Asahiyama Zoo, located in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido, is the northernmost zoo in Japan. Last year, the zoo had 3.07 million visitors and continues to increase its nationwide popularity due to its innovative presentations and exhibits that are designed to give close-up views of the fascinating behavior of the zoo’s animals. In June 2008, the zoo opened an exhibit called The Wolves’ Forest, the latest addition to its interactive animal-viewing facilities. For many years, followers of the path have engaged in cleaning hinokishin at the zoo. Followers of Kamikawa district have engaged in cleaning and weeding hinokishin at the zoo twice a year since the year after the zoo opened, and this year marks the 41st year. As a community-based hinokishin activity, the cleaning and weeding by Kamikawa district followers has cultivated a close and trusting relationship with the zoo.
On July 13, the followers of Kamikawa district set out to engage in cleaning and weeding hinokishin. Mr. Masaru Mima, the leader of the East Asahikawa group belonging to Kamikawa district, gave an opening speech to the participants before they started engaging in hinokishin. “Today, I want all of us to earnestly engage in hinokishin at Asahiyama Zoo. I hope that this activity will continue for many years to come.” In response to the speech, the program manager of the zoo expressed his profound appreciation for the followers’ continuous activities over more than 40 years.
There were a total of 35 followers assembled at the zoo, including two children. Without needing detailed instructions, the participants set out to clean the flower beds of the main promenade stretching out from the main gate of the zoo. As soon as gates opened, visitors who had been waiting in line rushed inside and walked briskly toward the animal-viewing facilities. Surrounded by waves of visitors, Mrs. Masako Oya, now 81 years old, meticulously pulled out short weeds in the flower beds. She said: “When we started doing hinokishin here, Asahiyama Zoo was much smaller and was surrounded by forests, giving a local zoo atmosphere.”
Asahiyama Zoo opened in July 1967. During the first year, 460,000 people visited the zoo, which served as a place where people living in the local and neighboring communities could come and relax. It was the first East Asahikawa group leader, Mr. Yasuo Mima, father of the current leader, who came up with the idea to engage in hinokishin at his hometown’s zoo as a way to make a contribution to the local community. He met with the zoo’s director and asked for permission to engage in cleaning hinokishin. His request, however, was denied on the grounds that the zoo was a public facility. Undeterred, Mr. Mima negotiated with the zoo repeatedly for a month and a half, when the zoo finally gave in and allowed the Tenrikyo followers to engage in cleaning hinokishin at the zoo.
In the spring of 1968, the followers engaged in their first cleaning hinokishin. In the summer of the same year, they pulled weeds and mowed the surrounding fields. Since then, engaging in hinokishin twice a year has become a part of the annual activities of the followers in the region. Later, the zoo was selected as the district’s hinokishin site for the annual Tenrikyo Hinokishin Day, drawing participants from various parts of Hokkaido Diocese. Every year on the Hinokishin Day, participants clean flower beds and lawns throughout the zoo, and they even mow the surrounding fields. Even at times when the zoo faced setbacks and crises, the followers continued to engage in hinokishin with unchanging sincerity. In 1994, the zoo was temporarily closed after the death of a Roland gorilla and a ring-tailed lemur due to parasitic infection. The zoo opted to publicly announce the deaths of animals to ensure public safety.
Recalling those difficult times, Zoo Director Masao Kozono said: “When we were faced with a steady decrease of visitors and even the possibility of permanent closure, the Tenrikyo followers continued to carry out cleaning activities faithfully. I am truly grateful for their contribution.” Regarding the cleaning hinokishin by Kamikawa district, Mr. Kozono added: “Even under the scorching sun and in the pouring rain, the followers quietly go about cleaning the zoo. I have always admired their sincerity and commitment. So every time Tenrikyo followers come to our zoo to engage in cleaning hinokishin, it is a time when we staff members of the zoo renew our appreciation for how much the Tenrikyo followers have treasured our zoo and given us their unwavering support.” Also, Zoo Vice Director Gen Bando said: “What impresses me the most is how the followers quietly and earnestly engage in cleaning hinokishin. In the days when Asahiyama Zoo experienced a series of crises, they still continued their cleaning activity. We are so indebted to them. I have always wanted to repay them for their contribution, and writing a series of articles for the Tenri Jiho newspaper is just one of the things I can do.”