Hokkaido’s second largest city is a fortress of modernity against the raging elements of the north. Though it draws much less attention than cosmopolitan Sapporo, Asahikawa is well worth a visit, especially in the winter.
Having once dropped to 41°C, it holds the dubious distinction of having the lowest recorded temperature in Japanese history. If that doesn’t sound too appealing, Asahiyama Zoo’s ingenious way of keeping their penguins in shape during those long, lazy months is absolutely adorable to see. Winter’s relentless sting also provides the most satisfying conditions for slipping into a cozy ramen shop and recovering over a bowl of Asahikawa’s specialty dish.
Asahikawa’s most popular attraction by far is Asahiyama Zoo, often acknowledged as the best zoo in the country. The zoo’s acclaim comes from its opportunities to get personal with wildlife, thanks to some uniquely designed exhibits that allow visitors to view the animals from closer angles, and in a way that simulates their real environment to bring out more of their natural behavior.
When snow collects on the ground (usually from December until the end of March), the penguins are taken out of their cages for daily walks around the zoo. This exercise regime is a highly anticipated spectacle, so arrive early to secure a prime viewing spot. The sight of a big group of penguins waddling determinedly through the snow will give you a much needed energy boost to get through the rest of winter.
Asahikawa style ramen is rich and hearty, with a shoyu-based soup that blends chicken, pork, and seafood broths, all covered in a shameless layer of fat. It originated in 1947 in the shops of Hachiya and Aoba, which both continue to serve up bowls of their time-honored ramen to this day. Other places to try are the local favourite Tenkin, and Asahikawa Ramen Village, with eight different shops for the indecisive.
No city in Hokkaido is complete without its own snow festival, and to stay competitive, Asahikawa always builds a massive snow sculpture to dwarf anything on display in the Sapporo Snow Festival. There’s no need to choose between the two, as the Asahikawa Winter Festival is held in February at the same time as Sapporo’s, making it easy to hit up both in one trip before crowning your favorite.
Asahikawa is also home to a number of museums, including a sculpture museum designated as one of Japan’s Important Cultural Properties, and the quirky Snow Museum; as well as picturesque Ueno Farm, which specializes in tough perennial flowers that can survive Hokkaido’s harsh climate.