Saturday, February 18, 2012

Asahiyama Zoo in a Blizzard

One of the most memorable experiences (and there were many) on my recent Hokkaido trip was visiting the famous Asahiyama Zoo. Never heard of it? I didn't too, until my "crazy about Japan" friends told me to check it out, as in "You MUST GO to Asahiyama Zoo! It's fantastic!" And now it is MY turn to tell you: Visit Asahiyama Zoo if you are in Hokkaido. You will not regret it.

The Eastern (Higashi) Gate of Asahiyama Zoo.

Located in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido, about 2.5 hours away from Sapporo, Asahiyama Zoo is one of the most popular, if not THE most popular zoos in all of Japan. Chief reasons for its popularity are 1) its unique variety of animals on display (apparently there are about 800 animals but we did not see that many because it is deep winter), which included the Red Panda (so cute), the Hokkaido Crane (graceful), the Emperor Penguin (funny!), the Timberwolf (majestic!), etc; 2) the well thought out enclosures they were kept in, to maximise visitors' viewing experience; and 3) the famous "Penguin Walk" by the Emperor penguins around the zoo.

If you are staying in Sapporo on a free and easy holiday, you can choose to do a day trip organised by Chuo Bus, located at the Esta Building very near to the JR Sapporo Station. It costs about 4,700 Yen per person (close to $80 SGD) and is a full day trip, taking up some 9 hours in total, and travelling time to and fro is almost 5 hours (with a rest stop in between)! But I will tell you that it is worth suffering an aching butt, particular if you are fond of animals.

As with most of our other trips, we were not spared the drama that day. It was like deja vu all over again when the Samurai and I could not locate the travel counter even though we were in the right building and we were in full panic mode (just like our Hakone trip in 2008). While I had the address (kindly supplied by the hotel concierge), all the entrances to the higher levels (where Chuo was located) were shut (as it was early morning). I had also forgotten to note down the name of the travel company. My Japanese finally came into good use when I desperately asked a cleaning lady, "Sumimasen, ryoko no kaisha wa doko desu ka?" (Excuse me, where is the travel company located?). Tip: go down to the bus terminal (at the bottom of the building) and take a flight of steps to the level where the Chuo bus counter is.

Thank God, we made it in time again, and we hunkered down for a long journey to Asahiyama Zoo. As the bus progressed up north, we noted that the snow was falling heavier and heavier and the sky was dark and ominous. Strong winds were also rocking the bus slightly - scary! There was a tour guide with us on the bus, but this was a Japanese speaking tour (no English tours were available). Despite focusing my entire brain power on her chatter, I probably only comprehended 10-15% of what she was saying, namely, what time to report back at the bus after our zoo visit.

And so we finally arrived. And the snow was so heavy I think in my limited knowledge it qualified as a blizzard. And it was freezing. Yet there were still busloads of people rushing off into the zoo. I knew then for sure this was going to be an entirely unique zoo experience.

Overview of the zoo from the Eastern entrance. White out.

Visiting an open concept zoo in a blizzard sounds quite romantic, BUT!!! 1) It is almost impossible to stand admiring animals out in the open for more than 5 minutes before your teeth starts to chatter and you have to rush to the nearest shelter for warmth. Even IF those animals on display are strolling around the enclosures like it is a walk in the park. 2) It is difficult to look at the animals with snow pelting on your face and eyes and you have to clear snow off your head every 2 minutes, lest you get buried. 3) It is near impossible to take a good picture with your camera since the lens is covered with snow every 30 seconds. 4) It is a juggling act trying to take a picture with your thick gloves on, failing which, you try to take the quickest picture in record time with your gloves off before your fingers drop off from frost bite. 5) There were not that many animals on display - I suppose the non-arctic ones are in hibernation mode (smart!).

Nevertheless!!!!! The animals that we DID manage to see were the most unique and interesting. And it was fascinating seeing them in their natural element in deep snow. As I mentioned before, while we were freezing our asses off, they looked to be having tons of fun. I guess it helps to have layers of fat and fur under such harsh conditions. From here on now, I will just let my pictures do the talking (And I took MANY pictures, at great risk to my fingers!).

The famous indigenous Hokkaido Crane.Blissfully unaware of the snow and pecking at unseen food.

An elk (not a reindeer) chilling out in the open while it is getting buried under.

The graceful timberwolf trotting around its enclosure non-stop. Working up a sweat perhaps?

The cute Red Pandas frolicking in the snow!

The enclosures are designed such that they were climbing across trees over visitors' head. Happy as a clam - this one.

The majestic polar bear in its element. What snow?!

The fat spotted seal that refuses to swim and chilling it out too. Being fat is an advantage here.

The kissing seals - Come back and play!

The Japanese macaque foraging in the thick snow.

A group of Emperor penguins standing as still as statues. And we thought they were statues initially until one flapped its wing.

The Penguin Walk!! Everyone was squealing "Kawaii!!!!!"

Happy Feet!

Leader of the Band. So close I could poke it!

Baby of the Band - still not molted yet and so so cute!!!

The Asahiyama Zoo visit was a test our of physical stamina and endurance. But I had so much fun, as did the Samurai. Seriously, go check it out.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

EXILE - あなたへ (Towards You)

I was trying to write about my amazing EXILE concert experience at Sapporo Dome last Christmas Eve over the Chinese New Year holidays. Wrote halfway and suddenly the laptop died on me and I lost more than half of my writing and all inspiration died in me. Then of course the holidays ended and work came in waves and I never came near this blog again.

Today I finally, FINALLY!!! had some time to transfer some new EXILE songs to my iTunes. Chief among them is my new great love あなたへ (Towards You) which I first heard during the concert, when my jaw dropped to the floor and I could literally feel my soul flying to the heavens (like seriously!). Hearing it live, seeing the spectacle on the stage, time stopped for just that few precious minutes. After snapping out of my delirium when the performance ended, I remember turning to the Evil One and demanded, "What was THAT SONG?!" Fanatic that she was, she did not know, and we later found out it was their latest song, to be officially released in the new year. Well, both Takahiro and Atsushi sounded like angels (no blasphemy intended), and in that time and space, with snow falling outside the dome, and it being Christmas Eve, the feeling was really indescribable.


So after the concert we stood outside in the freezing cold to queue up to buy EXILE memorabilia and I also bought a CD having no idea what was contained inside. Only upon returning to the warmth of our hotel at an ungoldly hour of 1AM (concert ended around 9.30PM), I found out it was their latest single. And for weeks the song was on repeat mode in the car, until the Evil One lent us Atsushi's new semi-Chinese album. Then I forgot all about it.....

Until today. As I was downloading the songs to my laptop, and watching a DVD (also courtesy of the Evil One - yes she the curator of the Everything EXILE museum), I watched the MV of あなたへ with my new HD Samsung TV and Philips surround soundbar and OMG, I fell in love with the song ALL OVER AGAIN. So after going on and on about it, here's the MV (a short version), released officially by the record company. AVEX is seriously miserly you know?! In any case, listen to the full song if you can!