“Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!”
That line from “The Wizard of Oz” came to mind as I looked out my car window and saw ferocious creatures staring straight at me like I was a dinner platter on wheels.
The Gunma Safari Park in Gunma prefecture in Japan is unlike any zoo or other animal experience I’ve ever had. It’s a lot better.
The park features exotic creatures residing on 360,000 square meters of land, giving its visitors a taste of safari experience just a couple of hours northwest of Tokyo.
There is no hunting or killing involved in this safari, but you can pay to drive your own vehicle or take a bus through various animal habitats. Instead of the cramped cages of a typical zoo, the safari space is wide open. High fences between the habitats keep the species apart, so you won’t see a lion and a giraffe sharing the same space, but the animals can walk right up to your car.
I don’t think I ever imagined I’d have a hungry-looking wild beast just a few feet away from me.
The idea might sound a little unsettling at first, and it’s completely natural to worry that a tiger or bear might decide to make the silly humans in the car its next meal. However, once there, I was surprised by how calm the animals were, and the park staff looked ready to react if any animals got out of hand. I also realized that as long as I kept my windows up and didn’t do anything to agitate the animals, they were not likely to attack us.
What I really liked about the park compared with a typical zoo is that most of the animals seemed a lot more relaxed because of the extra space. Lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinoceros, elephants and antelope roam the sub-Saharan African habitats. Other habitats feature tigers, bears, buffalo and monkeys.
Seeing the lion pride up close was an awe-inspiring experience. With such a great view of these animals, I was able to appreciate the deep wounds and scars some of these lions have received, a sobering reminder of how vicious and deadly they can be. It was surreal to watch a lion just casually walk past my window ignoring me, knowing full well if I even attempted to step out of my car, I could easily be torn to shreds. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
Feeling daring, my friends and I did the safari in my car instead of the park-operated bus. There is something liberating about driving your own car into a pack of deadly animals that gets your blood pumping. The colorful, animal-shaped buses are a perfect alternative if you want to add a greater sense of distance between man and beast, and they provide a feeding box that allows you to attract the animals closer.
While the animal habitats are the highlight of the park, it also has standard zoo-like displays where you can pet a lamb, feed grass to a llama or even give a tiger or lion some meat with tongs through a little opening.
There is also a small amusement park for kids with a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, bumper cars and other traditional fair activities.
Know & go: Gunma Safari Park
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 1 to Oct. 31 and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year. Closed Wednesdays, except national holidays. Last entry is one hour before the park closes.
Admission: 2,600 yen (about $33) for adults and 1,300 yen (about $16) for children. Tickets for passengers taking their own car are an additional 500 yen per person. The bus tour is 1,300 yen per person, and parking is 300 yen. Visitors driving their own vehicles will get a radio guide telling about the animals in each habitat in either Japanese or English. Motorcycles and convertibles are not allowed to take the driving tour. Pets are not allowed.
Getting there: The nearest train station is the Jyoshu Tomioka Station on the Joshin Dentetsu Joshin Line. No public buses run to the park; the 20-minute taxi ride from the station is about $24. If you’re driving from Tokyo, take the Kan-etsu Expressway to the Fujioka junction, continuing on the Joshin-etsu Expressway. Then take the Tomioka Interchange exit.