Experience one of Japan’s most unique zoos, eat a bowl of steaming hot soy-sauce broth ramen, and stop by for sake tasting at Otokoyama Brewery in this Asahikawa travel guide.
Known for its scenic and urban appeal, Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second-largest city and it is most famous for Asahiyama zoo, ramen, and sake breweries. If you are traveling with little ones in Hokkaido, it’s worth making a visit to this attractive but less visited spot.
Where is Asahikawa
Asahikawa is located near the center of the island of Hokkaido. It is northeast of Sapporo (the largest city in Hokkaido) and takes 2 hours by car or 1 hour 40 min by train from Sapporo Station. We decided to detour to Asahikawa on our way to Furano (富良野) so our children get their fun time on the trip as well.
Asahiyama Zoo 旭山動物園
Our first stop in the morning is Asahiyama Zoo. Despite its remote location, It is the second most visited zoo in Japan with over 3 million visitors per year. What’s so special about it? The unique enclosures that allow visitors to observe the animals up close from various perspectives, and many on the exhibits are native wildlife from Hokkaido.
For the penguin exhibit, an underwater tunnel lets visitors observe the birds swimming from below. In the polar bear and wolf exhibits, visitors can view through a glass dome placed in the middle of the pen. It is particularly exciting for children as you get an up-close encounter with the animals.
Polar Bear Feeding Time
One of the main attractions at Asahiyama Zoo is the polar bear feeding that takes place twice a day (Mogu mogu time). The observation room capacity is limited so make sure to get in line early. Once the capacity is reached they will not let more visitors in.
The polar bear feeding room had several large floor-to-ceiling glass panels. The waterline for the polar bear’s pool is halfway up the glass panels so we can observe the behavior underwater. As the zoo staff tossed fish into the pool, we could see the polar bear fetching them both above and diving below water.
After observing the polar bear feeding, we got to see them at a close range through the glass dome.
Other Highlights at Asahiyama Zoo
There is a large collection of animals at the Asahiyama Zoo and it includes many exotic native animals and wolves from North America. For more details on the animal exhibits, please visit the official website.
Another highlight is the wolf museum, where visitors can see the animals through the observation dome.
Amphibia and Reptile House
The last exhibit we want to share with you is the amphibia and reptile house. Both our children love snakes and we have no ideas why. They think snakes are adorable!
Even with the snakes, the zoo wants the visitors to have an intimate experience. It was thrilling to see snakes slithers right above our head in the wired cage. Yikes! Let’s hope the wired cage is secure.
After all the walking, it’s time to power up with some comforting Asahikawa ramen.
Asahikawa Ramen Village あさひかわラーメン村
Asahikawa Ramen Village is about a 15 min drive from the zoo. Even though Sapporo is famous for miso-based ramen broth, Asahikawa is known for shoyu (soy sauce) ramen broth with thick wavy noodles.
The signature broth has a thin layer of oil blanketing the soup. Besides tasting great, the oil also serves a second purpose to slow the soup from cooling. Why? In the wintertime, Asahikawa’s temperature from Nov – March average below freezing!
The ramen shops at Asahikawa Ramen Village aren’t just any ramen shop, they’re run by the most popular ramen chains in the area. One of the shops is Hokkaido Ramen Santouka which has several branches in the US.
It wasn’t too crowded when we got there and we decided to eat at Ramen Tenkin (founded in 1952) based on the positive reviews.
The flavorful chashu slices were perfect with the thick wavy noodles and savory pork broth! The broth was thick so we didn’t finish drinking it.
Besides the ramen shops, there’s a ramen shrine at the ramen village. The shrine brings blessing for those in a relationship or marriage through the god of love and the god of affairs.
If you love the ramen shop you ate at, you can even buy the ramen from the souvenir shop to bring back home.
Otokoyama Sake Museum 男山酒造り資料舘
The last stop on our visit to Asahikawa is the award-winning sake brewery Otokoyama. It has 340 years of history and is the first sake to ever win the Monde Selection award in 1977. The sake museum houses a tasting room as well as exhibits on the history of Otokoyama Sake.
When visitors arrive at the museum, there’s a beautiful garden outside with a waterwheel and blooming flowers during the summer months. Around the garden, there are used sake-making equipment including large vats that can fit children standing up!
Otokoyama’s sake is brewed from snowmelt spring water from Daisetsuzan mountain 大雪山. They welcome visitors to bring the excellent spring water home as a souvenir for free.
Once in the building, the first floor is sake shop and sake tasting. Keep in mind Japan is very strict with drunk driving, drivers are not allowed to do sake tasting (they do ask who is the driver).
There are several tiers of tasting, from free to 5,400 yen for the best sake flight.
Making the way up to the second floor, visitors can see large sake making and storage equipment.
Awards and History of Otokoyama
On the second floor gallery, you’ll see displays of awards won by the brewery and the history of Otokoyama. The brand has been around for over 300 years (founded near Osaka) and was favored by Tokugawa Shogunate.
In case you are wondering, the brewery didn’t move from Osaka area to Hokkaido. The Yamazaki Sake Brewery started in Asahikawa in 1899 and was granted the official rights to the Otokoyama brand from the Yamamoto family and rebranded in 1968. For detailed history read here (use Google Translate).
Other parts of the second floor has rich history behind the brand and antique sake serveware on display.
Sake Making Tools
On the third floor, the exhibits are all about sake-making. There are varieties of rice used to make sake hung from the ceiling, examples of how much rice is milled down for each grade of sake, and old sake making tools.
Our family spent about half a day in Asahikawa before heading south to Furano. We had a great time as children enjoyed the zoo, and we got to learn the interesting history behind Otokoyama Brewery.
Thank you for reading about our visit to Asahikawa and our next destination is the dazzling lavender and flower fields of Furano.