Asahikawa, Hokkaido

We were told by some expats in Niseko that once we got out to Asahikawa it would be hard to communicate with anyone. They were trying to warn us that it was going to be difficult finding ski resorts or getting around the city since we didn’t speak any Japanese. I pictured a tiny city and believed what they said. I started to worry. However, Asahikawa is the second-largest city in Hokkaido and we never encountered any major communication problems. It was like a dream after living five months in Wuhan, China. So a word of advice, don’t believe what people tell you.

We took a train from Niseko to Asahikawa and stayed at a hotel so close, that it was the first building we would walk to as we exited the station heading towards downtown Asahikawa. The streets were covered in snow and ice. We were amazed at not only the agility of all the old women speed walking and at times running on the streets but also the cab drivers who whipped around corners and sped down the streets leaving a trail of dust behind. It wasn’t like being back home in Oregon or many other states in the U.S. where a few inches of snow on the streets will shut down an entire city and all of a sudden no one knows how to drive.

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So there we were, in a quiet snow covered city where the loudspeakers were blasting obnoxious advertisements through the downtown streets and the 2014 Winter Olympics were in full effect. The city was so quiet at night and if you didn’t want to frequent the various bars, restaurants, and brothels (we did that too but more on that later) this was the only entertainment that could be found.

Downtown Asahikawa

We went to Asahikawa hoping that we would be there for an epic snow storm and all-time snowboarding conditions but nothing came. So what the hell happened in Asahikawa? I will tell you.

Asahikawa- the Extended Version:

1) Kamui Ski Links:
It’s only twenty minutes away from downtown Asahikawa. You can reach Kamui Ski Links by bus or you could even take a taxi for a reasonable price. It’s a much smaller resort compared to the resorts at Niseko but I liked it just for that reason. A day pass costs about $30 and I went there on a Ladies day and got a lift ticket for $20. It was a really fun place to ride, even though the snow conditions weren’t the best.
Check out this link for more detailed information:
http://www.powderhounds.com/Japan/Hokkaido/KamuiLinks.aspx

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2) Asahiyama Zoo:
The Asahiyama zoo opened in 1967 and decades later, in 1997, it began its transformation into the “interactive” zoo you can see today. Asahiyama zoo is very unique in the ways that visitors can view the animals. The zoo features many underground aquariums where seals, penguins, and even polar bears swim so close to you that it feels like you could reach out and touch them. The most unique thing about Asahiyama zoo is the “penguin walk”. In the early afternoon and late evening you can witness the penguins taking a walk around the zoo. We stayed so long at the zoo that we got to see both walks and I doubt I will ever get a chance to see anything like it again. I highly recommend going to this zoo.

http://www.asahikawa-tourism.com/asahikawa/asahikawa_summer/zoo/asahiyama_zoo.html

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On a side note, I felt conflicted during my time at the Asahiyama zoo. I was in awe of all the animals that were there (from the pack of wolves to the owls and snakes) and I know I would never get a chance to see most of these beautiful creatures in the wild. But there was also a sense of sadness that overcame me as I saw many animals in cages that were too small. For example, a black bear was kept in a very small cage alone and as we walked by it, we watched it just pacing around its cage with only a little space to walk around. I think the zoo should improve its facilities for the larger animals and provide them with more living space.

3) Sometimes you accidentally end up at a brothel on Valentine’s Day:

We had only a few nights left in Japan so we wanted to make the most of it. We walked around downtown in search of food and sake. We found a small ramen shop where we were the only customers inside at one point. We started our first round of beer and sake. The food was delicious and we were satisfied. We were feeling a little goofy and we decided to go find another bar.

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After wandering around for a short amount of time I saw a small sign advertising “Beer and Snack”. It was a simple black and white neon sign with those few words. I thought “Hey, that could be a neat place!”. Beer was exactly what we were looking for and sure why not go for a snack too! So we went in. We opened the door to a dimly lit bar and an old furnace blasting heat. There were a few tables lined up along the wall and a large bar. One man sat at the very far corner and there was one woman behind the bar serving drinks.

We thought it was kind of odd, I mean it looked like an old apartment turned into a bar but we sat down and ordered some beer and sake. We weren’t about to walk out without having at least one drink. She poured us the biggest glass of sake I had ever been served and she didn’t speak much English but she pointed to the TV and said “karaoke”. She showed us how to find English songs. We were the KJs (yes that means karaoke jockey) for the evening and all of a sudden I felt like I had just discovered the best bar in the world. Just as we were getting started, another woman showed up to work behind the bar who didn’t speak much English at all.

We sang song after song. We drank glass after glass. We were the only ones in the bar besides the man in the corner. As the night wore on it got a lot stranger but those glasses kept coming and they were soooo full.

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We were given small gifts by the bartenders: chocolates, green tea jellies, lighters, and cigarettes. I thought it wasn’t that weird because after all, it was Valentine’s Day. I sang an Abba song with the bartender. Even though I couldn’t communicate with them very well we still found ways to make conversation, be friendly, and share laughs. The woman who came after we arrived, stood behind the bar and wouldn’t leave our side.

Every time we would go to the bathroom and sit down back at the bar we were given a towel and told “goshi goshi goshi” while the woman motioned with the towel to scrub “down there”. We just laughed and put the towel on the bar. We didn’t believe we actually needed to wash down there. We thought they were just teasing us.

I’m not going to lie. We got belligerent. I laughed a lot with the woman who was hanging out with us all night. We exchanged numbers and I never thought about how we would actually talk to each other on the phone because we didn’t speak the same language.

We knew we had to call it a night when another couple showed up and we ended up all dancing together in a circle with our arms around each other. We asked for our tab and were shocked at the total. We were given a few more small presents to help ease the damage of the bill. We quickly paid and left. My new friend, the woman who never left our side, followed us out and continued to hug me and point to her phone. I told her I would call her (even though she didn’t understand what I was saying) and we hugged some more.

As we walked home Ryan would fill me in on a small detail I had missed. He said the woman had offered some services and he politely declined several times. He told me that we were just in a brothel. At the time, I refused to believe him.

The next day, as I was bed ridden with the worst hangover I’ve had since my high school days, I recounted the details of that night while listening to the sounds of the Women’s Olympic Curling Team (talk about the worst noise ever!). I thought about the empty bar, the woman who showed up after we got there and never left us, the small gifts, the ridiculously expensive bar tab, and the offering of sexual services. After going over these events it was suddenly obvious that we had accidentally walked into a brothel and spent several hours getting drunk and singing karaoke, making it the most interesting Valentine’s Day I have ever had and the trip to Asahikawa an unforgettable experience.

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