My wife and I share a fondness for nearly every animal you can think of. We often buy bread or bring crackers with us when we go to parks so we can feed the wildlife when we have the chance. The first time my wife saw a squirrel up close, she freaked out saying it was so ugly… but, cute at the same time. We were sitting on a bench in a zoo feeding the chipmunks that came by when the squirrel appeared. She described it as “an alien creature that is made in garbage bins,” which is pretty accurate since that’s where many squirrels spend their time if the food is available. This had me wondering, how does it feel to see squirrels like this for the first time? I was born and raised in America, so I lost all memories of my first time seeing them long ago. Apparently, in Japan squirrels are a bit more rare, so it is really fun to see them not in captivity.
Upon my visits to Japan, my wife told me about a somewhat famous park (kind of a mini zoo) that was dedicated to showing off our little rodent friends. The name tells you pretty much all you need to know. It is known as the Machida Risuen, or Machida Squirrel Park. The park is located on a really steep hill heading down somewhere we never bothered exploring. To go on this trip, we drove from her parent’s house to Machida city, which was about a good half hour drive or so. It was a beautiful day, no clouds in the sky, and great temperature. We stopped by the 7-Eleven, that was 5 minutes away, for a quick snack before we arrived at the squirrel park.
Admission was 400円 per person, and one of the first animals you see is a cute brown squirrel, followed by a… chipmunk. Not quite a squirrel, but very cute either way. At least the chipmunk was related to the squirrel, but the turtles have no excuse. The rabbits are somewhat related, but that’s pushing it a bit much. When we passed the main entrance with the brown squirrel, we saw the area in the middle where we could hand feed the rabbits and turtles, while they had a booth that sold small bowls of lettuce and carrots for 100円 a piece. It was much funner feeding the turtles than I had initially anticipated, and it quickly became one of our favorite activities to do at the squirrel park, despite the squirrels being the main attraction. We are not alone on this idea either. Many Japanese children would bring bowls over and watch as the turtles wolf down fresh leafy greens. Their tongues look like little pieces of pink gum that as been rolled up like pretzel dough, and you can only see the end of that dough. We could spend hours just standing there, feeding and petting the turtles…
But, enough about turtles. The main attraction is a special outdoor dome that has netting running up several poles and covers the area like a tarp full of holes, whose only purpose is to prevent the squirrels from escaping. You can enter the squirrel area for free, of course, but if you wanted to feed them you had to buy the sunflower seed packs for another 100円. The squirrels are quite ravenous and eat up the seeds really fast, so a single pack of them may not last more than 5 minutes if you aren’t careful.
The squirrels have a wonderful environment they live in under these conditions. I was very surprised to see that they were agreeable with so many visitors, and there were signs posted that monitored human traffic levels so visitors would know when the squirrels were recently fed too much, and when would be better feeding times. Technically, you are supposed to feed the squirrels only on one of the provided oven mitts to protect your hands from their sharp claws, but hand feeding them is extremely fun if you don’t get caught~~. The squirrels are so friendly they actually do climb onto you if you aren’t paying attention or aren’t being careful. I must say that their claws are extremely sharp, and I would not recommend coming in summer clothes despite the temperatures outside. When I went in shorts and a T-shirt, my legs looked like I tripped over a couple cacti and when my mother in law saw my arms, she thought I was an idiot for trying to pull out rose bushes from the front yard (that’s what it looked like; I would never touch her garden without permission).
Despite their really cute personalities, they are still quite timid. If you approach a squirrel without food, or try to touch them, they run away from you like how you would run away from a skunk. It is really a shame because they are adorable and look so fluffy to touch. One final word of advice is to not let the squirrels get near the bag of sunflower seeds. They have a nasty habit of grabbing the lower edge and either tearing it open to let out the seeds, or grabbing it so fast in their teeth that you don’t have time to react when they pull it away and scatter the seeds on the ground. You never have the time to retrieve the seeds either since they work in teams.
Even though these are not flying squirrels, they do like to jump onto you, especially when you wear loose clothing. I had this happen when I visited the first time. I almost walked out of the reserve area with a squirrel hitchhiking on my shoulder and I never would have known if the staff didn’t kindly stop me to shoo it away.
Overall, the Machida Squirrel Park is a fantastic place to visit if you love furry little creatures and want them to climb all over you like a tree. There are guinea pigs in the park as well, but they tend to stink pretty badly, so we typically avoid their pens. If you can see them out, the prairie dogs also are quite cute, but they are behind proper casings, so they are display models only. No, you can’t jump over and touch them… it really hurts trying to climb up one side and squeeze through the feeding area only to find out that there is a locked door next to the glass you are so desperately attempting to conquer :p
Again, fantastic place with very friendly staff. I encourage you to go if you have some free time and are able to visit the machida area. Even if you have seen many squirrels in America, or wherever you are from, you have not experienced something like this!