[place]* Square in the centre of Hokkaido, Asahikawa has long been a centre for trade and commerce in the region, and is known for its excellent seafood and Asahikawa-style ramen
In a Nutshell
The second-largest city in Hokkaido, with a population that has remained roughly consistent at 350,000 since 1980, Asahikawa lies in between the northern fishing cities and the southern port and capital of Hakodate and Sapporo, respectively, and has for most of its history served as an important regional transport and commerce hub. The region is strongly associated with both the farming and food processing industries, and a number of distilleries also operate in the area.
What to See
Asahiyama Zoo is the northernmost zoo in Japan, and famous for its "habit displays" of polar animals, including penguins, polar bears in semi-realistic environments. There is a hot springs resort at Asahidake Onsen, from which the lower steam vents of Mt. Asahidake (Mount Asahi - the highest point in Japan, at 2,291m above sea level) can easily be accessed by cable car. There is also a clustered shopping area, with restaurants and large department stores, right in front of JR Asahikawa station.
What to Eat
Asahikawa ramen is a distinct style of shoyu-based ramen which typically uses an unusual dashi made from chicken, fish and pork bone, as well as thinner and wavier ramen with a low water content for soaking up more flavour. As a central hub for trade in Hokkaido, linked with the major fishing cities along the northern and eastern coasts, it is purportedly also a place for excellent seafood. A local item known as "Jun Dog" - fried food wrapped in rice, like an elongated onigiri - is also very popular within Asahikawa.
Trains run roughly every 30 minutes (1 hour at night) from Sapporo, with the limited express trains taking approx. 1 hour 20 minutes each way and starting from ¥4,170 (£30.80 / $48.50) for an unreserved seat.
The main shopping area is right in front of JR Asahikawa station and accessible by foot. Local buses run frequently from a nearby bus terminal to both Asahiyama Zoo and the Asahidake Onsen, and to the neighbouring suburbs; please check at the station for details. The steam vents at Mt. Asahidake can only be accessed from the Asahidake Onsen area by cable car, plus a further 1km walk.
Although I enjoyed my time in Asahikawa, as with most of Hokkaido most of the development here is relatively recent, and it lacks a certain... something. The buildings are uniformly timid, and featureless - there's neither rowdy neon sign nor ancient Shinto temple - and after a while it really could have been anywhere in Korea, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, for that matter. But the food is decent, and with both the zoo and Mount Asahi there's a decent amount to do here, which is more than can be said for some other places I visit later on. Still... well. It's a nice place, but I'm not the biggest fan.