Nagoya's Higashiyama Zoo ranks as the second most visited zoo in Japan, right after the popular Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. It has a variety of attractions including a Botanical Garden, a mini amusement park, and a wide variety of unusual animals, including koalas and kangaroos. Higashiyama Zoo has a special Japanese animals exhibit as well, which is where I saw my very first Japanese native Tanuki (racoon dog), which were as adorable in person as they are in pictures. What sets this zoo apart from others, however, is Shabani, a 20 year old (40s in human years) Western Lowland Gorilla with well-defined facial features and gentle eyes. Shabani has become so popular that he has been called the Ikemen (the Japanese word for a good looking guy) Gorilla.
Born in Apenheul Primate Park in the Netherlands, raised in Australia, and then transported to Higashiyama Zoo for breeding purposes, Shabani gained his fame when a zoo visitor tweeted a flattering picture of him in 2015. People noticed his "soulful, warm eyes" and photogenic nature, becoming an instant hit that has since doubled the amount of female attendees of the zoo. Shabani has also been the topic of several news reports, a TV cameo, a DVD documentary about him, the mascot for a candy line, and featured in a worker recruitment campaign by the city of Nagoya. The zoo souvenir shops, eager to capitalize on the popularity of their resident idol, sell a variety of Shabani themed merchandise, including treats and shirts. I would personally recommend the Shabani print cookies, which come with four different pictures of Shabani, although the Shabani crunchy chocolate bites are also delicious.
Shabani is not alone in his enclosure. He has successfully bred with two female gorillas and is the proud father of two sons, which has made him all the more appealing to his fanbase. Videos of Shabani playing with his son and breaking up fights between his wives and children has further endeared him to his audience.
I first heard about Shabani as my Japanese teacher at Nanzan University continously brought him up for in-class examples, talking about this 'Ikemen Gorilla' enough times I decided I wanted to see him for myself. I have had the pleasure of going to Higashiyama Zoo and seeing Shabani twice, though Shabani seemed more camera shy than the hundreds of pictures of him would imply. It was also hard to see him clearly because of the swarm of people in the indoor viewing hallway, pushing and shoving very eagerly to get even the smallest peek of the famed Ikemen Gorilla. It would have been nice if Shabani had bothered to go to his outside enclosure, but even idols need breaks, I guess.
If anyone ever gets the chance to come to Nagoya, Higashiyama Zoo is a definite must-see to meet the famous Shabani and judge if he is truly as handsome in person.
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<p>My name is Naomi Wolfe and I am a Japanese major and Sociology minor studying in Japan for the 2016-2017 academic year in the hopes of understanding Japanese culture, people, and society. I studied in the Tokyo Language & Culture Program for the fall semester and cannot wait to see what else I can learn in the Nagoya Direct Enrollment Program in the spring semester!</p>