“This had better be good…” I quipped while standing outside the entrance of Asahiyama Zoo 旭山動物園, waiting for it to open, in the cold of winter with rain pelting down.
On all accounts, it was a dreary, overcast Winter’s day. After a short walk to the Sapporo train station from Keio Plaza Sapporo Hotel, we took a 1.5 hour train ride to Asahikawa Station. From the Asahikawa Station, we had to catch a public bus to the zoo. The entire journey took 2 hours+ on public transport complete with 2 young kids in tow bundled up like Chinese Bak Zhang (rice dumplings).
We didn’t expect the bus ride from Asahikawa Station to the zoo came in a small non air-conditioned 20-seater. It had all of us cramped like Japanese tuna in a can. By the time we reached the zoo entrance, the rain fell. Quite honestly, I wasn’t impressed with the entrance at all – being one of Japan’s famous zoos, the entrance was incredibly modest with only two small turnstiles for admission. There was no proper waiting area for visitors. So yes, THIS had better be good. And it actually was! In fact, looking back, we would want to do visit the zoo again despite the hassle of getting there. Read on to find out why:
1. Encounter with native wildlife:
Unlike the zoos which we are used to in Singapore and Australia, you get to see native wildlife animals up close surrounded by snow and in sub-zero temperature. In this zoo, the animals aren’t in a ‘large fridge’ and we viewing them in hot humid climate. We are in fact in THEIR climate and seeing them in their natural environment. It’s special.
Aside from the Penguins, Seals and Sea Lions (lots of them!), the other unique animals we saw include:
– Arctic Foxes
– Snowy Owl (wow… right out from the Harry Potter movie set!)
– Red Pandas (So very cute…and lots of them too!)
– Japanese Crane (Very mystical)
– Winter Wolves
– Snow Leopards and more…
2. Getting up-close…really close:
In Asahiyama Zoo, you can get really up close with the animals. Some are a mere few inches away…including the wolves and leopards! Highlights include a glass tunnel through the penguin pool that allows visitors to observe the birds’ underwater flights, and small glass domes in the middle of the polar bear and wolf enclosures that can get visitors right among the animals. It was certainly very interesting to get up in a bubble enclosure right INTO the Winter Wolves’ lair and having them lie right on top of the bubble enclosure! Like wise with the polar bear’s as well.
For the Snow Leopards, we were inches away protected by two layers of steel cage. It was awesome being able to see these majestic beasts, the intricate patterns on their fur and bodies and those eyes…this is truly an experience like no other! My kids were absolutely enthralled too. The animal enclosures here are adopt a very open concept – the animals are not restrained behind acrylic walls but rather in open air, self-contained enclosure. This way, we truly could marvel at these animals.
3. In their natural habitats:
Being in Hokkaido and seeing these animals in snowing winter, it really felt like we were the visitors visiting the animals in their own ‘home’. An authentic experience which we highly recommend. Kudos also to the landscaping of the zoo, it was designed so well incorporating the undulating terrain and doing away with well-paved roads. Walking through the zoo make us experience what it’s like to trek in the winter animals’ natural habitats.
4. Children’s Farm: A petting zoo of sorts, here at Asahiyama, there’s not only 1 but 2 dedicated spaces for kids to get up close to feed and touch even, docile barnyard and domestic animals such as sheeps, goats and hamsters. Do check the timing for petting and feeding. There are educational sign boards and exhibits for kids to be engaged throughout the zoo trails.
5. Penguin Parade: Only during winter. In fact from mid-Dec onward, the penguins will waddle through a designated paths daily at pre-set timings. The zoo was also one of the first to organize penguin walks in winter. We were too early to see the parade during this trip as we were there in early December. We were, however, able to see another different Penguin Parade at another Hokkaido zoo. More about this in another post.
Tips on visiting Asahiyama Zoo:
1. Be early – The zoo’s ground is large. Plan to be there early (the queue starts before the doors open!) to make full use of the day (you’ll need it) to see the animals.
2. Wear warm, comfy outfit and shoes – Walking, walking, walking…yes, lots of it right from the moment you leave your hotel room till night. It can be chilly as the zoo is 90% outdoors so dress your kids in warm and preferably waterproof outerwear and shoes. We bundled Dana and Buddy in Uniqlo’s HeatTech range of winter wear and it kept them snug and smiley throughout our zoo trip!
3. Be prepared for rain and snow: We went in winter and it was raining / snowing. We did not bring any umbrellas or ponchos (kept in the room…argh!) so we had to buy them from the souvenir shop when it opened. Not cheap, about S$7 for a disposable one.
4. Prioritize: There are many types of animals in the zoo including those we could commonly see in Singapore like Giraffes and Monkeys. Plan and prioritize which animals you’ d like to visit. For us, we skipped the Giraffes, Hippo and the Monkeys. Even with 6 hours, we barely seen all the animals in the zoo.
5. Eat there: The eatery inside the zoo serves pretty decent food ranging from udon to bento sets. They are quite tasty and affordable. Besides, the central eatery provides a good place to rest…with free-flow of warm green tea for customers. Excellent!
6. Be punctual: The Japanese public transport system is famously punctual and that applies to the Asahiyama bus plying the zoo and Asahikawa Station. The bus going back can get quite crowded, so make sure you’re at the bus stop at least 20 mins before the bus arrives to be among the first in queue. You wouldn’t want to be kicked-off a full bus and waiting at the bus stop in frigid cold for the next bus to come.
7. Bring snacks and strollers (if you can): Kids (and adults) tend to get peckish easily in the cold temperatures so snacks will keep everyone as you explore the zoo on foot. Strollers can be life-savers for toddlers who tire easily and demand to be carried. Some paths may be snow-laden so a sturdy stroller which provides good maneuvering (like the Babyzen Yoyo+) is recommended.
The Asahiyama Zoo is well worth a visit despite the hassle of taking public transport there. The experience of seeing rare winter animals up close is truly an unforgettable experience. The zoo itself is very well designed. If you can afford the budget either join a day tour to go there or rent a car. Not to be missed.
Getting There From Sapporo:
Take the JR train from Sapporo Station to Asahikawa Station (about 85 mins; we use www.hyperdia.com to plot our routes). Then, take bus number 41, 42 or 47 from Asahikawa Station to Asahiyama Zoo. The one-way ride takes 40 minutes and costs 440 yen. There are about two buses per hour. We bought our tickets from the Tourist Visitor Centre inside Sapporo Station which include the JR train tickets, bus tickets and zoo admission tickets.
Mid October to early November: 9:30 to 16:30 (entry until 16:00)
Mid November to early April: 10:30 to 15:30 (entry until 15:00)