Friday, September 23, 2011

Asahiyama Zoo Pt 1 - Polar Bear Fun In The Sun

 10th of August, 2010 - Well it's a special day - we're off to the zoo... Asahiyama Zoo. Now - this is where I think I might lose people a little, so I'll try and explain slowly. Asahiyama is a mountain in Sapporo. That's not where the zoo is. Asahiyama Zoo in fact isn't even in Asahiyama. No. It's in Asahikawa. That's a large-ish city to the north of Sapporo (see below), about 137 km from Sapporo / 2 hours drive (by tolled expressway) or 150 km / 3 hours drive by untolled roads. Once you get into the city you'll see plenty of signs for the zoo - and just be aware that there's at least two entry points.

Now it was a reasonable drive, so we all got in the car nice and early to get there for the opening of the zoo, around 9:30 am in summer, or 10:30 in winter. Tickets are 800yen per person - or if you pay an extra 200 yen, you can visit for as many times as you want (for about 6 months). The zoo itself was first opened in 1964 but had pretty well started to die (like many Japanese tourist parks) in the early-mid 90's. Around that time they took a brave step in 1997 to re-invest a lot of funds into making the exhibits more immersive - no, thankfully not interactive! It worked. Asahiyama Zoo has one of the reputations of being one of the best Zoos in Japan, and is always very popular. Indeed it has been battling head to head with Ueno Zoo in terms of the total number of visitors per year (and is now around 3.5 million!). That's a lot of people, and whilst we didn't expect they'd all chose this day to visit the zoo, it was still going to be busy. The drive up to Asahikawa is quite nice - although cloudy in part. Still it's a bit of countryside that I hadn't experienced before.

Now I've split this post over two (as I'm essentially lazy) and I won't go into too much detail on the history of the zoo of the animals. Most are not that unique. In fact I'd have to say that I'm not so keen on Japanese zoos in general as the exhibits tend to be a little cramped and dated - and a bit of a throwback. Asahiyama is however quite different, with lots more vegetation and natural environs as well as a number of special viewing spots.

One of my favourites were the wolves. You'd be surprised how hard it is to spot a black wolf (though you might wonder looking at the photos). When prone in the grass they were hard to see. Once you do catch hold of those eyes you never lose them again. They're powerful and mesmerising set of peepers.

Actually, despite the grey look about the day in the photo above, when we got to Asahikawa it was mostly fine, and I have to say HOT. I felt particularly sad for the wolves. Black thick winter coats. Still, I'm sure they would have liked to help me get out of my flesh-coat... if givne have a chance.

Then of course there are other slightly less imposing wild dogs. It's hard to look menacing when you're scratching behind your ears.

One of the stranger animals here - or at least I thought it was strange - is the Capybara, from southern Americas. Now when I first saw this animal I thought - awwwww isn't it cute. It kinda looks like a cross between a Guinea Pig (hamster) and a hippopotamus. Ok, I'm not evern going to try and imagine how that could happen. Ewwwwgh. Still, they're a an odd animal in that from one angle they look quite handsome.

From other angles they seem to better fit their title of the world's largest rodents. Weighing typically around 50 kg, these are large. And thankfully they very much are herbivores. Still... the rodent instinct is likely buried in there somewhere. By the way - did you know what makes a rodent a rodent? Apparently it's the fact that these mammals have continuously growing incisors that are only kept under check by constant mastication. That's right - I said MASTICATION. Chewing.

The other animal that I was particularly sympathetic to was the Red Panda, or as it's otherwise known - the Lesser Panda. It was really looked like it struggled... but the interesting thing about the Red Panda enclosure is that there's actually two that are separated by the footpath... with only a log allowing the Panda to walk over everyone's head to move between the two. Still today, the poor Panda didn't do a whole heap of moving.

It did however give us all an honest appraisal - and the verdict wasn't good.

The real attraction for me was the Polar Bear show. I have to admit that these massive animals are one of my favourites. Why - well if you've ever seen a Polar Bear swimming under water you'd understand. They're amazing things to see under water, freed of their huge weight. Of course - above water they're pretty awesome too. In a BIG way.

Forget about the Angry Birds - you would definitely not want to make one of these babies upset with you. I thought it quite disturbing to have the windows so close to the bears. They seemed to have an unhealthy interest in us snacks visitors behind the glass.

Now the main attraction is the pool which is opened up regularly - however - there is often a very long queue to get into the observation area. And I mean a long queue. It took us maybe over 30 minutes of lining up (actually, at least this amount). The thing is that they let people in for about 10 minutes at a time, and then you get moved along. It does feel a little like a conveyor belt at times, but I suppose there's few things that can be done given how popular they are. 

And it is worth it. It's amazing seeing these great creatures being so  flexible and yes graceful under water. And there's always plenty of fish being thrown in to keep the Polar Bear interested.

Whilst I might not have been getting good photos (the windows can be deceptive for the autofocus on cameras, and manually focusing proved very hit-and-miss with emphasis on miss).

Still hopefully you get some feel for how they go... lots of fun (if you can stand being like a sardine...with the human press). 

One of the funny things was that we gave one of the cameras to Otousan to take photos whilst I used the DSLR and T-chan used the video camera. It was interesting to see some of the photos - but much appreciated Otousan!

Some of the photos were just a little too - er - personal however. Although I do have to admit that Polar Bear bottoms are very cute. Or is it just me?

Of course, if you want to get really up close and personal, there's always the rather obliging (and stuffed) Polar Bear out the back. They're a beautiful animal however, and I'd always search out Polar Bears wherever I go. Although I wasn't that keen to wait around as much as we did - especially in the heat which had started to get quite oppressive.

Now we're about halfway through the visit to Asahiyama Zoo... and L-kun was getting just a little trigger happy. So I'd better call it quits for the moment, and finish off this post over the next day or so. Until that time... go ahead, make my day!


  1. Love the first picture of the Polar Bear. Great capture! I've heard a lot about this zoo but haven't had the chance to check it out yet. Hopefully one day :)

    Japan Australia

  2. Ben, I LOVE zoos! I know, some people don't like the inhumanity of it...but I just love seeing the animals. And these pictures are fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Hi J_A and Angie... Thanks. Well I have mixed feelings about zoos, as I tend to think that they're generally too small. However, I do think that it's nice to be able to see animals in the flesh. I think it depends on the Zoo.

    Actually - I've been kinda on the busy side (and have just got a cold on top from travelling and this good Spring weather). Part 2 should be along any time now. *yawn* if I can wake up properly.