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Action Takes Center Stage at Hokkaido Zoo (July 6, 2005)

Seals are popular with kids. (Jiji)
The Asahiyama Zoo is located in a fairly rural area in the far north of Japan, but that has not stopped huge numbers of people from all over the country from visiting. In August 2004, more than 320,000 people visited the zoo, located in Asahikawa City on the island of Hokkaido. That was the highest figure for any zoo in Japan, apart from Ueno Zoo in central Tokyo. Asahiyama Zoo received 1.45 million visitors during fiscal 2004, six times as many as in 1996, when the facility was struggling. What is the secret behind zoo's staggering popularity? The answer lies in its presentation of the exhibits. The cages and aquariums are designed to show off the peculiar and fascinating behavior of the zoo's animals. For instance, orangutans can be seen leisurely shinning along a rope suspended 17 meters above ground.

Successful Showoffs
The new approach was introduced by zoo director Kosuge Masao after he came to his post in 1995. The previous facilities, which were designed to display the animals themselves rather than what they do, were scrapped over the years. In their place, workers constructed cages and aquariums that show off the animals' habits and behavior in environments closely resembling their natural habitats.

The huge Aviary was installed in one section of the zoo two years after Kosuge took control. In a birdcage there called the Totori no Mura (Totori Village), people can go inside to get a close-up look at the life of birds. An exhibit called Birds Are Birds Because They Fly set the stage for the zoo's new direction.

Over the years, the zoo installed the Midair Playground, where orangutans literally "hang out"; the Polar Bear Museum, where the lumbering animals can be seen through dome-shaped windows; the Penguin Aquarium, where the birds can be viewed through an underwater tunnel darting around their pool; and the Wild Animal Museum, an area replicating the natural habitats of tigers, lions, leopards and other wild cats.

A particularly popular attraction is the Seal Aquarium, where the frisky creatures show off their lovable antics as they dart up and down a cylinder-shaped tank. Since opening in June 2004, it has attracted so many visitors that many are forced to wait in long lines just to get inside. Such innovative presentations, conceived mainly by zoo employees, have made Asahiyama Zoo famous throughout Japan, while the number of visitors has continued to rise year after year.

Regional Benefits
The zoo's stunning success has not only drawn a lot of media attraction, but has even inspired a number of publications. As of April, seven titles related to the zoo had been published, including a pictorial and several guidebooks. "These are being bought by readers of a wide range of ages, and sales are strong. Amazingly, some of the titles have even gone to the big publishers in Tokyo," says a representative of a large bookstore in Asahiyama.

Meanwhile, the city aims to take advantage of the nationwide attention the zoo has enjoyed by stepping up efforts to encourage tourists to spend more of their vacation time in the region. The projects include workshops for local people to master the knowledge and abilities needed for the tourism industry and a school to nurture venture businesses in the tourism sector. Another project aims to encourage elementary schools in the prefecture to make field trips to the area. A local research organization estimates that the economic benefits of the zoo's popularity to the entire city could be worth around ¥8 billion ($76 million at ¥105 to the dollar).

Asahiyama Zoo's innovations are having a major impact on other zoos around Japan. For one month last summer, Ueno Zoo, the granddaddy of Japanese zoos, transformed itself into a "Showcase Zoo." Otters showed off their expert swimming skills in a specially designed tank, and porcupines could be seen climbing trees, an activity they do often in the wild.

Similar attractions enabling visitors to see how animals behave in their natural habitat have either begun or are in the pipeline at numerous other zoos around the country.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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