SPOILER ALERT: This post contains significant spoilers for A Wild Sheep Chase and Norwegian Wood and minor spoilers for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
In Murakamis’s fiction, the first time we’re introduced to Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second largest city, is in his third novel A Wild Sheep Chase. During the narrator’s transfer there on his way to Junitaki-cho, we’re given his first and only impression of the place:
“From the platform, we could see a typical small-scale regional city. Complete with main street, modest department store, bus terminal, tourist information center. A singularly dull town, if first impression were any indication.”
Interestingly enough, despite his own character’s comments about the place, Asahikawa must’ve left a much deeper impression on Murakami himself. The city is mentioned in no less than five pieces of the author’s fiction. What could be so special about this mid-size industrial hub in the center of Hokkaido that would prompt Murakami to include it in so many of his works? During my own travels around Hokkaido last summer, I decided to spend a few nights in the city to find out.
Asahikawa was first settled back in the year 1868 before officially gaining city status in 1920. Like many other places in Hokkaido, Asahikawa is a pretty new place by Japanese standards. The city was a major industrial center during World War II and today is known for its lumber industry and its large zoo.
Admittedly, hearing this made me somewhat skeptical from the start. I’ve done my fair share of traveling, and chances are that a city known primarily for its zoo isn’t usually much to write home about. As my long train ride from Sapporo was finally coming close to an end, I was eagerly hoping to be proven wrong.
Exiting the main station, I noticed the main street and bus terminal mentioned in A Wild Sheep chase right away. The city has obviously grown since the novel was written in the early eighties. There are now several large department stores all around the main station area. The large shopping street just outside is known as ‘Heiwa Street,’ and as most of the hotels are situated in this area, this is where visitors tend to do their shopping and eating.
As my own hotel would not let me check-in until 3pm, I had a couple of hours to kill and I spent them roaming the city streets. Wandering the area, I recalled Mr. Honda from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Asahikawa is where the eccentric psychic and family friend of the Wataya’s grew up and ran a printing business before fighting in the war and moving to Tokyo.
I also thought of Norwegian Wood‘s Reiko, Naoko’s roommate at the Kyoto mental hospital. The novel ends with her departing for Asahikawa from Tokyo’s Ueno Station. Though we never learn what happens, her plan is to teach at a music school run by a friend of hers. It’s clear in the novel, however, that she’s not particularly enthused by the idea.
“I finally get my freedom back and I’m supposed to go to Asahikawa? It’s hard to get excited about a place like that – some hole in the ground.”
Walking the streets, I had to somewhat agree with Reiko. It’s hard to get excited about a place like Asahikawa. Though one of the most remote places I’ve been in Japan, it looks and feels pretty much like a typical Japanese city of under half a million people. But after stumbling upon the lush, green Tokiwa Park, I decided that while not particularly exciting, Asahikawa is not such a bad-looking town.
After relaxing at my hotel for awhile I went out after dark to look for something to eat. Walking into a nearby restaurant, the staff had a panicked expression on their faces when they saw me, clearly unsure of how they were going to handle a Westerner. They relaxed a little bit once I opened my mouth and started speaking Japanese, but I would have many similar experiences over the next few days. It was clear that Asahikawa is a town not very used to foreign visitors.
I ordered a bowl of the famous Asahikawa ramen. While delicious, I was a little disheartened afterwards to realize I’d already completed one of only two “must-do” activities the city has to offer.
The next day I hopped on a bus in front of the station and made my way out to the famous Asahiyama Zoo. While I don’t hate zoos, I’m not especially fond of them either. In any case, I really had no choice – there’s simply nothing else to do in Asahikawa. And besides, zoos seem to be a common theme throughout Murakami’s work. In fact, Asahiyama Zoo in particular is even referenced to in one of his short stories.
In New York Mining Disaster, part of the Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman compilation, the narrator’s friend recalls seeing a cat and a dog at an unnamed zoo in Hokkaido. Honestly, I thought this was just something funny Murakami made up for his story. Strangely enough, however, cats and dogs are among the many animals on display at Asahiyama Zoo.
As far as zoos go, Asahiyama is a pretty good one. All the exotic animals you’d expect to find at a zoo are there. Given the region’s climate, the cold-weather animals also seemed to be in much better spirits than at some of the dilapidated old zoos I’ve visited elsewhere in Japan.
The odd part about Asahiyama Zoo is that seeing household pets in a zoo setting was a much more memorable experience than seeing your typical penguins and orangutangs. As the only Western visitor there at the time, it was clear that some of the Japanese visitors even seemed to think that I was more interesting than the orangutangs. Poor orangutangs!
After visiting the zoo I’d now crossed both “must-do in Asahikawa” activities off the list. I still had one more full day left in the city with no idea of how to spend it. I was somewhat relieved to discover it raining the following morning, giving me a good excuse to sleep-in and lounge around the hotel.
I ended up leaving Asahikawa not completely sure of what I’d come looking for, or if I found it. At the end of the day, I’d have to agree with the protagonist from A Wild Sheep Chase. Asahikawa is a “singularly dull town.” Upon further thought, this is probably exactly what appealed to Murakami about the place to begin with. In the author’s work, Asahikawa seems to serve as an archetype for far, remote and boring towns everywhere. Asahikawa is probably better left as just that – a mere concept, and not a place that one is actually supposed to go and visit. Maybe I was doing it all wrong.
Throughout the rest of my travels around Hokkaido, I found myself back at Asahikawa station twice more to make some transfers. The station is large, modern and full of decent places to eat. Even with a few hours to kill before my next train, I had little desire to go outside and wander the city streets again.
The strangest part about all of this is that months later, I still find myself thinking about my uneventful short stay in Asahikawa from time to time. While it’s not a very fun, exciting or easy place to get to, there is just something about the town that reminds one of Murakami’s fiction. Maybe it’s the fact that isolation is such a common theme of the author’s work. Whatever you hope to get out of a visit to Asahikawa, it’s at least a good place to get lots of reading done.
When you’re carrying out the A Wild Sheep Chase/Dance, Dance, Dance portion of your ‘Murakami Pilgrimage,’ Asahikawa is an easy direct train from Sapporo. An express train can get you there directly in about 85 minutes for ¥4,810. From there you can head up to Bifuka (a.k.a. Junitaki-cho) which takes around 2.5 hours including a half-hour wait at Nayoro Station.
If you’re visiting Hokkaido in summer, Asahikawa is also an easy train ride away from the towns of Biei and Furano, known for their rolling hills, lavender fields and colorful flower beds.