Island nations have a unique relationship with the sea, and for Japan these connections often manifest themselves through its culture and cuisine. This can make an aquarium visit doubly interesting: Come for the fish, stay to watch the visitors as they admire each tank’s inhabitants with a unique mixture of awe and appetite.
“Look,” says a child, pointing to one of many sea creatures. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” says the parent. “Beautiful. And it’s making me hungry.”
Japan has its share of aquariums, and I’ve mentioned a handful in past columns. One I’ve yet to point out, however, is Osaka’s Kaiyukan. Only a few kilometers from Universal Studios Japan, Kaiyukan is one of the biggest aquariums in the world and home to some of the ocean’s most fascinating inhabitants, including Earth’s largest living species of fish: the whale shark.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. There is much to see before you arrive in front of that saltwater behemoth. Once inside the aquarium’s building, you are directed to the top floor and then descend, taking in a panoply of marine life along the way. If you’re carrying a lot of stuff or heavy coats, make sure to put it all in a coin locker before heading upstairs. Each room’s temperature is different, varying from cool to downright balmy, and the crowds can be considerable on weekends, so the less you have to lug through this massive complex, the better.
Once upstairs, you are greeted by lush greenery and a waterfall. Welcome to the first exhibit, which is modeled after a Japanese forest teeming with life, both the fully aquatic kind, such as freshwater fish like red-spotted masu salmon, as well as part-time river-dwellers such as crabs, otters and the country’s famous giant salamander. Once you exit this forest exhibit, you will follow walkways past myriad creatures with scales, feathers or fur.
The theme of Kaiyukan is “Ring of Fire,” a reference to the tectonic activity deep below the surface of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding waters. Many of the exhibits re-create the natural settings that encircle this ring: from the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to the Rainforests of Ecuador and then back to the depths of the Japanese Sea. In the Monterey Bay tank you’ll see frolicking seals and sea lions, while the Gulf of Panama area has porcupine fish, as well as a scarlet ibis and the raccoon-like ring-tailed coati. Move onto the Antarctic region for close-up views of several penguin varieties.
I had been to Kaiyukan years before, but didn’t realize how many birds and mammals reside there, including capybaras and several tropical birds. My own views on the ethics of zoological parks have changed over the last few years, and while I am fairly indifferent to seeing fish in quarters much smaller than their natural habitat, those feelings change when I see dolphins, sea lions and penguins in a similar predicament. That said, this column is not an opinion piece, and issues such as animal captivity are far beyond its scope. Aquariums and zoos are one of the easiest ways for children to witness wildlife up close and Kaiyukan offers such opportunities in abundance. There are multiple feeding times open to the public to witness (check the schedule near the entrance) and the glass-sided tanks allow you and your young ones to see how creatures maneuver on both land and sea.
One of the most interesting elements of the aquarium’s design is the shape and depth of its tanks. You may start with a landlubber’s view, but as you descend, you get an added perspective of what lies deep below the surface, and how the ecosystem at the top may differ drastically from that at the bottom.
During this journey, you return toward the center of the building, where the whale shark — the giant of the seas — resides, flanked by hammerhead sharks and other symbiotic organisms. Along the way, you’ll find smaller tanks with creatures that make the locals (and people like me) hungry: the Chilean coast tank shows anchovies and sardines swimming in spiral patterns, while the Japan Deep exhibit boasts a number of prize spider crabs. Nearby is a darkened room where dozens of resplendent jellyfish float and quiver through illuminated tanks.
Once through there, the room brightens as you enter the Maldives exhibit. Here you’ll find a saltwater petting zoo of sorts. A large shallow tank is filled with rays and reef sharks, and visitors are encouraged to (gently) touch its inhabitants. Make sure little hands are washed at the nearby sinks afterward.
Considering Japan’s position on the Earth’s tectonic plates and how that has affected the country in the recent past, an exhibit based on the Ring of Fire can be an exhilarating and sobering experience. But if you’re looking for a place to share the life that lives in this dynamic part of the planet, look no further.
Kaiyukan is a five-minute walk from Osaka Station on the Osaka Chuo Subway Line. It’s open 10 a.m.- 8 p.m. daily, and admission is ¥2,300 for adults, ¥1,200 for school children, ¥600 for children age 4-6 and free for younger. For more information, visit www.kaiyukan.com/language/eng