Okinawa's Neo Park home to land and aquatic animals, diverse plant life

Travel
A visitor to the Neo Park on Okinawa attempts to walk an uncooperative alpaca. (Travis J. Tritten/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
A visitor to the Neo Park on Okinawa attempts to walk an uncooperative alpaca. (Travis J. Tritten/Stars and Stripes)

Okinawa's Neo Park home to land and aquatic animals, diverse plant life

by: Travis J. Tritten | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: August 26, 2013

The Japanese woman was having trouble with the alpaca.

The animal — a typically timid and docile cousin of the llama — was on a leash and apparently not interested in an orderly walk across the sprawling lawn.

There was some frustrated leash jerking and plenty of laughing before the snowy white alpaca begrudgingly consented and followed the woman back to the petting zoo at the Neo Park on Okinawa. Things might have turned out differently with an ill-tempered llama.

But that is the beauty of the Neo Park. While animals most certain to bite or claw — or spit — are kept behind fencing or glass, many others are surprisingly within reach.

The botanical and zoological park is a collection of walk-through bird habitats, a petting zoo, fish ponds and lush vegetation that sits on the northern part of Okinawa in Nago city, about a 45-minute drive from the population centers and U.S. military bases in the south.

The petting zoo includes open access to a tortoise pen. The park keeps a box of leafy branches there for feeding the tortoise and some smaller land turtles. On the scale of exhilarating encounters, turtles usually do not rate very high. But feeling the massive turtle thump onto the ground near your feet and sensing the unexpected strength of its jaws as it munches on a branch is probably worth petting zoo admission alone. After seeing these tortoises from afar many times, I was finally getting a visceral experience of them.

The park’s rare encounters also include getting up close and personal with a huge Agu pig — an Okinawan breed renowned for its pork — named Tomo, who seemed especially lazy. She lumbered over to the fence to sniff hands, probably hoping for food, before flopping back onto the floor in a beam of sunlight. According to the park, she is obese and on a diet to trim down.

Capybaras are a favorite at Japanese nature parks. Natives of South America, the exceedingly docile animals are the world’s largest rodents, striking a pose somewhere between a mammoth rabbit and a mammoth hamster. The Neo Park keeps the rodents in the petting zoo and in other areas, though it does not allow direct access. Still, visitors can pet the soft noses and feed the capybaras stalks of sugar cane.

The park’s wallabies, essentially tiny kangaroos, are also very calm, gentle and friendly. They hop up to munch on the nuggets of dog food the park sells as animal feed. The wallabies gently eat the food from outstretched hands. The park said two of the animals were mothers with new babies, though I only saw males. Apparently, the young were old enough that their heads had been spotted popping out of the mothers’ pouches.

If those exotic animals were docile and inviting, the peccaries were the exact opposite. The hairy brown, tailless pigs are a close relative to the aggressive wild pigs (with tails) that roam Japan. Once on the mainland, I read that a wild pig attacked a woman at a train station. A train station? Watching the group of peccaries at the Neo Park – all kept safely away in a large pen – I was no longer surprised by the attack.

The wild pigs fought viciously over the tubs of vegetables and slop set out by the park. They grunted, they showed teeth and they made weird clicking sounds with their jaws in unnerving displays of aggression. They seemed to be deeply angry animals. I was suddenly very glad to be separated by a fence and a raised platform for a change. Those peccaries are no capybaras.

Though it may be a prime candidate for a day trip, the park is not exactly cheap despite the relatively low admission fee. Once inside the park, everything seems to cost additional money. Want to enter the petting zoo? That will be another 200 yen. Want to see the rare Okinawa rail? That will be another 300 yen. Want to ride the miniature train that circumnavigates the park? Well, you get the idea.

But it really might be worth it, if you are looking for some rare experiences with animals.

TIMES: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

COSTS: 630 yen for adults; 315 yen for children 4 and older; 210 yen for children under 4. Some exhibits available for an additional fee. Bird and animal feed costs 200 yen per packet.

INFORMATION: Address: Matsuo 2-10-1, Nago, Okinawa; website: neopark.co.jp/index.html