Diego’s off to visit Japan’s northernmost zoo, in Hokkaidō’s second-largest city. But we don’t even have to wait until we arrive to get a taste of the animal experience – because in this case, the zoo comes to us!
JR Hokkaidō runs frequent limited express and local services between Sapporo and Asahikawa, so access isn’t a problem – though it’s worth bearing in mind that trains can get booked out on peak periods such as this. The Yuki Matsuri usually isn’t a solo event: neighbouring cities host their own winter festivals at about the same time (we’ll visit a couple of those in future posts) so the transportation network in these parts tends to run at or beyond capacity. Always book your tickets as far in advance as possible!
For today’s journey, I’ve opted for a special alternative to the usual trains running on this line: a seasonal service whose decorative theme ties in beautifully with one of our destination’s prime tourist attractions.
Welcome aboard the Asahiyama Zoo Train.
The hardware looks and feels quite old. KiHa 183, if the good ol’ interwebs can be trusted (and it does have the look of the breed), which means the equipment probably dates from the 1980s. If you’re after comfort and more modern surroundings, there are other limited express services on this route that may be worth considering. What sets this train apart from the rest – and makes it such a big hit amongst the travelling public – is the unique decorative scheme that’s been applied to the cars, both inside and out.
Designed by Abe Hiroshi (no, not the actor of the same name), who worked as a staff member of Asahiyama Zoo for more than two decades before becoming a children’s book illustrator, the animal-themed decor has left its mark on just about everything: from the seats . . .
. . . to the walls . . .
. . . to the floors (this sign invites passengers to identify the animal that made the footprints beyond it) . . .
. . . to the special photo-op couches in each car.
The first car serves as an open play area for younger passengers, complete with a hippo-themed ball pit and shelves stocked with books illustrated by Abe Hiroshi (again, the author not the actor!). A staff member dressed in an animal costume walks down the centre aisle of the passenger cars, providing the perfect photo-op for the many excited children riding the train.
No wonder this service was packed. A spanking new train with reclining seats, burgundy carpets, and top-quality panelling might impress your average business traveller, but all of that would be wasted on a child who will not hesitate to scream himself hoarse if things get too boring. Here, only grown-ups will bother nitpicking about the ageing upholstery and ancient hardware – kids will be too busy admiring the bright colours, hugging the onboard mascot, posing on the stuffed-animal couches, or wearing themselves out to sleep in the play car to do much complaining.
If you were a parent with a couple of little tots in tow and more than an hour of travel time ahead, would you really rather usher your brood into a sterile modern car without all these helpful distractions? (Yep, didn’t think so.)
For more information on this limited express service, check out the Asahiyama Zoo Train homepage on the JR Hokkaidō website. Here’s the timetable for winter 2013-2014 – be warned that the link may eventually go dead if/when JR update the file link, probably when the next season’s schedules become available. Note that all seats are reserved, so one can’t simply queue up and board at will: be sure to drop by a ticket window in advance and book your seats there.
Right then – let’s settle back, enjoy the colourful surroundings, and rest our feet in preparation for a long day of walking ahead.
To be continued.