A cool city and cold thumbs

Asahikawa is the next biggest city from Daisetzusan National Park and located 2 hours north of Sapporo. We had found a pretty good deal with a hotel near the train station so it was easy to get around. The main attraction of the city is the nearby Asahiyama zoo. It is Japan’s northernmost zoo and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The zoo is regarded as one of Asia’s most modern zoos in terms of animal welfare standards. When we went the weather was cold and very windy so we didn’t really try to stay as long as possible especially when it started snowing and hailing. At least it worked in favour of the polar bears…

Ted and his white and cold cousin

This zoo also features a big petting/domestic animal section including dogs, cats, rabbits, goats and ducks. Another big section belongs to animals of Hokkaido and Siberia, which also makes this zoo unique. We got to see many animals we had not seen before like the Hokkaido fish owl, racoon dogs, sables and ezo deer.

One thing we really liked was the hand made signs at most enclosures. Most were made by the keepers while some were definitely made by children. They really gave the zoo a more personal touch than the usual printed signs. We were sure they had very good information on them, but sadly they were all in Japanese and Google translate didn’t work very well on them. One really cool feature in the polar bear and wolf enclosures was the dome shaped lookouts inside the enclosures called seal view and rabbit view respectively. People walked up to them from underneath and could catch a glimpse at the animals from a very different perspective. They even had a persicope underneath the polar bears for people who could not make it up the stairs. Some of the animals (notably the brown bear and the snow leopards) disliked cameras with big lenses. The bear hid next to a big window next to which a member of the zoo hid. He hit the window and growled every time he caught a glimpse of her. The snow leopards repeatedly pounced at the fence trying to get a visitor with a big camera. Even after he hid it under his poncho they still watched him very anxiously and with their ears folded back. Presumably the cameras reminded them of dart guns or something similar. When the visitor was out of sight, the beautiful cats played catch and tried to sneak up on each other. These were the most active we had ever seen big cats in a zoo.

A snow leopard ready to pounce on a tourist

We can definitely recommend visiting this zoo but don’t expect it to fill a whole day. We spent less than 4h in it including a lunch break. It can even be done as a daytrip from Sapporo with special combi tickets for public transport.

On one of the evenings we met up with a Russian girl whom we contacted via Couchsurfing and met up for donuts and choux pastry buns. She has been living in Japan for four years working for JET programme (teaching English to Japanese and working as interpreter and translator) and could tell us a lot about the local culture, which was very exciting and interesting.

We also managed to stumble into a Nepalese curry restaurant (Namaste) run by two Nepalese men who cooked the most amazing and tasty curry we tasted since we had left the UK.

Traditional room for a tea ceremony

The next day we went to see the blue pond and Shirahige waterfall near Biei. There is a good bus connection from Asahikawa but inspired by stories of some travel friends from Hong Kong, we decided to have our debut in hitchhiking. Neither of us had tried this before but had heard that Japan was a good country for this mode of transport. It felt really strange standing by the side of the road with your thumb out hoping for somebody to stop. Because it was quite spontaneous, we had not made the usual sign of where we wanted to go. It took about 10 minutes for the first car to stop. The lady either did not go to Biei or did not really understand us (not quite sure as we don’t speak Japanese), but at this point another car pulled over with two older women in it. They offered us a ride to Biei station and also took us to a well-known (at least to Japanese) tourist attraction called the Ken and Mary tree. This is a tree, which is over 100 years old and lives by the side of a small road which featured in a 1950s tv advert with two caracters called Ken and Mary. Once we found out that we had missed the bus to the blue lake by only 5 minutes we decided to try our luck and stick our thumbs out again (it was 3h till the next bus). This time we were not as fortunate and no car stopped to pick us up. Because of the time and considering how far it was to the lake decided to rent bikes and cycle there in order to see it while it was still light. It took us three attempts to get bikes (one shop was closed and the other said it was too risky; strange in 13 degrees sunshine on dry roads) but yet we managed to get some bikes from a hotel near the train station. It should have been a warning to us that all four bike tyres had to be pumped up before we could set of…

Blue sky over a blue pond

A few kilometers outside the town we found a fantastic cycle path which followed an old railway line and was thus very flat. After 10km,  disaster struck and Zoë’s front tyre let go of all its air. Without any means to repair the damage we went to the only house we could see and asked for help.

The owner pumped it up with a compressor only to see air bubbles pretty much all the way round the outside of the tyre which was worn down to the inside thread in places. We were shocked and quite upset that a hotel rented out bikes in such conditions. After considering the options, the man offered to take us back to the hotel. Zoë really wanted to see the lake and was upset that she would miss it, so we agreed to swap bikes so she could carry on. Our saviour put the bike on the back of his pick up and drove Matthias back to the hotel, where he immediately marched up to reception to (seemingly) have a go at them. Faced with the offer of a different bike and a lift to the lake Matthias kindly declined and decided to wait at the hotel, since all bike wheels looked worn and he did not fancy another breakdown.

Zoë in the meanwhile made it to the lake despite having only three gears and being out of practice, but gave the waterfalls a miss because of her tired legs. The lake was not as blue as in the photos, but rather a deep misty green completed with dead silver birches and a few tour buses of Chinese tourists. It was worth seeing although probably better on a sunny day. The ride back to the hotel was almost all downhill and took just half as long, which was good as once the sun dipped below the horizon, it started to get chilly. Fortune was smiling at us again as we managed to hitch a ride back to our hotel. This day was a great lesson in how helpful and friendly Japanese people are. Without the amazing help of this random guy we would have had to push a flat bike for 10km and we would have spent quite a bit of money on buses had it not been for the people who gave us a lift.

So many friends!

The weather promised to be better on our last day so we went on a day trip to Asahidake (next to a mountain with the same name). This place is well known for it’s onsen in the valley and hiking at the top of the mountain. We did not try to hitchhike there because it was too far and we wanted to be sure to get there, so we opted for the 2h bus journey. As we got to the end of the valley the snow (which had already melted in Asahikawa) from the day before became higher and higher and reached roughly 25cm near the bottom of the cable car station. Inside they had a screen showing live views from the top which was all in clouds at this point. We hung around for a while, waiting for a weather change and eventually we were rewarded with a clearer view at the top. The cable car takes only 10 minutes for the ride and stays close to the ground. This gave us the opportunity to watch the snow covered and frozen trees on our way up. Upon leaving the gondola at the top we were welcomed by freezing cold wind. Thankfully, the viewing cabin was well insulated and heated so we could enjoy the grand views. The clouds had lifted just enough to clear the height of the buildings, so we stood almost with our heads in the clouds. We had hoped to go at least for the small circuit walk (30min), but it was blocked off just outside the house. The beginnings in each direction looked somewhat trotted so we ventured on regardless only to be greeted by almost knee deep snow 30m later. Since we were not equipped for deep snow walking we had to turn around and resort to the views from inside the building. With the clouds decending again we headed back down to return to Asahikawa. Despite the lowish clouds we were glad that we had extended our stay in the area by an extra day since the visibility was better than the previous days.

So much for ‘We won’t see winter for a year!’

Due to our spontaneous change of plans we didn’t have any accommodation booked for this night but our new couchsurfing friend spontaneously offered to host us for one night (thank you very much again!). On that evening we went out for a delicious homecooked soup curry in a small but cosy eatery tucked away not far from the highstreet. Afterwards we had our first Japanese karaoke. We rented a booth for two hours and had a great time even though neither of us is a good singers. Back at Maria’s place we were treated to Russian tea and sweets while learning more about what it is like living in Japan as a foreigner, which was very interesting.

A beautiful and white winter forest

After a good night sleep on futons (a slight downgrade from hotel beds but still comfy) we were finally on our way to one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns.

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