Saturday, 15 September 2012

6) ASAHIKAWA – More Fuzzy Animals (旭川: 可愛い 動物!)

The Grand Penguin Dictator of the Universe stands on his rock on high, and casts a scrutinizing crimson gaze on the proletarians below. Never mind that their average biomass is over twice his own, or that they will empty the buckets of fish before he can reach them unless he better positions himself. No, all he has to do is leer from his rock, and all will bow before His Excellency's timeless might.

Frankly, it makes as much sense as our own species's power games. And I'd support this penguin over a great deal of humanity's Excellencies any day.

This fellow and his impressive yellow eyebrows swaggers round Japan's most original penguin exhibit, along with members of half a dozen penguin species. Unlike other penguin exhibits, this one contains a long underwater tunnel from which you can watch them soaring through the waves from beneath, brings you almost to nose-to-beak proximity on the surface, and takes them all out for a nice long winter waddle around the zoo, for exercise, when the snow on the ground is cold enough for their feet.

Asahiyama Zoo: like everything in Hokkaido, quite different from what you'd expect elsewhere. Despite its site in the suburbs of only 350,000-people-strong Asahikawa, this zoo has surged from prior tough times to eclipse even Ueno Zoo in Tokyo as Japan's most popular zoo.

Those who have followed this blog from its early days will recall that zoos raise complex ethical issues, and should be approached with a thoughtful and critical mindset. I won't repeat the analysis here, save that I believe a good zoo (in theory or in practice) is is one which absolutely prioritizes the welfare and dignity of the animals in it; followed by learning from them to improve their condition in the world, and educating and inspiring the humans who visit. So how does this zoo fare?

Though smaller than Ueno, part of Asahiyama's appeal is down to the unique design of its centrepiece enclosures – those not surprisingly containing Hokkaido's native animals, or those otherwise most at home with the chill of the icy regions. Besides the penguin perspectives, the seal house offers a great vertical tunnel through which the graceful pinnipeds glide up and down right in front of you, while the polar bear and Ezo wolf exhibits let you stand under a capsule set in their respective floors: the vantage point, in other words, of what they eat.


All this is maintained through Hokkaido's seasonal shifting. Many exhibits are closed or moved indoors during winter, though the animals in their element in the snow are said to become more animated. 

As far as ethical conditions for the animals are concerned, Asahiyama seems fairly balanced. Some animals, particularly the zoo's most eminent, live in spacious enclosures with multiple connected environments, indoors and out. Others I feel could still do with more space or companionship, especially the big cats and bears. And all this feels possible: there was much evidence of ongoing large-scale development and construction, suggesting the zoo very much continues its intriguing journey.

My visit was dampened by a dose of bad luck: half the day saw driving rain fall on and off across the region, with many animals taking cover in their shelters. Moreover my ailing camera made its disdain for glass panels and odd lighting angles as clear as the sky was not, reducing my haul of decent photographs.

The zoo's educational service seems significant. Besides the information on display, the staff convey an air of tangible passion in what they do, and a great deal of feeding time excitement is accompanied with long and detailed explanation, in Japanese, about the animals in question.

And this information enters many ears. When they say this is Japan's most crowded zoo, they aren't joking. Even on this soaking Monday morning under 100% cloud cover, the exhibits and thoroughfares heaved to the seams with people. Within the first hour of opening, the leading animal houses were packed with camera-wielding visitors out to the ends of switchback queues six or seven layers deep – a wait of forty-five minutes or more to even catch a glimpse of a polar bear, for example, while penguin feeding time may have competed for crowds with the London Olympics.

On a personal note, it feels interesting to recognize that the more I visit zoos, the more of the animals within I can count among those I have encountered in their natural circumstances. Like the Japanese macaques, last met in Nagano...

How many can you spot?
And who remembers these fellows? I never expected that the capybaras I met in Guyana were so beloved by the Japanese. But in so many shops, adorable big-headed capybara toys line shelves upon shelves, from the miniature to the door-collapsing gigantic.

Furthermore, that bicycle-flush toilet at the top of Kurodake has competition...

The pull of Asahiyama's animals overflows the zoo and infuses the city itself. Its penguins, polar bears and seals represent themselves with endearing cuteness on city information and advertising displays, leaflets, pamphlets, posters, and a fair additional range of places which may or may not have anything to do with the animals at all. It seems fair to say that these animals are well on their way to transcending their zoo roles, and finding a place in the very identity of Asahikawa itself.

It feels calm for a city. Its location further into Hokkaido's heart than the likes of Sapporo, but still within easy reach thereof, makes it well-suited as a base for exploring the island's deeper wilds, or penetrating to its outer perimeter towards the Sea of Okhotsk – all of which feels one step closer than from the major urban centres. So too does one sense that Asahikawa's work is tied a bit closer to the earth: beers and sake, sweets, furniture, and natural arts and crafts such as pottery, woodwork, textiles and glassware.

And it shares a proud place, along with Sapporo and Hakodate, in the triad of Hokkaido's famous pillars of ramen. Asahikawa's oily speciality is soy ramen, contrasted with Sapporo's miso ramen and the salty variety of Hakodate port.

As an example of Asahikawa crafting excellence, I would recommend the Juncobo glassblowing studio in the Pottery Village. This zone is the hub of Asahikawa's arts and crafts activity, on a peaceful hill just outside the city centre. This shop offers high-quality authentic local glassware, cute animal themes among them, produced on-site and on sale for excellent prices. Stop by the studio just two minutes' walk from the bus stop if you're in the area.

Alas, it was time to bid farewell – for now – to the heart of Hokkaido, and journey back down the southern peninsula to return across the Tsugaru straits. But not before one last stop, in one of the most important cities in Hokkaido's story and Japan's alike. At the southernmost base of Hokkaido was built the anchor which after so many eras moored Hokkaido's destiny to Japan's, a historical and geographical gateway in too many ways to count. Coming up next: Hakodate.

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