Ueno Zoo – a must-not see spectacle

Today’s post is not a happy post at all.

Our visit to Ueno Zoo was a horrible experience. I would never want anyone else to visit it and I would never go back. Here’s why.

Japan’s oldest Zoo: a disturbing history

Ueno Zoo (or ‘Onshi Ueno Dobutsuen’ in Japanese) was first opened on March 20th, 1882. It’s 14.3 hectare (or 35 acre) grounds were originally the estate of the Imperial Family but were bestowed to the Tokyo municipal government in 1924 (along with Ueno Park) on the day of Crown Prince Hirohito’s wedding.

It’s first ‘hiccup’ was on July 25th 1936. Zoo keepers noticed that a black leopard, a recent gift from Siam (Thailand), was missing from her cage. The police and military were alerted and a large-scale search was initiated. Within 13 hours the leopard was found, cowering in a sewer manhole close the zoo, and was returned to her cage. Despite no deaths or injuries occurring the incident made an impression on Tokyo residents and contributed to later fears that animals would escape their cages.

During World War II Ueno Zoo was ordered by the military to ‘dispose of’ it’s most dangerous animals as the public feared that an air raid would set the animals loose in the city. Additionally, food water and other resources were becoming scarce and could no longer be used to keep the larger animals alive.

Sadly this was not an uncommon occurrence in WWII and similar scenes were played out at zoos in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Wuppertal, and London.

However, for reasons still largely unknown, Ueno Zoo decided that instead of shooting the larger animals (three elephants – John, Tonky and Wanli, a Polar Bear and a Hippo and her cub) they would be left to starve to death as shooting them was considered ‘bad for public morale.’ It took a whole month for them to die. It’s reported that Tonky, who was the last to die, made repeated attempts to get food by showing off her tricks to the public as the zoo was still open.

Wanli Tonky Ueno Zoo WWII Japan Tokyo history

Wanli (left) and Tonky (right) in 1943

Then in 1945 captured US Army Air Force pilot Ray ‘Hap’ Halloran was put on display naked covered in weeping sores in one of the tiger cages for civilians to look at.

Ray 'Hap' Halloran Tokyo Ueno Zoo WWII POW tiger cage Japan JaPlanning

Ray ‘Hap’ Halloran

Luckily once the war ended Ueno Zoo’s controversies also ended. In 1975 a memorial was erected inside the zoo for the animals that died.

Ueno Zoo Memorial Elephants WWII Japan Tokyo JaPlanning

Ueno Zoo Memorial

Today Ueno Zoo is popular because of it’s Giant Pandas.

When the long-term resident Panda LingLing died in 2008 (after a 30 year stay) Ueno was left without it’s premiere attraction. However in 2011 two new Pandas (Billy, renamed Lili and Siennyu, renamed ShinShin) arrived from China and remain the zoo’s primary attraction.

LingLing Ueno Zoo Tokyo Japan JaPlanning travel


Ueno Zoo is now home to over 2600 individual animals and somewhere between 460-500 species. As the zoo is so large the eastern and western parts of the grounds are connected by a monorail – the first in Japan when it was constructed.

High Hopes

Our day at the zoo was supposed to be a relaxing, easy-going sort of day. The zoo was a five minute walk from our hotel, the day was (relativity) warm and sunny, and we were still on cloud nine after a crazy day in Harajuku.

Ueno Park was buzzing with people and beautiful birds were gliding from tree to tree and singing. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and everywhere children were devouring icecreams, giggling at their parents, and riding on carousels. It was the most stereotypically idyllic day.

We were even more excited when we arrived at the Zoo to find it was only 600 Yen for entry – our previous day’s shopping spree had severely dented both of our holiday funds.

Once we entered the first thing we saw was the Panda mascot statue and, of course, the Pandas themselves. This was the first and best part of the day:

Ueno zoo entrance JaPlanning tokyo japan travel pandas zoo

Ueno Zoo entrance

ShinShin Ueno Zoo Tokyo Japan JaPlanning panda


LiLi Panda Ueno Zoo Tokyo Japan JaPlanning


But once the elation of seeing the pandas up-close-and-personal passed, things started to turn sour quickly.

Next we passed the Elephant enclosure. It seemed to be undergoing reconstruction but we were distressed to find the Elephant alone (Elephants are social creatures) and in a cage that was literally only just bigger than itself.

Elephant caged Ueno Zoo Tokyo Japan JaPlanning awful

Elephant Enclosure

I understand that the Elephant has to go somewhere while the enclosure is upgraded but it was sad to see this one clearly going mad from boredom or loneliness.

Things go downhill

Next we came upon ‘Monkey Hill.’ It was first built in 1931 as a ‘first of its kind.’ You can really tell:

Monkey Hill Ueno Zoo japan tokyo JaPlanning travel

Monkey Hill Enclosure

It was a depressing structure with no trees or shrubs, and as far as I could tell, no entertainment. The monkeys lay on it, still and apathetic, and looked awfully unhappy.

Monkey Hill Ueno Zoo enclosure Japan Tokyo JaPlanning travel

Monkey Hill

Only the youngsters were active, playing on the only moving feature of the enclosure – a tiny bridge over dirty water. Again we were taken aback. It was so bare and horrible and there was no shade from the sun.

We moved on quickly to find a succession of animals in disturbingly small enclosures: Emus with only meters to move and Llamas in concrete enclosures with no shade, food, water or a place to rest.

We moved on hoping to find something better.

Llama enclosure Ueno Zoo Japan Tokyo travel JaPlanning

Llama Enclosure

Emu enclosure Ueno Zoo Japan Tokyo JaPlanning travel

Emu Enclosure

Next we came across the penguin pool and our hopes lifted.

The pool looked bigger and in better condition. Except when we got close things weren’t as they seemed. The stink wafting from the enclosure was indescribably pungent. And as the penguins poured out of their dens it became obvious they weren’t happy. They were scratching themselves obsessively and several of them had completely plucked their stomach feathers out – their bare bellies red-raw and scabbed. Whether that was from parasites, boredom, or both I don’t know.

Penguins Ueno Zoo travel Japan JaPlanning tokyo

Obsessive scratching

Now our attention turned from the animals to the zoo itself.

I think what made this already awful spectacle worse is that the space allocated to pedestrian walkways, in comparison to the enclosures, is obscene. There was so much room to walk – too much considering the state of the animal pens.

Next we found 20 flamingos confined together in a space not much larger than the penguin enclosure. Again, there was little to no shade from the sun. Then we saw 5-7 kangaroos all caged together in a space not much larger than the bedroom I’m writing from now. There was only one tree and no entertainment. The final straw was witnessing the anteaters licking at each other through the cage bars and scratching themselves in an obsessively repetitive way.

Again their enclosures were bare, small, and depressing.

kangaroo enclosure Ueno zoo tokyo japan travelling japlanning

Kangaroo enclosure

flamingo enclosure Ueno Zoo Japan JaPlanning Tokyo travel

Flamingo enclosure

anteater enclosure Ueno Zoo Japan Tokyo travel JaPlanning

Anteater enclosure

After being at Ueno Zoo for only 20 minutes we decided to leave. We found the nearest exit and walked out, happy to be moving away from such a horrible prison.

Thoughts on Ueno Zoo

While our day at Ueno Zoo was undoubtedly horrid I don’t think the zoo itself is guilty of any particular crime other than being old and outdated.

All zoo’s, no matter how modern or outdated, take animals out of their natural habitat for the viewing pleasure of humans and, perhaps, to make a tidy profit. It’s just that when you visit an outdated zoo this reality becomes so much harder to ignore.

I realised, as I walked around Ueno Zoo, that the Perth Zoo is quite nice. It’s modern and there’s heavy emphasis on natural environments and providing adequate entertainment for the more intelligent and large animals.

But it’s still a zoo. It’s still a place where animals potentially suffer for our enjoyment and, in my opinion, that makes it a less than desirable place to visit. Perhaps I should thank Ueno Zoo? I had been feeling increasingly uneasy visiting the zoo here in Perth and my experience at Ueno Zoo finally revealed why I was becoming so uncomfortable.

Sorry for the heavy post this time guys. Let’s move on to something more lighthearted and fun!

Next post: the Alice in Wonderland Restaurant, Shinjuku.

Until next time,

Kally & Mon.

How do I find Ueno Zoo?

Nope, not for this one. If you still want to visit you can find the information elsewhere. It’s exceptionally easy to find anyway.


  1. Wikipedia
  2. Tokyo Digi-Joho
  3. JayJayne
  4. Japan Focus

Image Credits:

[Feature Image Credit: Haikugirl’s Japan]

[Image Credit (1, 3): Japan Focus]

[Image Credit (2): AxPOW]

[Image Credit (4): The Wire]

[Image Credit (all others): Monique Nielsen – unedited]

Have you visited Ueno Zoo? What’s your opinion of Japan’s oldest zoo?


9 thoughts on “Ueno Zoo – a must-not see spectacle

  1. Ueno Zoo is not considered the “best zoo in Japan” by a long shot!
    It’s Japan’s oldest zoo and most conveniently located for those of us in Tokyo … but western Tokyo’s Tama Zoo and nearby Saitama’s Tobu Zoo are both much better!

    Hokkaido’s Asahiyama Zoo is also very popular.

    And… regarding the “large” visitor sidewalks in Ueno Zoo — if you go there at a popular time, such as Golden Week, you would see that much space (or more) is needed.

    • Hi there,

      Oh really? I had read from several sources that in terms of enclosures and grounds, Ueno Zoo was the best in Japan. I guess it would depend on how many other zoos people have been to and their subjective feelings on it.

      I understand that Ueno Zoo may have need of the very large pedestrian access when it’s busy but, for me, it still doesn’t change my experience there. It was a horrid zoo. But as I said at the end of the post, I think all zoos are kind of horrid tbh.

      Thanks for your thoughts 🙂

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    • Hi there Imjapan,

      It really was very disgusting and, until we found something new to do, left Mon and I very depressed. The other day I thought maybe I overstated things on here but then Monique and I watched some video we took of the penguins and it confirmed for me that Ueno Zoo actually was that bad. I think any Zoo that was constructed in the 1800’s is probably a no-go these days unless it’s been drastically upgraded. Good choice on staying away!


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  5. I have recently returned from Japan, my fifth trip and my most favourite place on the planet. My lovely Japanese friend of many years took myself and my two children to Ueno Zoo. I still have nightmares about seeing those animals in tiny cramped concrete enclosures. It will haunt me forever. I believe the Japanese people are extremely kind and generally love their animals so I just don’t understand this. It’s barbaric, it’s cruel, it’s inhumane. Extend the zoo into the park, there’s lots of room there and give the animals grass, trees and something remotely akin to their natural habitats not concrete and iron bars. The polar bear, if he is still alive, was frothing at the mouth and pacing clearly stressed. I’ve never been to a circus because I don’t believe animals should be treated as human entertainment what made me think a zoo would be better? I will return to japan again and again as many times as I can afford in my lifetime but I will never go back to that zoo.

    Thank you for your wonderful and interesting articles I’ve enjoyed reading them immensely!

    • Hi Jess,

      I absolutely agree about the extension of the zoo and also how the conditions seem to be at odds with the generally kind and considerate Japanese people. That’s actually why I was so surprised by Ueno Zoo. Most everything else the Japanese do seems to be so carefully planned and executed but Ueno was just a disgrace. Perhaps the zoo doesn’t receive adequate funding from Tokyo prefecture and the conditions have been allowed to endure because of its age? That was my only reasoning for it anyway!

      I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed my articles – thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

      – Kally

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