Well, it has a zoo….It’s called the Ueno Zoo, and it’s located in downtown Tokyo. It is also the oldest zoo in Japan. It was founded in 1882, and currently has over 3000 animals spanning over 450 species. But it seems like there’s really only one species that anyone is interested in….the Giant Panda. I thought it was a little crazy that once you get into the zoo, there is a huge line you have to wait in just to see the pandas. The kind of line you see for a roller coaster at a theme park. Roped off, winding back and forth and NOT single file, so you can’t quite tell how long the line really is. Signs posted along the way stating how long the approximate wait time is from that point. Usually the wait is about 30-60 minutes (I was told), but it was a holiday weekend, the place was packed, and I was not interested in waiting in a long line.
Besides, there was a large video screen showing the pandas eating and rolling around (I don’t know if it was live feed, but I have heard there is a “Panda Cam” online), and that was satisfying enough. So I moved on, checked out lots of other critters. Some of my personal faves were the monkeys of course! The sea lions and otters did not disappoint. There were several types of lemurs that were quite entertaining, and there was a bat cave that was pretty cool too. I left feeling like I had a nice zoo experience.
Since visiting the zoo however, I have learned that my impatience made me miss the only part of the zoo that anyone gives a damn about—those Giant Pandas. I later learned that the zoo had a very beloved panda named Ling Ling years ago. He died in 2008 at age 22 of a heart attack. Apparently the country was pretty torn up about it, and the zoo’s number of visitors dropped. So naturally, they need to get some more pandas! So in 2011 they leased Ri Ri (male) and Shin Shin (female) from China (wonder how much that cost!).
Every time the zoo, comes up….there’s some version of this conversation. "Yes, I’m a terrible, impatient person, and No, I did not see the giant pandas." My bad, I thought that seeing the pandas on the TV screen, and in the brochure, and on the t-shirt, and in the gift shop on shelves as stuffed animals, sticky notes, calendars, phone cases, key chains, and pencil cases was enough. I guess I was wrong. (I learned later that there are over 120 panda gift items at the zoo and that 5% of the sales goes towards the Giant Panda Conservation Foundation.)
I’m generally not a person who “regrets” things, but I will say….if I had known then, what I know now about the importance of these pandas, I would have waited. And if you find yourself at the Ueno Zoo, do yourself a favor and for god’s sake, see the damn pandas.