I’ve lived my whole life in Australia, in a place that doesn’t snow. Growing up, I’d watch American movies and TV shows (and probably some British ones too), and always see those stereotypical scenes of children waking up to snow (usually on or around Christmas), and I’d think how wonderful that would be (on any day of the year). So you can probably imagine my delight, on the morning February 7th (yes, these posts are taking a lot longer than I’d originally foreseen), when I peered out the window of our Sapporo hotel, and saw flurries of glorious snow falling from the sky!
The snow continued to fall quite heavily as we left our hotel and made our way to Susukino Station. I could not take the smile from my face. (I was probably also still on a high from the Sapporo Snow Festival the day before.)
I’ve experienced snowfall before, but never in the middle of a city, and never of that magnitude in a city. Probably the most intense snowfall I’ve experienced was in New Zealand, when we were at The Remarkables. It made snowboarding very interesting (you could barely see more than a few metres in front of you), but it’s one of my favourite memories from that trip.
Anyway, back to February 7th: Our plan (KF and myself) was to take a train to Asahikawa, a town somewhere north of Sapporo, and check out their Winter Festival. Before our trip, I’d found all these other snow festivals, so I added a few to our itinerary. Can’t have too many snow festivals, right?
Asahikawa is actually about 85 minutes from Sapporo Station by train. It’s not too long – just right for a day trip – but it’s a decent amount of time to spend on a train, so I brought a book to read, as well as a notebook to do some writing. Good plan, right? Well, I didn’t end up doing anything but stare out the window the whole time. The scenery was just breath-taking!
Looking at those mountains in the distance, and then at all the little towns we passed on the way, made me think about the vastness and enormity of the world, and how incredible it is that you have all these small towns and villages and communities that seem so isolated; and it was just this profound contrast that had me totally awestruck, and transfixed to the window. I just felt so small, yet so lucky to be experiencing what I was experiencing. That was possibly the quickest (and fullest?) 85 minutes of my life.
If I remember correctly, it was getting on to late morning by the time we reached Asahikawa (we kept a pretty relaxed pace on our holiday). The Winter Festival was mostly a nighttime thing, so we had plenty of time to do other things beforehand. If you look up things to do in and around Asahikawa, you’ll almost certainly come across recommendations for their zoo at Asahiyama. It was not a hard decision.
Pro-tip: there’s a tourist information centre at Asahikawa Station, near the exit to go to the bus terminal. You can purchase tickets to the zoo here, which saves you from having to line up with everyone else at the zoo entrance. The staff at the info centre were also incredibly friendly and helpful, and spoke really good English.
Side note: Asahikawa Station is extremely well-kept, spacious and clean. I reckon of all the train stations we went to in Japan, I was most impressed with this one (or, at least, it stands out the most in my memory).
It’s just a short bus ride from the train station to Asahiyama Zoo (I don’t remember it being too long, anyway). I think they also had more frequent services that week because of the Snow Festival, so we didn’t have to wait long for a bus either. (Japan likes to look after its tourists.)
Asahikawa was the northern-most point we travelled to in Japan, so it makes sense that it was also the coldest place. I think it was sitting around minus 6 or 7 degrees Celsius for most of the day, which even challenged my love of the cold a little bit. When we got to the zoo, we were both kind of hungry, and needed to warm up, so we had a quick bite to eat at the cafeteria near the entrance. There was also a little bakery shop a bit further down, and I could not resist trying a cream cheese bun (gotta have all the Hokkaido dairy you can while you’re there!) It was the most amazing thing – like rich baked cheesecake encased in a soft bun.
The zoo itself isn’t actually that big. I think an afternoon is probably sufficient to get through everything, depending on how long you spend at each enclosure, so we weren’t in any real hurry. I ended up taking a lot of photos that day, but I’ll just share a few here.
One of the main attractions at Asahiyama Zoo is the daily penguin parade, which happens some time in the middle of the afternoon. We basically wandered from exhibit to exhibit, waiting for this penguin parade.
But don’t get me wrong – the other exhibits were good too. They have an impressive bird section with all sorts of native birds, including a few species of eagles and owls. Unfortunately, it was rather difficult to photograph these birds in their cages using just my phone camera, so you’ll just have to settle for the penguin photo.
Some of the exhibits were closed because of the snow/winter (animals like giraffes and elephants don’t fare too well out in the cold). But I figured that was ok because we have all those in our zoos back in Australia, and it’s not like I’d never seen them before. No big deal. What I was surprised to find, then, was this hippo, just casually wandering around in the snow:
There were also bears, snow leopards, wolves, owls, foxes, various farm animals – the list goes on and on – but my favourite animal (apart from birds) is the tiger. Such gorgeous creatures! And the tigers at Asahiyama Zoo weren’t shy either. You could get pretty close!
As it approached closing time (I think the zoo closes a bit earlier in winter), we went to another eatery in the zoo to have a quick bite to eat, and to defrost a bit, before catching a bus back into town. A lot of hot chocolate and soup and other warm beverages were consumed that day.