Japan · Travel

Travelog: Dodging Golden Week Crowds | Day 1 – Zao Fox Village

Golden Week in Japan is in the beginning of May, where several national holidays all occur within the span of seven days or so. Most people use their paid time off to fill the gaps in between, and voila! Everyone (aside from medical workers, police, hotel and restaurant staff, etc.) has Golden Week off. Most everyone goes on vacation. And that means the crowds are absolutely ridiculous. Hotel rooms, event tickets, and transportation rates soar up. And traffic is nasty.

Akira, who hates large groups of people even more than I do, originally wanted to have a staycation during GW, not go anywhere in particular. I, however, was not standing for it. I wanted to use the opportunity to see part of Japan that I wouldn’t be able to see on your general weekend trip. So we agreed to try and find somewhere that wasn’t likely to draw large crowds, laid our plans, and bought our tickets and hotel room.

The week prior to GW, I came down with a horrible cold and a case of pinkeye. (I’ll write more about that some other time.) I was still feeling pretty under the weather at the beginning of our trip, but the five different medicines I was taking helped a lot and prevented me from being completely miserable.

We got up bright and early Monday, May 1st to catch our 6:35 train. Our Shinkansen was supposed to leave Tokyo at 8:34, and since we had reserved seats, we needed to leave Akira’s place in plenty of time to get there. (You can also get unreserved Shinkansen tickets, but we didn’t want to run the risk of having to stand in the vestibule for several hours, or worse, not be able to get on the train at all.) The traveling part was uneventful. We made all of our transfers with ease and accuracy, and I slept for quire a large portion of the bullet train ride.

The Shinkansen dropped us off at Fukushima Station. Our hotel was nearby, but it was only 9:45 in the morning—way too early to check in. Akira had reserved us a Times car for the day, so we walked to find the parking lot where we’d be able to pick it up. (Times is a rental car company in Japan that allows you to reserve cars via their app. Then you show up at the parking lot where the car is located and drive it, returning it to the same lot when you’re done. It turns out to be way less expensive than traditional car rental companies if you only plan to use the car short-term, plus you don’t have to deal with any people, so it’s available at all hours.)

After we located the car, we still had some time before it would become available, so as soon as the clock struck ten, we went to a nearby supermarket to pick up some snacks and drinks for the road and some lunch for later.

Even after our purchases and a bathroom break, we still had to stand around for about fifteen minutes, waiting for our car to become available. Once the light inside the rear driver’s side window came on, Akira held his phone up to the sensor there and the doors unlocked. So cool. We checked the status of the car (Did the previous user leave it clean? Was the spare tire aired up? Was there a jack and a lug wrench in case of tire issues?) and then threw in all our stuff, and on the road we went.

All of Japan’s major highways are toll roads. If you have a card and a special card reader in your car, there’s an unmanned lane in the toll booths where it senses your card and lets you through. There are also toll machines were you can stop and grab a slip before getting onto the highway. Then, when you get off the highway, you stop at another machine, feed in your slip, and then pay the money it tells you that you owe. Of course, there is also a manned lane should you have any requests or troubles that can’t be addressed by a ticket machine.

So we made it through the toll booths, set up some music to rock out to, and down the road we drove. Well, Akira drove. His mom had told me before we went that she was a bit worried about his driving, but I’d ridden with Akira before, and he’s truly a safe driver. I had every confidence in him, and though he was a bit tense and nervous driving an unfamiliar car in unknown territory, he handled it really well. Plus, we had navigation.

It was supposed to take about one hour to drive from Fukushima City to our first destination of the trip: Zao Fox Village in Miyagi Prefecture. But we had the tiniest of mishaps, so it took us just a bit longer. Akira looked at the navigation screen at one point and mistakenly thought that we were supposed to take the next exit. I said, “Not this one,” but he continued anyway, so I thought he wanted to stop for some reason. It turned out that he hadn’t heard me, so we ended up using the manned lane, where Akira asked the worker to please let us make a U-turn and head back onto the road. We were able to do just that, and the rest of the drive was smooth sailing.

As we progressed closer and closer to Zao Fox Village, we ended up on smaller and smaller roads, until we finally reached the one that would take us to the animal sanctuary: a small, lane-and-a-half, windy road leading up a mountain. It was much cooler in these parts than down further south where we’re living. Some sakura trees, which had long since lost their flowers down in Shizuoka and Kanagawa, were still blooming here.

We ate our grocery store sandwiches in the backseat of the car before heading in. Oddly enough, there’s a giant gorilla statue overlooking the parking lot, so of course we had to take a couple pictures with that.

When you first enter Zao Fox Village, one of the staff explains the rules to you. The explanation is delivered in Japanese, but they have a list of rules written out in English. As for the rules themselves, they’re pretty simple: Don’t touch the foxes. Don’t feed the foxes outside of the designated area. Don’t kneel near foxes (they might come up and bite you). And finally, make sure you don’t have anything that’s dangling or swinging on your person—straps, keychains, strings, etc.—as the foxes are curious and may try to take anything that’s hanging down.

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The rules aren’t written in such fantastic English, but I’m sure you get the idea.

So we tucked away our straps and keychains and into Fox Village we went! Now, I had been wanting to visit ever since I saw several j-vloggers (expats living in Japan who make video blogs about their lives and adventures here) had visited. I love anything canine, so this seemed like the perfect place for me.

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You start your Fox Village experience in a sort of infirmary. This is where the injured or sick foxes, or the foxes that are too young to be out among the others, are kept. While I understand this completely, I was a little disappointed at the size of the cages and the lack of real ground for them to stand on. It would have been nice if they could have at least been on real ground instead of wire covered with boards. That said, the cages were clean.

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Also, it being spring and all, there were two litters of fox kits that were about six weeks old. One litter was the russet color you’d expect of foxes, while the other litter had kits that were multicolored gray and white, which usually happens after several generations of breeding in captivity. There were designated times when the kits could be held, and the next was in about thirty minutes, so Akira and I looked around at some of the infirm foxes and the goats (Yes, there were goats!) while we waited.

Once it was time to hold the babies, we got in line. When it was our turn, we put on green coats (to protect our clothes in case the kits had an accident and also because they’re used to that color) and were each handed a little fox to hold. Akira’s was squirmy and kept trying to wiggle away from him, while mine rested calmly, resigned to being passed around. One of the staff took our picture, then we handed back the foxes, took off the coats, and headed into the main part of the sanctuary, where the foxes roam freely.

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The foxes all looked to be in general good health. There were probably about fifty of them loose in the large enclosure, and their fur was all in good condition and clean. A couple of them had scars, but Akira and I never witnessed an actual fight. Many times, the foxes would make a sort of screaming sound (called gekkering, evidently—new vocab for me) at each other with mouths wide open, but none of them ever came into physical contact with each other, at least while we were there.

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The foxes were also quite obviously used to visitors. Some that were making their way along the paths passed within feet of us with no signs of skittishness whatsoever. Those were sleeping didn’t even blink an eye open as people took their photos. (Silent shutters are not an option on Japanese phones or cameras, so I’m certain the foxes could hear them.)

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Most of them, naturally, were gathered around a tall, closed-in platform. It’s from there that visitors can throw bits of sausage down for the foxes to eat. It’s the only place in the enclosure that the foxes can be fed, and they know it. Many waited patiently, sitting on stumps and catching sausage expertly. Others scrabbled for bits that made it all the way to the ground, but again, their squabbles were all gekker, no bite.

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We enjoyed touring the enclosed area, snapping countless photos of the furry canines as we went. I was starting to develop a headache despite my pain meds, so we took a tour of the gift shop and then hit the road back to Fukushima.

The trip back went smoothly, and we arrived back in town in plenty of time to check into our hotel and go out for dinner. The hotel was brand new, actually, opened just in March. The check-in process was meant to be totally unmanned, with touch screens at the front desk. There were desk staff there, too, of course, in case anybody needed anything the touch screen couldn’t provide. They also helped us with the check-in process.

The room had a large bed, a bathroom, and enough room for one person at a time to walk between the two. This is pretty standard—I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past to find rooms that were bigger than this. All I really need in a hotel room is a place to sleep and stash my stuff anyway, so this served just fine. Plus we got a good price. It also had an overly gigantic TV — I don’t know if I’d call a bonus or not.

We hung out at the hotel room for a little while to give me some time to rest away my headache. In the meantime, we tried to decide what we wanted for dinner. It turned out that Fukushima City has its own unique style of gyoza. That sounded good to us, and Akira found a place that was only about a fifteen minute walk away from the hotel, so we headed out there for dinner.

We found the place pretty easily, a little mom and pop shop that, judging by the pictures and autographs from celebrities on the walls, was a pretty famous spot. There was a line inside, but shortly after we arrived, a couple of the people ahead of us decided they were tired of waiting and left. So we took their spot on the bench and waited our turn.

We noticed one thing shortly after arriving: service was extremely slow. We sat and stared at some empty seats at the bar for more than half an hour before somebody came to clear the dishes and wipe the counter. We waited even longer after that to be seated. This didn’t bode well, but we figured we’d already waited this long—might as well be in it to win it. (Plus it was still pretty early in the evening, and we weren’t too terribly hungry yet.)

We ordered some pickles and the famous gyoza, and then we waited. It took about half an hour for our pickles to get there. No sign of the gyoza yet. But we enjoyed some of the best pickles either of us had ever tasted before. And then we waited some more. After a while, it became clear that the gyoza wasn’t arriving in a hurry, so we ordered another plate of pickles.

We were this close to ordering a third plate when the long-awaited gyoza finally arrived. They were really good, that’s for sure, but good enough that I would wait more than two hours again? Nah. Maybe we would’ve had a little more luck at a different restaurant, speed-wise, but it makes for a pretty entertaining memory. We still laugh at the incompetency of it all whenever one of us brings it up.

With full bellies and my medicine beginning to wear off, we headed back to our hotel room, watched a little TV, and then slept the night away. Our next day was going to be a big one.

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