Sinking into steamy hot springs, the giant rodents of Izu Shaboten Zoo flicked their ears and closed their eyes against the camera clicks of fascinated onlookers, drifting into a hazy midday nap.
They might not know it, but the five capybaras are the star attraction at the zoo about two hours by train south of Tokyo, the host of this year’s Summer Olympics.
Zookeepers are banking on the tourism appeal of the world’s largest rodents to cash in on the fortuitous coincidence of Japan hosting the Olympics in the Lunar zodiac’s Year of the Rat.
“The capybaras are the highlight of our zoo, so we’re taking the Year of the Rat as an opportunity to push their popularity up even more,” deputy zookeeper Masahiro Takeda said. “We’re really hoping that this will catch on with people from all over the world visiting Japan too.”
Ironically, the capybaras, which are native to the tropical jungles of South America, have been credited with improving the zoo’s popularity in the quieter winter months.
The winter tradition of giving the capybaras daily baths started almost 40 years ago, when a zoo attendant cleaning their pen with hot water turned around to find that they were huddled together trying to sit in one of the warm puddles.
In a country with nearly 3,000 hot spring resorts, the baths quickly became a fixture at Izu Shaboten and other zoos across Japan, where the number of capybaras jumped from 126 in 2006 to 422 in 2016.
The rodents have inspired a popular plush toy and associated merchandise called Kapibarasan, and online video clips of bathing capybaras have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
At Izu Shaboten, the capybaras, which weigh between 35kg and 65kg, eat apples and leaves dumped by their keeper into their hot bath before drifting off to sleep. When awake, visitors can don special mittens to pet and hand-feed the giant hamster-like animals.
Daytrippers who stop for a bite to eat at the zoo’s restaurant can indulge in a capybara-themed beef burger, which features a bun in the shape of the animal, with chocolate eyes and mouth drawn on.
Takeda said that he did not have exact data, but estimated that the zoo received 20 to 30 percent more visitors during the winter since it started showcasing the bathing capybaras.
“I’d only ever seen the capybaras sit in hot springs on TV, so I really wanted to see it in person,” 23-year-old visitor Kayo Kogai said on Saturday.
“They look so relaxed… I would really like to join them in their bath,” Kogai’s friend, 23-year-old Mizuki Aoki, added with a laugh.
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