This past Monday was Marine Day in Japan. Aside from creating a much-appreciated three-day weekend, the role of the holiday is to encourage people to reflect on the integral role the ocean plays in Japan’s history. So, what better time to visit an aquarium? Japan has plenty of places to ogle fish, and not just on ice or on a grill. Here are a few of my favorites in the Tokyo area.
Let’s start with Sunshine Aquarium in Ikebukuro. Not only are the tanks as clean and pristine as they come, but Sunshine augments their collection of traditional sea creatures with an interesting array of amphibians and semi-aquatic reptiles. There are no dolphins here, but they have otters, penguins and seals, as well as sea lions, who exercise in a clear circular plexiglass track above your head. Overall, the facilities are worth a visit if you are in Ikebukuro, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the arduous journey required to reach this place with a stroller or small children. It is a long and poorly-marked walk from the station, into the crowds of Ikebukuro and then finally through the maze of steps and escalators that comprise the Sunshine City entrance. Give yourself extra time, and be prepared to ask for directions if you’re not familiar with the area.
By contrast, the Epson Aqua Stadium is just minutes from the Takanawa exit of Shinagawa Station and adjacent to the elegant, air-conditioned interiors of the Prince Hotel. This aquarium wants to present itself more as an amusement park, and there are a handful of prohibitively priced rides, but they pride themselves on their dolphin show — probably the most impressive in the city. Consider yourself warned: When they say you will get wet in the front rows, they mean it. Arrive early, and choose your seats wisely.
My next suggestion is the Shinagawa Aquarium, and its numerous tanks depicting habitats common to the waters around Japan. Our personal favorite is the jellyfish room, where the willowy invertebrates flutter around tanks of various sizes. This is the oldest of the four aquariums I’m recommending, and it shows its age, but the displays are well-maintained and there is plenty to see. It’s some distance from a station, so you might want to try the free shuttle from Oimachi Station.
The Tokyo Sea Life Park is situated by Tokyo Bay near Kasai Rinkai Koen Station, one stop from Tokyo Disneyland, making it the furthest from the city center and the closest to where some of its inhabitants originated. The tanks are larger, and so are many of the creatures within. For example, this aquarium’s crown jewel is a massive circular tank filled with bonito and yellowfin tuna — many of which are larger than the kids gawking at them from the other side of the glass. Spend a few minutes here to sit and rest while taking in some of the ocean’s most incredible (and delectable) creatures.
Once out of the main building, stop by my personal favorite: the kelp-forest tank. Marvel at the waves of lush underwater foliage as it softly sways like an oil painting in motion. Your children, unfortunately, may not connect with such beauty, especially once they realize that they can touch a manta ray in a tank less than 10 meters away, so relish your 30 seconds of peaceful repose before they drag you away.
These aquariums split into two distinct categories, each with their own pros and cons. Epson and Sunshine City are brazenly commercial enterprises: one the vanity project of a global brand and the other an attraction on the roof of a shopping complex. They are also newer, cleaner and more modern. Shinagawa Aquarium and Tokyo Sea Life Park, however, have a distinct advantage with families because they are located within parks, which means there are areas to run around in once you exit. The park surrounding Shinagawa Aquarium is mainly comprised of walking paths, fountains and a small pond, its peacefulness frequently interrupted by the roar of the nearby motorboat race track. Tokyo Sea Life sits within the massive Kasai Rinkai Park, which has some of the largest stretches of grass and shade trees in the metropolitan Tokyo area. Like Showa Kinen Koen mentioned last month, Kasai Rinkai Park is huge. It has its own ferris wheel, waterbird reserve and amusement-park style train system to get from one end to the other. My kids and I have never seen it all in one afternoon, usually because we spend an inordinate amount of time near the entrance splashing in a fountain or watching a street performer.
The Epson and Sunshine City facilities, by contrast, are smack in the middle of crowded commercial districts, which means few play areas, but you will be flush with choice for food, shopping or other entertainment options, such as bowling and movie theaters.
All four offer a distinct experience. I’ll spare you my somewhat conflicted (and somewhat conflicting) views on keeping birds and mammals in facilities like these. Instead, I will encourage you to visit them, and use it as an opportunity to teach your kids about an incredibly precious and valuable part of our world. That’s what Marine Day is all about.
Sunshine Aquarium www.sunshinecity.co.jp/aquarium/ Epson Aqua Stadium www.epson.jp/sponsor/aquastadium/ Shinagawa Aquarium www.aquarium.gr.jp/en/ Tokyo Sea Life Park www.tokyo-zoo.net/english/kasai/ List of all aquariums in Tokyo: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/arrange/travel/practical/aquarium.html