You may think of ramen and skiing to be the major draw cards of Asahikawa, and you’d be forgiven for thinking so as both are definitely up there in terms of fun things to do, but recently Asahiyama Zoo, first opened in July 1967, has displaced warm delicious noodles and exciting snow adventures to become the big dog tourist drawer in town.
In fact, Asahiyama Zoo is not only the northernmost zoo in the country, but is considered to be Japan’s number one zoo, with the number of annual visitors hitting figures of more than 3 million people by the end of 2007. Not bad for a zoo in Asahikawa; population: 360,000.
Things weren’t always this way though, flash back to just over two decades ago and you will be greeted with a very different picture to the one of prosperity seen today. In the early ‘90s, the zoo was struggling to stay afloat. The 1994 deaths of a western lowland gorilla and a ring-tailed lemur due to echinococcus infection resulted in the temporary closure of the zoo - the final nail in a coffin of dwindling attendances and stale enclosures.
The opportunity for positive change was seized, and things began to shift for the better in 1995 when Masao Kosuge came in as the new chief manager and began to implement a grand redevelopment of the zoo, transforming it from being merely a place to see animals, to becoming a facility aiming to showcase the animals’ behavior as well. Enclosures were rebuilt, resulting in a far more interactive zoo experience, with specially enhanced enclosures allowing visitors to get closer to the action than ever before - enabling a close up glimpse into the varying day to day lives of the roughly 800 animals, ranging across approximately 150 species, that call the zoo home.
“Totori no Mura” or “Totori’s Village” was the first of such new exhibits to be constructed, allowing the public to see birds flying freely in a huge enclosure. Following its success, more special enclosures were built, including a walk through penguin aquarium, a seal aquarium with a vertical tube allowing them to dive and surface vertically, an orangutan trapeze, and even a Polar Bear aquatic park complete with glass domes known as “seal eyes” which allow visitors to view the polar bears from different angles as they roam their enclosure.
The zoo is popular year round, but one special attraction occurs only in winter – the famous Penguin Walk. This winter-exclusive event results in an annual surge of visitors from across Japan and all around the world, coming to see the chubby waddle of flightless Antarctic bird. It is said that the penguin walk was first introduced in order to give some of the pudgier birds a workout so they wouldn’t get too inactive and fat over the winter.