Many visitors think of Asahikawa as little more than a transport hub, but this bustling city in the heart of Japan’s Hokkaido is worth more than a quick stop on your way across the island. Here’s how to spend a couple of days exploring its famous foods, verdant parks and thriving art scene.
This unpretentious city is a hub of artisan crafts and manufacturing, making it a great place to pick up a truly local souvenir – anything from woodworking to glass to ceramics. It’s also famous throughout Japan for its rich, salty ramen (noodles in a soy-based broth) – which goes perfectly with locally brewed sake – but being in the heart of Hokkaido means it’s developed a rich food culture in general, with fish from the coast, dairy from cattle farms and plenty of fresh vegetables.
Between the crafts, food and drink, there’s already plenty to fill an enjoyably hedonistic day or two, but the city also has several engrossing museums and galleries, a calendar packed with lively festivals, and access to some of Hokkaido’s most beautiful landscapes around Furano, Biei and Daisetsuzan National Park. Whether you visit in the lazy heat of summer or the sparkling cold of winter, here are our tips on how to spend 48 hours in Asahikawa.
Pro tip: If visiting for a winter sports holiday, consider staying in Asahikawa rather than at a ski resort. It’s well placed for visiting all the major ones and gives you far more après-ski and bad-weather options. OMO7 hotel is a particularly good choice, as it has buses to Kamui Ski Links and Asahidake, plus an in-hotel wax bar, rental gear and spa and sauna facilities. The hotel’s go-kinjo (neighbourhood) map is regularly updated with staff members’ favourite spots, and OMO rangers also lead casual trips around the city.
Get to know the city by cycling along its main rivers, the Ishikari and the Chubetsu. A popular 15km (9mi) route in the south of the city starts at Twin Harp Bridge, following the Chubetsu upstream to scenic Higashikagura. Alternatively, begin at the Asahi Bridge by Tokiwa Park, closer to the city centre, and follow the Ishikari downstream to Kamuikotan. This picturesque spot is significant to the Ainu (Hokkaido’s indigenous people) and hosts the Kotan Festival on the autumn equinox each year.
To find out more about the Ainu, visit Asahikawa City Museum, where there’s a permanent exhibition on traditional Ainu culture, or the Ainu-owned and -run Kawamura Kaneto Aynu Memorial Hall, where you can step inside a historic Ainu house and also explore a little of what life is like for Ainu people today.
Head to Hikari no Ehon-dori (also known as Ryokudo, or Green Street) for lunch, taking your pick from the many cafés lining this partially pedestrianised street. Alternatively, take a bento (boxed lunch) to Tokiwa Park, at the street’s northern end, for a picnic by the pond. The park is also home to the Hokkaido Asahikawa Museum of Art, where you can see regularly changing exhibitions on Japanese or overseas artists, plus a permanent collection focusing on the art and culture of northern Hokkaido.
As well as a couple of other large museums – such as the Asahikawa Museum of Sculpture, exploring the work of Nakahara Teijiro – Asahikawa has several small, independent gallery spaces. Puru Puru, near Tokiwa Park, is a welcoming place run by picture book author Abe Hiroshi, with a focus on illustrated and child-friendly works. Hirama displays works by local artists, covering a wide range of media and styles.
Asahikawa also has plenty of public art in the city centre, with bronze statues and sculptures displayed along pedestrianised streets like Heiwa-dori and Hikari no Ehon-dori.
Head to Sanroku, which is one of Hokkaido’s largest entertainment districts, for dinner and several drinks. Furariito (“staggering/weaving”) Alley is a good place to start, the narrow street jam-packed with izakaya – Japanese-style bars that serve food.
These spots range from upmarket bar-restaurants with private rooms separated by sliding shoji screens, to crowded one-room affairs with grills set into tables and upturned crates for seats. Few will have English menus, but many will have pictures of their most popular dishes – try jagabata for something safe (potato wedges with Hokkaido butter), or local favourites like jingisukan (mutton cooked on a convex grill that resembles a Mongolian helmet – hence the name, Genghis Khan).
If you want to keep the night going, find your way to the nearest karaoke joint for a nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) deal and off-key crooning in a mercifully private room.
Head to the western part of the city to explore the galleries, craft workshops and cafés of Kita no Arashiyama. This low-rise, largely residential area is hemmed in by the Ishikari and Osarappe Rivers, and makes a good starting point for nature walks. Arashiyama itself, the mountain just across the Osarappe, has an observation deck with panoramic views over the city and is accessible by foot.
The area is sometimes called Pottery Village, as it has a long history with ceramicists and sculptors. Among the workshops now based there are Chihirogama – known for hand-painted items – and Taisetsugama, which produces textured pieces inspired by the nature of Hokkaido.
You’ll find all kinds of other crafts produced here, too. Try Sou Sou for fresh takes on traditional Japanese textiles, Juncobo for finely made glass (the sake sets are beautiful), and Craft Brown Box for woodworking products.
Housed in a venerable wooden building near Asahikawa station, Nihon Shoyu Kogyo Chokubaiten is the city’s oldest soy sauce producer. Head here to try the classic soy sauce, which forms the basis of Asahikawa’s famous shoyu ramen, plus flavoured versions and snacks.
Take a train or bus out to the northeast of the city, where you can pick up lunch at chic Palemta Cafe & Dining before exploring the Asahikawa Design Center. The Design Center showcases more of the city’s talented artisans, from whom you can directly buy small items as souvenirs, or even larger items like chairs and tables.
Just a short walk away is Otokoyama, a working sake brewery and museum. As well as some interesting displays on the history of sake production in the city, the museum contains ukiyo-e paintings of sake-making, including one by Hokusai. There’s also a very well-priced gift shop, and you can, of course, taste several styles of sake from this popular producer. Asahikawa’s other main sake brewery, Takasago, is near the main station and has a gift shop and a tasting room.
For dinner, continue on the theme of Asahikawa’s specialities by visiting the Asahikawa Ramen Village (only open until 8pm) for dinner. Here you can try full- and half-size servings from eight of the city’s best-respected ramen shops.
Alternatively, head back into the city centre and put your new-found sake knowledge to use at Ueda-ya (closes at 8pm) – a kaku-uchi, or sake shop with a casual standing bar. Then grab dinner at one or two of the main branches of the ramen restaurants at the Ramen Village, or head to Ganso Asahikawa Ramen Ichikura for vegetarian, vegan or halal takes on the famous local noodle dish.
Depending on the season, there may be a festival held in the evening; in the winter, there are atmospheric illuminations of several districts. Or if you’d rather end your day in a cosy, library-like atmosphere, while away the rest of the evening in a late-night café such as Switch Flavor. Get a spiced hot chocolate, matcha parfait or cool beer, and curl up at one of the semi-private tables with a blanket and a good book.