There’s something special about being with a child during his first visit to a zoo, especially a park where the animals mingle with the human visitors.
Somehow, watching a child marvel at the wildlife around him reawakens the child in all of us and through the child’s eyes we see the animals, the foliage, even the snack bars and gift shops in a whole new way.
At least that’s how it was for me during a recent visit to Okinawa’s Neo Park with my almost 2-year-old grandson, Kai.
Neo Park is 62 acres of fun just north of Nago off Highway 58. Divided into four habitats, its theme is the tropical regions of the Amazon, Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceana. Neo stands for Nature’s Environmental Oasis, and it is indeed a safe haven for exotic birds flying and roaming freely under the first habitat a visitor walks through, a netted enclosure some three stories high.
In all, Neo Park has 120 different species of birds, mammals and fish.
The variety of birds, some of them as tall as Kai, frightened him at first. A crowned crane with a feathery orange punk hairdo separated itself from a gaggle of sacred ibis and strutted toward Kai looking for a handout. Kai quickly retreated to safety between his mother’s legs.
"Pi pi," Kai said, his Japanese baby talk word for bird. Then he stood erect, held out his right arm and shook his finger at the curious crane. "No! No!" Kai yelled. Ah, he’s becoming bilingual, I thought.
The crowned crane soon left to accost another visitor who was scattering bird food at her feet. The crowd of blue and white sacred ibis also headed for the free lunch, leaving room for us to continue the walk toward the second enclosure, where lemurs were eating out of visitors’ hands. Kai kept them at a respectable distance, staring in fascination as his dad petted one and offered a carrot.
The lemur quickly chewed the offering and the spit it back in my son’s hand. Kai burst into a paroxysm of laughter that seemed to break the ice. With each new animal we encountered on the walk he became bolder.
In the third enclosure, Kai crouched in front of the pens that held goats and wild boars, intently examining them and pointing. He called them all "wan wan," Japanese baby talk for dog. To a baby, anything walking on all fours is a dog.
At one point a peacock on the trail a few feet in front of us startled Kai by suddenly unfolding his feathers. Shortly after the shock, the sight of all that "living color" tickled the tyke and he chased the bird away.
Kai had learned the animals would not harm him. No longer afraid, he ran ahead of us to encounter the next attraction, a tunnel under the park’s aquarium of Amazon River fish. Kai stopped in his tracks and stared at the huge fish swimming in front and over him. He pointed at a large Pirarucu, one of 500 species of catfish inhabiting the Amazon Rain Forest and the world’s largest freshwater fish.
“Fish, fish,” he said, then stretched his arm toward the glass enclosure, made a grabbing motion and brought his hand to his open mouth. “Yum,” he said as he pretended to chew.
“Remind me to stop for some sushi on the ride home,” I told my daughter-in-law.
Kai’s favorite part of the park was the petting zoo, an enclosure that had several breeds of small dogs, a goat and a small boar all vying for attention. Dogs were something Kai could deal with, having his own “pony” in the form of an overweight black Labrador retriever at his grandpa’s house.
He was also fascinated by the rabbits and marmots in a separate pen. He squatted next to his dad and stroked their furry backs through the wire mesh.
I thought it was odd to have a pack of dogs to pet in a tropical-themed zoo, but a group of Japanese schoolgirls loved it to the point of taking the dogs for walks in an adjacent meadow.
Must be city kids, I thought.
The highlight of Kai’s day, though, was a 200-pound, 30-year-old tortoise basking in the sun. Normally available to give children rides, it was the creature’s day off and he nuzzled against a smaller tortoise and ignored Kai’s poking finger. One of the schoolgirls gave him a leaf of lettuce to feed the animal, but the tortoise just gazed with sleepy eyes and drew his head into his shell.
“Where’s his head?” I asked Kai, who was crouched down and quizzically staring at the empty space. “Where’d turtle go?”
It was Kai’s favorite game. “Pee Boo!” he laughed.
Know and go ...
Neo Park is in Nago in northwestern Okinawa. To get there, take Highway 58 through the city center, continue north and make a left just after a Makeman Store (the do-it-yourself store with the sign of a chimp out front). Go under an arch at the traffic light, and the park entrance is right in front of you. There’s plenty of free parking.
The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is 630 yen for adults, 315 yen for students (junior and senior high school) and 210 yen for children ages 4 to 12. For visitors wanting a different park experience, a small train leaves the main building every half hour starting at 10 a.m. Park entrance with a ticket for the train is 1,000 yen for adults, 700 yen for students and 500 yen for children. There is no admission charge for children under four.