Japan's most progressive zoo is not in Tokyo or any other modern conurbation. It's in Asahikawa on the island of Hokkaido, a quiet northern city of 360,000. Since 1997, the Asahiyama Zoo, tel: (81-166) 361104, has renovated nearly half of its animal exhibits in delightfully creative ways, designed to benefit the inhabitants as much as the visitors. Zoo director Masao Kosuge installed a water tube for the spotted seals, gave the panthers rock ledges to nestle on, and lets the king penguins out of their enclosure for a daily (albeit supervised) stroll through the zoo grounds. Monkeys are no longer fed from bowls but forage happily for food now hidden among the wood chips and foliage. It's a stimulating environment that has done wonders for the animals. "You can see it in their eyes," says Kosuge. "They are happy because they are doing what they want." His reforms have paid off commercially, too, given that happy animals equal happy visitors. The zoo has nearly quintupled its visitor traffic since the changes were made, and now attracts more customers than any other zoo in Japan. Zoo managers from across the country have also come to study Kosuge's magic. He might not be Dr. Doolittle, but to the animals of Asahiyama Zoo, he could be the next best thing.