of course when it came to disembark my language skills abandoned me and we had to revert to pantomiming once again.