Located in the hot-springs resort area of Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture, this well-run animal park is a fun place to spend a day in the countryside. You can feed and pet most of the resident animals, you can rent a dog by the hour, and you can even soak in in an onsen-style bath alongside a pool full of cavorting capybaras.
The capybaras are one of the main draws here, and the fairly sizeable herd seem to be happy and well cared for. Capybaras are aquatic, social animals, and here they have ample opportunities to swim and hang out together. Capybara chow is available from a vending machine, and you can feed them (using a small pan rather than by hand) and of course pet them.
Some of the park's other star animals include red pandas, binturongs (aka bearcats), coatis, meerkats, lemurs, a Pallas's Cat and several other exotic mammals, none of which you're allowed to pet. Less exotic but more approachable animals include penguins, puffins, lots of rabbits, kangaroos, alpacas, Patagonian maras, horses, sheep, pigs and a Bactrian camel.
Despite all the exotic animals on call, one of the most popular attractions is the open-air dog zone, where more than a dozen friendly Samoyeds, Huntaways (a New Zealand sheep-herding dog) and other big dogs are on duty at any given time. (There's also a cat and small-dog area, but the animals there are more aloof.)
A few dogs are also available for rental (Y800 for twenty minutes), which means you can take them out for a walk or a run in the dog-friendly areas of the park. There's also a daily dog show, where trained dogs perform tricks like jumping through hoops and catching frisbees.
There are quite a few other events spread over the course of the day, ranging from feeding times to short talks introducing various animals to full-fledged performing-animal shows. These include a seal show, a bird show and a New Zealand farm show. There's even a cat show, where housecats allegedly perform tricks. A daily schedule is posted at the entrance to the park. There are also some seasonal attractions, like the summer-only Beetle Safari.
The entire park is 43 hectares, divided into a Farm Zone (where the farm animals live) and a Town Zone. There are four restaurants, two large gift shops, and an afternoon spa area where you can soak in a hot-spring bath. Men's and women's baths are separated by a glass wall from the capybara pool, and there's a separate Y500 admission to the spa.
If you want to bring your dog to the park, there's a large dog run as well as a 1.5km nature trail; check the website for a map showing the areas of the park where dogs are allowed.
While most people come by car, there is a free shuttle bus which runs once a day on weekdays and twice daily on weekends, holidays and part of the summer. The bus schedule allows you plenty of time to see all the attractions at the park and have a leisurely lunch. The bus ride is quite scenic, taking around an hour from Nasu Shiobara station, which is a stop on the Shinkansen line. The return bus route in the afternoon can also take you to the Nasu Garden Outlet shopping mall if you want to visit there afterwards.
Book your shuttle bus ride in advance on the park's website (http://www.nasu-oukoku.com/info/bus/). If you want to stay overnight, there are a couple of hotels near Nasu Shiobara station and many more in Utsunomiya, which is just one stop (14 minutes) away via Shinkansen.