Asahikawa: Asahiyama Zoo

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Asahikawa train station

For most Japanese, Asahikawa (旭川), a city in Central Hokkaido, conjures only one thing: Asahiyama Zoo (旭山動物園, Y800 for adults [about S$13], free for secondary school students and under, http://www5.city.asahikawa.hokkaido.jp/asahiyamazoo/zoo/English/top.html). This is undoubtedly the most famous zoo in Japan, the one everyone’s heard of, gone to before, or want to go  to soon.

The reason for this? Penguin Walk (ペンギン散歩, 11am and 3pm daily during winter), when the penguins of the zoo are released to take a stroll down a path lined with thousands of camera-ready domestic tourists cooing ‘kawaii’. Sounded lame to me, but we had a day to spend in Asahikawa, and besides, if we didn’t go to Asahiyama Zoo, we will forever encounter strange looks on the faces of the Japanese when we told them we’ve been to Asahikawa but didn’t go to the zoo. It’s like visiting Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower. Yeah, I know its a little incomparable, but well, you get what I mean.

The zoo is open from 10.30am to 3.30pm in winter, which is undoubtedly the most popular season to visit, when the entire place turns into a snow-covered winter wonderland for the animals and visitors.

Take a public bus (40 minutes, Y400 one way) from the bus stop near Asahikawa JR Station - the staff at the tourist information centre there will be able to tell you where to board the bus and give you a schedule of the bus timings.

Even the bus comes decked in the zoo’s colours (only the ‘express’ buses, which take 10 minutes quicker, and are not as common as the normal buses):

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Just look at the long queue 15 minutes before opening time. Buy the tickets from the counter first, then join the queue, not the other way round! Once the gates open, though, the queue disappears.

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Here’s an English map of the zoo. Quite a few animals, and although it looks small, trust me, you’ll need more than a couple of hours here to do it justice.

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Which attraction can’t be missed? Penguin Walk, of course. Just look at the crowd waiting for the stars of the show to appear:

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By the way, this was on a weekday non-school holiday morning at 11am in early February. From what I can see, the path stretches about 100-150m, and the same amount of people in the above photo line the entire path. But the zookeepers will ask those in front to squat down though, so even late-comers at the back can get a good view.

I knew I had a picture of the entire path somewhere:

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All waiting for this moment:

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You wonder what’s all the fuss about until you see them walk clumsily in a way that’s so irresistibly cute, stopping now and then to peck at ice on the floor or at the shoes of onlookers. And you’ll be surprised by the kind of sounds penguins make!

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Can it get any cuter than this? If admiring Mt Fuji and relaxing in a ryokan is a classical Japan Hour moment, so is this – braving the cold to watch cute penguins walk slowly across the snow, your heart totally captured by them, like the thousands of Japanese tourists around you. Can’t help but coo ‘kawaiiiiii!’

The truth is, this same ‘kawaiiii' feeling stayed with me throughout my entire 3.5-hour visit to the zoo. Somehow animals on snow in Japan seem so much cuter!

Other highlights of the zoo, briefly. I’d love to write more about each aspect but if I do that this post would become too long!

No professional and dull-coloured signboards here. Cute signages everywhere in the zoo:

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Feeding time for the seals! This is called もぐもぐタイム in Japanese, literally “mogu-mogu time”. Translation: just another deliberately act-cute name for feeding time. But somehow the sound of that word is so addictive! Mogu-mogu tai-mu! Only in Japan.

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The zookeeper provides an interesting commentary (in Japanese) as he feeds the seals, which takes about 15 minutes. Quite a humorous session, as I saw one particularly fat seal coming out of the water and slithering on the snow, eyes following the zookeeper, looking hungrily at the fish in his hands. Zookeeper entertains the crowd by throwing the fish far away, and the seal warbles through the snow to get to it, making loud grunts along the way, and eliciting a gaggle of laughs from the onlookers!

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Polar Bears:

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They don’t only have cute signboards, but also cute animal-themed floormats, wall murals, benches, information boards, exhibits, etc, all with accompanying childish font. Same goes for all the other animal enclosures in the zoo. Part of the joy of exploring this zoo comes from seeing what kind of cute animal-inspired kitschy designs the Japanese can come up with!

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There he is:

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Other animals:

Cranes:

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Tiger:

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In case you were distracted by yet another impossibly-cute signage in the above photo (this one’s a warning sign – you’d never know!), that’s a lion walking on the snow.

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Leopard:

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Sorry, I’m distracted by yet another cute poster (above). This one looks like it could have been part of an elementary school science fair exhibit.

One sign I’ve been in Japan too long: taking as many pictures of random cute stuff in the zoo as I’ve taken of the animals!

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That’s a giant takoyaki ball (its actually a tap) next to a fish-painted wash basin:

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They even made a penguin snow sculpture, complete with a tiny bow!

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One of the most important reasons this zoo is so wildly popular is the interactive, interesting way it presents the animals. Besides the penguin walk and mogu-mogu time for the seals, another example is the orang utan indoor enclosure.

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Plenty of ropes and rock-climbing apparatus for them to hang onto and play with:

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Is that a gorilla-themed vending machine I spy over there?

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The orang-utans are lucky to be in a warm, heated indoor enclosure. No such fortune for the native Japanese monkeys – they’re left to shiver in the –7 degrees Celsius frigid air, which I found rather cruel.

Look at them all huddled together.

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This was the only animal who seemed unable to withstand the cold. The giraffe looks like its doing fine.

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Many other animals but too many to list here!

As one of Hokkaido’s most popular tourist attractions, this zoo’s souvenior shops has prices to match as well. All the souveniors, soft toys and cute candies are just way too overpriced. The cheapest thing around is a ‘Capsule Zoo’ (Y300), not very cheap in itself, but if you really want something to take home, you can get one of these from the numerous ‘capsule machines’ at the rest area.

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The surest sign of Asahiyama Zoo’s popularity is this:

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Asahiyama Zoo Train. Free for holders of the Japan Rail Pass or the Hokkaido Rail Pass. It is actually an all-reserved seat limited express train decked out in a very, very cute animal theme. Runs daily between Sapporo and Asahikawa station, Sapporo-Asahikawa in the morning, and Asahikawa-Sapporo in the afternoon. Check the schedules and timings with JR Hokkaido, as there are some days when it doesn’t run.

Pictures of the train:

This is the area between carriages:

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A typical passenger seat:

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Each carriage has its own theme. The car is made up of five carriages, and there are seats in 4 of them. When reserving a seat on this train, make sure you tell the JR staff which animal-themed carriage you want. The exterior of the carriage is painted with motifs of the animal, and the interior is also decked out in matching colours and themes. Plus, the first four seats of each train are draped with special animal ‘skins’ for you to take pictures with (you can’t reserve these seats, its just something cute they put there for fun):

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The last car does not have passenger seats, but an entire rest lounge where you can take pictures with stuff like a polar bear chair, and uh.. what’s that other animal?

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Or you could stamp one of the five special stamps on your notebook (stamp-collecting seems to be something of a hobby in Japan, where every single metro/subway/train station/tourist attraction/special train has its own unique stamp).

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This is what the polar bear stamp looks like:

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And kids will enjoy this area in the last carriage, where they can read animal books (in Japanese) or watch animal shows of the zoo (in Japanese):

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Everyone gets a small certificate to show that you took this special train!

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Its given out by a special attendant on this train, who goes around conducting special ‘animal quizzes’ in each train carriage (in Japanese).

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It all made for a very fun 100-minute train ride between Asahikawa and Sapporo that passed in a flash as I went carriage-to-carriage, snapping tons of photos and posing with cute wall murals and seats. Do as the Japanese do – forget your sarcasm and skepticism, and just embrace cuteness and childishness for one day. You’ll be glad you did it. If you’re a fan of zoos, Asahiyama Zoo won’t disappoint; even if you’re like me and don’t really care about them, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how fun they can actually be!

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