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.

Character Spotlight: Koupen-chan

Created by Japanese illustrator Rurutea, Koupen-chan is a cheerful baby penguin who is always rooting for you. The name is a play on Koutei Pengin (皇帝ペンギン), which means Emperor penguin. Koupen-chan’s friends are Adelie-san, an adult Adelie penguin; Yokoshima Enaga-san, whose name literally means Evil Long-tailed tit; Otona no Pengin, the adult Emperor penguin; and Shirokuma-san, the polar bear.

In Japan, the cute little penguin is everywhere to be found: books and stationary, toys and stuffed animals, clothing and home goods, even as LINE stickers. One of my favorite stores to visit when out shopping is the local Kiddyland, which has a section devoted to Koupen-chan, including a complimentary stamper so that you can emboss the penguin’s likeness into your journal, for example. They used to have a talking Koupen-chan plush that would respond to preprogrammed phrases in a cute little voice. I used to love stopping by to say “konnichiwa” to Koupen-chan!

Much of the appeal of Koupen-chan, despite being an adorable baby penguin, is the encouragement they offer for the simple things in life. My first encounter with Koupen-chan was a little figure I purchased from a Gashapon toy dispenser — a black and white penguin wearing a red cape and holding a sign that said “Did you save the Earth today? Great!” Ok, that’s not quite a simple thing in life, but most of Koupen-chan’s encouragements are more mundane. “Staying hydrated is great!” “You woke up, great!” “Tidying up is great!” If you haven’t guessed, “Great!” (えらい) is one of Koupen-chan’s catch phrases, but not in a sarcastic way! Look at that cute face and believe in Koupen-chan’s sincerity the way Koupen-chan believes in you.

Koupen-chan has become so popular in Japan, they are even used in government promotions–but that’s for a different blog post. Coming up next: Koupen-chan Rides the Rails!

Koupen-chan the Positive Penguin (English)

Learning Japanese with Koupen-chan (English)

Rurutea Official Twitter (Japanese)

The Zoo in the City

Beneath a highway overpass, tucked against a shopping arcade, in the middle of bustling Osaka City, you’ll find Tennoji Zoo. It’s a small zoo, old, not particularly modern, with rusted fences and paint chipped concrete, but they try. The cafeteria has been renovated; murals have been painted; an interactive museum was recently installed.

This is my zoo, the zoo closest to my home. Membership card in one hand, sketchbooks tucked in my bag, I like to visit on my days off, to draw penguins. Right now, they just have Humboldts, but that’s alright with me. Humboldts are one of my favorite species. There are two exhibits at the zoo; one near the entrance, next to the sea lions — I stop here first to say hello. The other, main exhibit is on the opposite side of the zoo, near the petting zoo. This is usually where I like to sit and draw.

There were babies in the spring. I would watch them in their nest boxes, big bundles of fluff, growing into awkward, gangly juveniles, their feet and wings too big for their bodies. They were a joy to draw. They’re teenagers now, their bodies proportionate, their fluff traded for sleek feathers. The only way to tell them from the adults is their coloration — the young adults don’t have the characteristic stripes.

They’re still adorably awkward. I watched them yesterday at feeding time, cautiously grabbing fish from the keepers, only to drop it or have it snatched away by a more capable adult. But they were persistent, the young ones, and once they finally gobbled a fish down they were squawking for more.

I’ve gotten to know one penguin keeper. After the feeding is over, he’ll swing around to chat with me, the stilted conversation of two people who don’t quite speak each other’s language, but his English is better than my Japanese. I’ll show him my sketches, and he gives me an update on the penguins. Then I’ll bid him a “See you later”, and he’ll go back to his work, and I’ll tuck away my sketchbook and head home.

It’s not a big zoo, not particularly modern. Some of the enclosures are too small, too plain, for my comfort. It’s probably not a place I’d bring friends from out of town. But I’ll go there, on my days off, and draw penguins. Because it’s my zoo.

Osaka Tennoji Zoo (English)

Penguins of Shirahama

Located two hours south of the bustling city of Osaka, Shirahama is a modest resort town of bubbling hot springs and white sand beaches. That was where my fiancé and I found ourself one hot, sunny weekend in July, as we celebrated our birthdays (his is the 2nd, mine the 5th). We had just explored the Sandanbeki Cave and were browsing the gift shop when I discovered Shirapen! With a face modeled after the shape of Shirarahama beach, Shirapen is a little blue penguin who promotes the city of Shirahama. The shop was selling pens, keychains, and buttons. I happily bought a keychain.

Shirapen wasn’t the only penguin I found hanging out in Shirahama. At the top of Senjojiki Rock Plateau, I found a wooden standee of a spotted penguin. Later, more spotted penguins were discovered at Shirahama Station. I inquired about my curious discovery on Twitter, and immediately one of my friends hunted down an article (Japanese) from 2015 of an art exhibit featuring the spotted penguins. It looks like some penguins remained after the event!

I did encounter some more penguins in Shirahama, but that story is for a future blog entry. 😉

Shirapen (Japanese)

Penguins from the Past

I love old memorabilia. Photographs, posters, magazine advertisements, hand illustrated packaging; they’re a fascinating glimpse into the past. That’s why I was excited to learn that the Digital Public Library of America has a huge collection of historical photos and documents. Naturally, the first keyword I searched was “penguin”!

1944 war poster
1930-1975 matchbook cover
1930-1975 matchbook cover
1958 Yellow-eyed penguin

A word of caution to those searching for penguins — apparently a lot of military vehicles have “penguin” in their name! That said, the archive is definitely worth a look.

Penguin Bazaar

I’m starting to realize that Nara is the place to be for penguin lovers. That’s where I headed today, dressed in my finest penguin gear. It was a rainy, dreary day, but that didn’t seem to effect the turnout at this year’s Penguin Bazaar.

From the same people who brought you Nara Penguin Land, the Penguin Bazaar is a collection of penguin goods made by artists from all over Japan. Although I recognized a few items from the previous event, there was also a wide array of new items and some new artists as well. Products ranged from stationery, jewelry, clothing, home goods, ceramics, and even plush toys.

Penguins were the star of the show of course, but other sea life made an appearance as well.

With so much to choose from, it was hard for me not to fill my basket with penguin merch, but I finally decided on a cool totebag by ペンギンと and a set of commemorative badges.

The Penguin Bazaar will be held at the Tokyu Hands Nara Store until May 4th.

Penguin Bazaar website (Japanese)

Penguin Bazaar twitter (Japanese)