After two days touring around Asahikawa and seeing some of its most famous spots with my friend Yumiko, we were dropped off at the Asahikawa Art Hotel for two more days of independent tourism. I chose the Art Hotel because I remembered it vaguely, though I think it had gone by the name Palace Hotel when I lived there. I remembered it because it was right around the corner from my apartment building, the 7 Jyo Residence. It was also across the street from the main post office, a short walk from Kaimono Koen, and near Tokiwa Park, the main city park where I had spend a lot of time when I lived there. Location aside, the Art Hotel is a nice, modern hotel with a rooftop restaurant that offers a 360 degree view of the city and its surroundings. That was another reason why I chose it off the list from the hotel website I use. I took advantage of the included buffet breakfast to look over the city and plan which way we would start out each day.
I had two things in mind. One was to walk around the city and try to find the places I could remember and just see what we could see. The other was to walk down along the river that I used to bike along during the summer and fall before the snow set in. Asahikawa has the distinction of being Japan’s coldest city. There is even a Snow Crystal Museum, which doubles as a popular wedding spot. It looks like a little castle on the outside, but I never visited it when I lived there. The city is located right in the center of Hokkaido, surrounded by mountains, so it has no mitigating features for moderating the snow and the cold.
The year I lived in Asahikawa, it started snowing on November 5 and snowed every single day until I left sometime in March. Sometimes it was only flurries, as the moisture in the air froze and fell in small glistening flakes in the well-below-zero temperatures that were normal there. Sometimes it snowed heavily, with several inches or even feet of accumulation. By some point in February, the snow piled up well over my head in some places. I remember going to Tokiwa park and rolling on mountains of snow created by the city’s snow removal trucks. I could still ride my bike on the streets and down Kaimono Koen, though it wasn’t very safe. Once I wiped out on a sheet of ice and got a black bruise the size of a grapefruit on my leg; it made me a little more cautious about going around on my little granny bike after that.
For such a cold city, Asahikawa also prides itself on being a “pedestrian’s paradise.” Aside from Kaimono Koen, there were other pedestrian streets in the city, including a tree-lined sculpture walk leading to Tokiwa Park, and another pedestrian street, Ginza Street, that we came upon in our wanderings. Because I have always loved walking, I appreciated that aspect of the city. It’s my favorite way to get to know a place. I was glad that Emma had also developed a love for walking by the time we went to Japan. She never liked walking when she was little, like a lot of kids, I guess. And she was a very sloooow walker. It used to make me so impatient to walk anywhere with her. She started to enjoy walking and hiking more as she got older, and we went on several longer hikes when we went to Switzerland in 2018. In Japan, we walked a lot.
The first thing we did was walk down Kaimono Koen towards the train station. I wanted to see if I could find the building I worked in, and to see how much had changed. A lot had. When I mentioned the department stores to Yumiko, she had said, “There are no more department stores on Kaimono Koen. They are finished.” Everyone shops at the fancier, newer malls. When I taught at Nova, one of the lessons was, “What is your favorite…” and my shopping-obsessed students invariably asked, “What is your favorite department store?” As Emma and I saw on our walk down Kaimono Koen, some of them were still there. I barely remember the names from the “old days,” but Marukatsu was still there, and maybe one or two others. I still remember Seibu, Daimaru, and Marui Imai, but I can’t remember the name of the one I enjoyed going into the most. I couldn’t persuade Emma to check out a department store (she was and is in an anti-consumerism phase, which I support), but it would have been nice to see one again. I bought everything for my apartment in those department stores and frequented the downstairs food shops for groceries. What I liked about them was that they weren’t a single store, but a collection of smaller stores selling different types of goods. A kind of vertical market.
Kaimono Koen itself seemed run down to me, except for the blocks closer to the train station, which had been completely re-made. Two things struck me about it; the loudspeakers still played the same recordings I remembered, especially of a high-pitched woman’s voice in between ads. I could never understand what she was saying with my beginner’s Japanese. The other thing was that it felt like a street whose time had passed. There were still little shops and restaurants open all along it, and much bigger stores closer to the train station. But some blocks of the street looked a little seedy.
Many of the places I remembered were gone, including the video rental store with the porn collection up front. We stopped in a little housewares shop run by a woman with a small child who stared at us when we entered. I was delighted to find a Moomin collection of dish towels and socks, and I bought a couple of each. I could imagine the Moomins, a Finnish cultural phenomenon from a series of children’s books by Tove Jansson, being popular in Japan. They are kawaii (cute).
When we got closer to the train station, I tried to recognize the building that Nova, my English school, had been in. I was half expecting it to still be there, around the corner from the Kentucky Fried Chicken where I used to grab a bowl of corn chowder and a biscuit for lunch sometimes. I couldn’t spot the building, and I think it may have been part of the area in front of the train station that had been rebuilt. Nova schools were always located near train stations to catch the commuters who would stop in for an English lesson or two on their way home from work, or the housewives who had come into town on the train for some shopping.
The train station itself was completely new. We went inside to look around and saw a large tourist shop selling all the things Asahikawa and Hokkaido are famous for. The station was open and airy and not at all what I remembered. We went back outside and saw the Aeon mall on one side and on the other, I spotted the familiar Nova sign up above the plaza in front of the station. The school seemed to have done well for itself to score that piece of real estate.
We headed back down Kaimono Koen towards Tokiwa Park, our next destination. I spotted one of the Lawson Stations that I used to frequent for a quick lunch or snack. At the time, I didn’t know that Lawson Station had started in the US, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. It seems so quintessentially Japanese, like Seven Eleven, which is the other extremely popular convenience store chain in Japan. Emma and I had been living off of Seven Eleven during our travels. She’s still a bit of a picky eater, and she is reluctant to try new things (though now she says she regrets not being more adventurous when we were in Japan). She has a tendency to pick one or two things to eat over and over again, and in Japan it was the onigiri (rice balls; she liked them with corn, and I was partial to umeboshi, or pickled plum, as well as adzuki bean) and the long buns filled with corn and mayonnaise (which she replicates here). So we would often grab food at Seven Eleven for lunch or dinner and eat ramen or some other “safe” food for our other meal. A few times we found vegetarian restaurants, as well, including a very good one in Takayama. Culinarily, this wasn’t a very exciting trip, but I had fond memories of convenience store food, so I didn’t really mind.
Along the way to Tokiwa Park, we tried to find my old apartment building. All I remembered was that it was around 7 or 8 jyo and a similar chome, the block system that Japanese streets are laid out in. The more I thought, the more I thought about it, the more “nana jyo, roku chome” started to sound familiar, 7 jyo 6 chome. So we walked down 7 jyo, and suddenly I saw it. It was even called the 7 Jyo Residence, which I had completely forgotten until I saw the sign. What I recognized was the little covered area where I had kept my bicycle, off the tiny parking lot I walked across when heading for the school. It was exactly the same. I had shared an apartment that the company had rented for us with two other teachers, both male, which made for interesting speculation on the part of the students. Many of them were shocked that the school would put a female teacher in the same apartment as two men, but I guess they were cutting costs. It made for some interesting stories, anyway.
Tokiwa Park was also exactly as I remembered it. On nice summer and fall days, I would go there to sit and read on my days off, on a little island in a small canal running through the park. It also had a small lake with fish and lily pads. A little hill by the lake had a small observatory dome on it, and an island had a small Shinto shrine called Kamikawa Tongu. The art museum was also in the park, but it happened to be closed between exhibits, unfortunately. The part was still a beautiful green gem in the city, full of trees and sculptures and little walking paths, as well as the larger circular route through the park. We walked around and found a swimming pool and tennis court along the far side of the park that I didn’t really remember but must have been there in the 1990s.
We decided to go check out the river. Our plan for the next morning was to walk along the river and try to find the bicycle path I remembered going along on sunny days off, so this was just an initial reconnaissance. Asahikawa has several rivers flowing through it. The main one is the Ishikari River, with the Chubetsu, Biei, and Ushishubetsu Rivers branching off it in the northwestern part of the city. The Ishikari River is the one I remembered bicycling along. We walked up the artificial embankment along the edge of Tokiwa Park, and there it was, stretching in either direction, with a school I remembered right across the way. It’s not a very big river compared to say, the Rhine in Basel, but I had enjoyed cycling along it on the smooth bicycle path that ran on one bank of the river for more miles than I could cover on my little granny bike. Or at least, that was how I remembered it.
When we did walk along the river the next morning, on what turned out to be a warm sunny day, I couldn’t find the shady path I remembered that ran under trees along the river. I don’t know if the path disintegrated and was replace by the one we did find, or if I went in the other direction from what I remembered, or we had the wrong river, orwhat. But we had a nice long walk that was only marred by the fact that we didn’t have enough to drink and there were no vending machines, even at the little golf course we came across. When I looked at the map later, I realized we had curved around and ended up walking along the Biei and then Chubetsu Rivers, and if we’d kept with it would have ended up at the train station. As it was, we gave up and went back the way we came, and sat in Tokiwa Park, downing Royal Milk Tea (Emma) and green tea with a Pocari Sweat chaser (me).
We went on one other walking expedition through the city before we left. It provided a good overview of the progression of the city, from the older shopping area along Ginza Street, to the ascendancy of Kaimono Koen, to the current migration out of the city center to the glitzy Aeon Mall of the suburbs. I had forgotten about Ginza Street, but we came across it on a quest for a neighborhood I barely remembered, where one of my students had brought me to shop for antique dishes somewhere east of the train station. I was discovering, though, that my memory was not entirely accurate, so we were mainly looking around to see what we could see.
There are several different ways of approaching exploring a new place (or in this case a barely remembered place). One is to find out what the “famous” sites are and see those. I remembered from my conversations with Japanese students that this is what the Japanese tour groups usually did; visit the iconic spots and eat the characteristic foods of a place in order to feel as though you have experienced it authentically and seen the most important sights. Then there is what I do, which is look at a map for a bit, choose what looks like an interesting area, and just walk around to see what you can find. It means I sometimes miss things, but I also see things that might not be considered tourist attractions but are nonetheless very interesting. I also enjoy getting glimpses at the ordinary life of a place. Where do people live? Where do they shop for food? (I love visiting grocery stores in different countries.) What do they do for fun? Where do they hang out? I’ll end up wandering through residential neighborhoods and local parks, rather than visiting the hotspots.
This approach led us to “discover” Ginza Street, an older shopping street that has definitely seen better days. What we first saw was a newish red torii (temple gate) across the pedestrian mall down the middle of the street. We decided to walk down that way, and we discovered the old indoor marketplace I vaguely remember visiting once. Now, most of the stalls are closed for good, though a few were still open, selling food and kitchen wares and the like. We walked through it a little bit, just to see what was there. Yumiko says she can remember going there with her mother to buy all the food for New Year’s, and it was a very lively market. Emma and I decided it would make an interesting place to film a horror movie, which is not very kind to the shopkeepers who persist there, but really, it would be.
One of the things that is interesting about most Hokkaido cities is how relatively new they are. It’s a contrast to much of the rest of Japan, where the history is more physically apparent. The Ainu people who lived in Hokkaido before people from Honshu began settling there didn’t build permanent structures. They lived mainly by hunting and fishing, and there were only about 15,000 Ainu living in Hokkaido by the late 19th century. Hokkaido was annexed by the Japanese following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The Ainu were discriminated against and forced to assimilate into Japanese society following an act passed by the Japanese government in 1899, and it wasn’t until 2008 that they achieved official recognition as indigenous people of Japan by the Japanese government.
Asahikawa was founded as a military and agricultural settlement after the Meiji Restoration, and it became a city only in 1922. Most of the buildings in the city are fairly new, but scattered among them are old wooden, stone or brick buildings from an earlier age. This was one of the things I loved about the city, coming upon old buildings and houses nestled among newer multistory structures. We saw several of these on our discovery tour of the city. And because of the harsh winters, even the newer buildings can age rapidly. We saw some buildings that had suffered from exposure, and some parts of the city seem to be more and more neglected as people move towards the outskirts, echoing the urban flight that is happening in many cities around the world.
It was good to revisit Asahikawa. It’s one of several places I feel a lifelong connection to, even though I might never have gone there if Nova hadn’t decided to station me there when they hired me. Sapporo and Hakodate are more famous destinations in Hokkaido, and I might have visited them if I had just come as a tourist. But because I was able to live there for nearly a year, I had the chance to get to know the city fairly well, through friendships with Yumiko and other Nova students, as well as my fellow teachers and the teachers from Geos, another English school there. And of course, through my own ramblings around the city. Both Emma and I hope to go back someday and see more of the city and its beautiful surroundings with my friend Yumiko.