Character Spotlight: Shirapen

The town of Shirahama is found on the Pacific coast of central Wakayama, in Japan’s Kansai region. Tourists and locals alike enjoy the white sands of Shirarahama beach, the soothing waters of its historic onsen, and the natural beauty of its cliffs and caves. But there is one highlight of this town that you may not expect: a little blue penguin named Shirapen.

Shirapen is the Shirahama Town Chamber of Commerce and Industry Youth Club Character, one of coutless yuruchara mascots that exist in Japan to promote regions, businesses, sports teams, and the like. Shirapen has a unique connection to his hometown: his face looks just like Shirarahama beach! His white belly, representing the famous Engetsu Island sea cave, is said to bring luck to anyone who strokes it.

Shirapen’s habit is to end his sentences with “pen”, like a well spoken Pokemon. “Good morning pen.” “I’m looking forward to it pen.”

I had the privilege to meet Shirapen at the 2022 Local Character Expo in Hikone, where he did a dance number with fellow Shirahama mascot Kuedon the longtooth grouper fish. Although I posed for a photo, I was too star-struck to remember to rub the lucky white belly. Maybe next time!

Shirapen’s appearance schedule can be found (in Japanese) on the Shirahama Town Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s website. You can also follow his activities on Twitter and Instagram.

I first wrote about Shirapen in this blog post.

Official Shirapen Website (Japanese)

Shirapen Twitter (Japanese)

Shirapen Instagram (Japanese)

Shirapen Facebook (Japanese)


African Penguin Awareness Day — Why it’s needed and how you can help

Sophie Plants, digital illustration

Penguins live where?

Growing up, my understanding of penguins was built upon misinformation. The most glaring of all was the image of penguins frolicking at the North Pole with Santa and his elves. Contrary to what Hallmark and Coca Cola might portray, penguins don’t even live in the northern hemisphere, much less the North Pole. In fact, the concept of penguins as strictly cold weather creatures ignores three fourths of the penguin species!

So you can understand why African Penguin Awareness Day (the 2nd Saturday of October) is needed. If you hadn’t guessed by their name, African penguins can be found on the warm, sandy beaches of Namibia and South Africa. However, their geology is the only aspect that needs awareness. These warm weather birds are in peril.

Penguins in peril

Since the start of the 20th century, African penguin populations have declined by 99%. They’ve been listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). If nothing changes, it’s feared that African penguins will become extinct in the wild by 2035.

The primary threat to African penguins is food scarcity, and it has a number of causes. The main diet of an African penguin consists of sardines and cape anchovies, two fish that are also in high demand with the commercial fishing industry. A second contributor to food scarcity is climate change. It’s suspected that when seawater temperatures change, fish populations shift their location, putting them further away from nesting penguins. Penguins traveling further to feed often abandon their nests– and the eggs and chicks within.

It’s a hard life for an African penguin. Other man-made threats include oil spills, discarded fishing nets, and habitat destruction. In the past they were even hunted for their oil, feathers, skin and eggs. There are natural threats too, from predators like gulls and feral cats and dogs, to diseases such as avian influenza. Is it any wonder they’re Endangered?

Hope on the horizon

Fortunately, organizations such as SANCCOB and SAAMBR are taking measures to protect the penguins, from immediate action — rehabilitating injured or oiled penguins, rearing abandoned chicks — to long term research and education. There are ways we can help as well.

Take action!

  • Eat sustainably!
    • Livestock are often fed on fishmeal made of anchovies. Eating less meat can preserve the penguin food supply.
    • Check the SASSI list for sustainably harvested seafood.
    • Look for the blue MSC label when purchasing fish at the supermarket.
  • Avoid single-use plastic
    • Discarded plastic often gets into the water supply and can become tangled or ingested. Microplastics in the water can contaminate the food supply.
    • Use a reusable shopping bag or waterbottle.
    • If you must use single-use plastic, be sure to recycle.
  • Reduce your carbon footprint
    • Reducing your carbon footprint can reduce climate change.
    • Buy energy efficient appliances.
    • Turn off lights and appliances when not in use.
    • When possible, walk or ride a bike instead of driving.
  • Support penguin conseration organizations such as:
    • SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Costal Birds)
    • SAAMBR (South African Association for Marine Biological Research)
    • Two Oceans Aquarium

In honor of African Penguin Awareness Day, I’m running a fundraiser. With Postcards for Penguins, you can support African Penguins and receive a one-of-a-kind piece of original art. The fundraiser only runs through October 31st so be sure to check it out!


African Penguin Awareness Day (SAAMBR)

Penguins Wrapped in Plastic (Penguins International)

#NotOnOurWatch: Immediate action is needed to save the African penguin from extinction (Two Oceans Aquarium)

Penguins at the Port of Nagoya

Less than three hours outside of Osaka (and less if you take the Shinkansen), Nagoya is an unassuming city, often overlooked by tourists and Japan residents alike. Defenders of the city will point out the history, the architecture, the scenery.

I, of course, went for the penguins.

My desired destination: The PGcafe, a penguin lover’s dream which I had stumbled across on Instagram. Their photo gallery shows wall-to-wall penguins: plush penguins and figurines, penguin artwork on the walls, and best of all, a menu filled with delicious-looking penguin themed food and drinks. I was captivated. I had to visit. I booked my travel. Unfortunately, the cafe was closed for illness on the day I visited. I’ll definitely have to plan another trip.

Not to be deterred, I headed to the Port of Nagoya for my penguin fix. Although the aquarium is the obvious destination, I stopped first at the orange ship moored across the way. The Fuji Antarctic Museum is located inside this decommissioned icebreaker, filled with dioramas that show what daily life was like aboard the ship. QR codes on the displays provide information in English.

I hadn’t expected to find so many penguins! Promotional material, books, plaques, flags, even ceremonial clothing was decorated with the lovable creatures so many people associate with the south pole.

Finally we visited the Port of Nagoya Aquarium, whose focus seemed to be whales and dolphins. Aside from live dolphin and orca shows, the aquarium also featured impressive fossils and displays showing the evolution of various aquatic animals. I admit that the orca and dolphin enclosures made me uneasy, and when we reached the African penguin exhibit I was a bit dismayed by how small their pool was, but it appears that the enclosure is under construction and I’m hoping that a larger enclosure is in the works.

When we reached the cold weather penguins, I was feeling drained from a long day of travelling, so it was a relief to see a row of benches facing the penguin enclosure. Sitting in the dim light, watching Emperors and Adelies and Gentoos dive and swim and waddle, was the perfect end to my day.

Well, that, and the gift shop. It’s hard to resist an aquarium gift shop.

Nagoya might not make the top of anyone’s bucket list, but if you find yourself in the area, stop by the Port. If you bring a postcard, you can mail it at the penguin postbox!

PGcafe (Japanese)

Fuji Antarctic Museum (Japanese)

Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium (English)

Koupenchan Hanamaru Manten Hoshi Exhibition

In America, a perfect test might get a gold star, but in Japan, it’s the Hanamaru flower that signifies a job well done. The hanamaru is a favourite of Koupenchan, the adorable penguin character whom I’ve written about previously, and thus it makes a fitting title for the art exhibition featuring said adorable penguin. I was fortunate to attend the exhibition with my ever supportive fiance.

I brought a friend along (left)
The beaded entrance
Original wall art by the artist
Penguins! In! Space!
Original painting from the Koupenchan X Hankyu collaboration
As an artist, I loved seeing glimpses into the creative process
A wish to eat takoyaki? (I am not a translator.)
Train Conductor Koupenchan had to get photos with all of her coworkers.
There is an extra-large hanamaru!
I love the little details of the feet!
Adelie-san wall art!
Koupenchan from all angles.
Do-don! (Maybe like… tada! I am a beginner at Japanese…)
Everyone could write messages for Koupenchan.
Mine says ”I love Koupenchan, you know!”
I got the commemorative event button!

Overall, it was an enjoyable exhibition, and I’m glad I got to see original artwork by artist Rurutea. The exhibition goes until July 10th, so if you’re in the Osaka area be sure to check it out!

Event Website (Japanese)

Hyogo’s Posh Penguin Cafe

Less than two hours outside of Osaka, in Hyogo Prefecture, you’ll find a unique dining experience. Though not featured on most tourist’s itineraries, Ballantaine is known to locals as a place with great food, delicious desserts, and a whole peck of penguins.

My fiancé and I ventured there one weekday afternoon. He likes being the navigator– he’d researched our route from Osaka Station, transferring to the Kobe Electric Railway (which featured delightfully decorated trains), and finally to Ebisu station, a tiny platform serving onto a single train track. From there we walked, mountains in the distance, houses interspersed with fields, until suddenly I saw the sign. Cafe & Sweets Ballantaine, a great regal penguin looming before us.

There was a courtyard in front, tables and chairs in front of a large window, but we headed inside and were lead to the best table, right in front of the penguins. The glass was thick enough that you couldn’t smell or hear them, but there they were, waddling about, as penguins do. I counted at least nine African penguins, with possibly more hiding in the nest boxes.

I was enthralled, but also hungry, so my fiancé and I ordered food. The menu was sizable, with pasta, pizzas, salads, cakes, even a quite satisfying burrito (my choice– my fiance got the carbonara). The food was delicious, and it was clear that the penguins weren’t the only thing drawing customers. After we ate, I did some more penguin watching and a little sketching, but the cafe was busy for a weekday afternoon so we didn’t stay too long.

Outside, we peeked a bit more through the big window at the penguins, and watched as a woman held her dog up to the glass– both penguin and dog seemed quite curious of each other!

Overall, it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Ballantaine Official Website (Japanese)

Which Penguin Is That? A World Penguin Day Special

Sophie Plants, Digital Illustration

April 25th is World Penguin Day, a day to celebrate our flightless feathered friends. I always like to celebrate by watching one of my favorite penguin movies or maybe reading a good book; but another worthwhile way of celebrating is through education.

You may know that there are 18 different penguin species (or are there?) but do you know how to tell them apart? The following guide will help you hone your skills as a penguin spotter so that you can wow friends, family and random people at the zoo.

Emperor vs King

Sophie Plants, Ink and Acrylic

They may be royalty, but these two penguin species can be hard to tell apart. Emperor penguins are taller — the tallest penguin species alive!– but unless you have a King and an Emperor standing next to each other that still might be a tough identifier. The trick is to look at the markings on their neck:

  • King penguins have yellow-orange patches that are separated from their white bellies.
  • On Emperors, the orange patch fades gradually into yellow and then white without any separation.

Macaroni vs Rockhopper

Sophie Plants, Ink and Acrylic

Both members of the crested family, Macaroni and Rockhopper penguins can both be identified by their signature crests, the long colorful feathers on top of their heads. But how can you tell these two species apart? Firstly, Rockhoppers are smaller than Macaroni penguins, although this isn’t as helpful if you can’t see the two side by side. The easiest way to tell these species apart is to look at their crest:

  • Rockhopper penguins have two distinct crests of yellow feathers sitting above their eyes like eyebrows.
  • With Macaroni penguins, the crest is a single v-shape that meets above their beak and rises up over each eye like a big yellow unibrow!

Just think of it this way: Macaroni penguins have a single noodle on their face, whereas you can hop back and forth on the Rockhoppers’ eyebrows! (Okay, I just made that up, but I think it’s pretty clever.)

The Banded Penguins

Sophie Plants, Digital Illustration

There are four species of Spheniscus, or Banded Penguins, and one key to telling them apart is by looking at the bands. All four penguins have black faces, with a white band that runs from the top of their eye down to their chest.

  • African Penguins have a single thin band of black across the top of their chest.
  • Humboldt penguins have a slightly thicker black band, and a large section of pink on their beak.
  • Magellanic penguins have a thick black band and then a second thin black band below it.
  • Finally, Galapagos penguins have the least amount of white on their faces, and a thin white band across their chest.

Got that? It’s okay, I can’t tell them apart all the time either!

Now why not head to your local zoo or aquarium and do some penguin spotting!

All ink paintings featured in this blog post are for sale! To own a one-of-a-kind hand painted penguin portrait, please visit my shop.


King Penguin vs Emperor Penguin: What are the differences?

28 Types of Penguins: The only list you’ll ever need

The Lone Penguin

In a small amusement park just outside of the city of Osaka, in a blue brick building tucked near the exit, I found a single solitary penguin. His enclosure was small but clean, concrete covered in fake plastic grass, decorated with two pieces of driftwood. He looked at me, tilting his head, opening and closing his beak but not making a sound. He seemed healthy, bright eyed, active, but lonely. I spoke to him for a while. A staff member approached me, speaking Japanese, gesturing. I understood. For 200 yen I could feed him a snack. I was given a plastic cup of slender fish and a pair of metal tongs. The penguin knew just what to do. He dove into the water and swam up to the wall, eagerly snatching up fish that I offered. “That’s it,” I said sadly once the cup was empty. He bobbed in the water, staring at me expectantly. He was in luck, for another family then approached with cups of fish. I left him to his meal.

I’ve always been a supporter of zoos and aquariums. In America, the biggest, best ones are all accredited and renowned for their work to help wildlife. I understand the arguments for and against animals in captivity, and could always say that my zoo was an example of zoos done right.

Here in Japan I find myself questioning things, wanting to believe the best but unable to ignore subpar environments. In Japan, land of the unusual, the adorable, of cat cafes and monkey spas, they even have penguin bars. I went to one, a small, dimly lit establishment with a trio of penguins behind thick glass, and it was so exciting, such a novelty, but you have to ask, do they belong here? And there are so many questions I would ask— do they ever get sunlight?— but I don’t speak Japanese more than to say “The penguins are cute, aren’t they?”

I would really like this website to be a resource for penguin lovers. A site where people like me can find out about places and events that feature penguins. But then I wonder about my moral obligation. Should I share with others those places that I find questionable? Should I leave it to other people to make their own decisions whether or not to visit?

There is a lone penguin at the petting zoo at Hirakata Park in Japan. He seems healthy, if sad. I do not regret meeting him.

Koupen-chan Rides the Rails

One of the things I love about living in Japan is the existence of kawaii cute culture. You don’t have to look far to see cute mascots promoting businesses, housewares festooned with cuddly animals, and plush character charms hanging from the bags of school children and businessmen alike. It’s only natural that commuter trains, an ever present part of life, would join in on the cuteness.

There are several aspects to the Koupenchan x Hankyu collaboration, including a stamp rally, promotional goods, adorable food options, and trains decorated inside and out with Koupenchan, the adorably optimistic penguin whom I wrote about in my last blog post. Naturally, I made it my mission to experience them all.

The trains feature beautiful murals on the outside showcasing some of the cities that the Hankyu line services.

Posters on the inside also highlight popular landmarks along the train line.

Window decals add a whimsical touch!

The digital displays have a surprise as well.

My favorite part of the Koupen-trains (as I like to call them) is the plush Koupen-chan conductor!

The stamp rally consists of four stations on the Hankyu line, and each of them features a Koupen-chan photo spot.

One station has been totally taken over by Koupen-chan!

Along the way, you can stop at various restaurants for specialty Koupen-chan foods.

And don’t forget the souvenirs! (Yes, I HAD to buy the train.)

The first part of the stamp rally runs through December 12, during which you can purchase a special One Day Rail pass. The second, digital stamp rally goes from October 22nd through December 12th, in which you can buy a stamp rally kit with adorable plushies. Take your plushies to the designated stations and you’ll be able to take a photo at a virtual photo spot!

The train and station decorations will stay up until January 31, 2022. Until then, I’ll continue to get a thrill of excitement each time I see a Koupen-train. It certainly makes going to work a bit more enjoyable!

Koupenchan x Hankyu Official Page (Japanese)

Character Spotlight: Koupen-chan

All photos taken by me or my incredibly patient and supportive fiancé.