You don’t have to know me very well to know that there are few things in life I love more than an aquarium. Back during my early graduate school days, a friend and I made a chart in which we documented various bits of trivia that would be apparent to those who knew us based on how close a friend they were. Yes, it’s exceedingly nerdy, but hey – we were grad students! Is anyone really surprised?
Even more nerdy? I photographed the chart so it would be preserved for posterity, and you lucky 20 Years Hence readers can now gaze upon this lovingly curated piece of Steph memorabilia, circa 2005.
Discerning readers will note that the first entry listed under “Level One Friendship” (really the stuff that mere acquaintances would know) is that Steph *Hearts* The Sea. I feel like this graphic alone should be all the proof you need that my obsession with all things aquatic is sincere. I am like the reverse Little Mermaid: she wanted to be up with the land-lubbers, whereas I want nothing more than to be ensconced in an underwater paradise.
When we first started dating, it didn’t take Tony very long to cotton on to this proclivity of mine (he’s a smart one), so to celebrate our one-month anniversary (yes, we’re one of those couples…), he took me on a roadtrip to visit the Chattanooga Aquarium. This started something of a tradition with us, and ever since then, if we find ourselves in a city that has an aquarium, you can bet we will be visiting it.
Osaka was no exception. For most people, when you think of Osaka, you think of the fantastic food scene, the vibrant night life, the over-the-top indulgence.
Me? I thought of whale sharks.
Now I know that, Kaiyukan, the Osaka aquarium often has adjectives like “world’s best” thrown around when describing it. And I also know that the Japanese are not the kind of people to do something halfway, so the likelihood that it would be fantastic was high. But I was still a bit wary when we headed out to visit it, because we have been burned before. I know that when you think of the world’s great aquariums, Chattanooga likely doesn’t make your list (but you do have a list, right?!?), but it is legitimately fantastic. That aquarium is so good that more obvious choices like the Shad Aquarium in Chicago or the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta (which claims to be the world’s largest), paled in comparison. If such heavy hitters couldn’t unseat the Chattanooga Aquarium as my top tuna, would Kaiyukan really have a chance?
The short answer: Hell yeah!
The long answer: Kaiyukan is absolutely a first-class aquarium, and incorporates nearly all the elements that I think are vital for any aquarium making claims at the “world’s best” title.
One of the things that I love about the Chattanooga aquarium is that it has an effortless layout: there is just one path for you to take as you wend your way through the exhibits and tanks, so that there is no backtracking or the possibility of missing anything. Kaiyukan works in much the same way — so much so that we wondered if the same people who designed the Chattanooga Aquarium also designed it. It’s just a wonderful stress-free visit, where you seamlessly shuffle from one tank to the next as the the ocean’s tides were your guide.
Also, in keeping with everything in Japan, the aquarium was impeccably clean (including the animal enclosures – we witnessed many workers vigorously cleaning the tanks while we were there) and the tanks were generally of a good size, giving the animals adequate room to play and live comfortably. The animals were clearly well looked after, and it was obvious observing the interactions between them and the handlers that the aquarium only employs people who are deeply invested in their welfare. I have said it before, but zoos and animal attractions in Asia do not always have the best track record when it comes to this kind of thing, so it was great to be in a place where the animals were obviously so happy.
A few other elements, that I really enjoyed about Kaiyukan, were:
1) They post-feeding times at the major enclosures, and these are always fun to watch! While there, we observed the feeding of the short clawed otters, the river otters, the sea lions, and even some of the fish (including the whale shark!).
2) They have cultivated a really impressive collection of animals – aquariums don’t have to just be about fish! In addition to the many tanks of gorgeous fish, they also have various adorable mammals such as otters, sea lions, dolphins, a cappybara and a coati! The latter three are pretty rare aquarium sightings (I bet you don’t even know what a coati is!), and I really appreciated the opportunity to see some new animals. They also have a really lovely jellyfish exhibit at the end, which is always one of my favorite parts of an aquarium because I love how graceful and ghostly jellyfish are.
3) Like many of the best places in Japan, there are free stamping stations scattered throughout the aquarium! Who doesn’t love a free souvenir?
4) Similarly — and perhaps best of all — the aquarium offers ridiculous photo ops at various points FOR FREE! Upon entering, we got to pose with a whale shark replica, and later, I made Tony queue up so that we could get this amazingly cheesy shot, replete with props! (And yes, we did commandeer every single prop that they had on hand for our photo!) You can buy a professionally taken photo of you at these staged photo ops, but they also take a picture with your own camera, so there is no obligation to buy and you wind up with a priceless memento of your time at this fantastic aquarium.
Pretty much the only thing that is missing at Kaiyukan is an interactive exhibit where you can touch some of the creatures (at Chattanooga, there are shallow pools where you can touch stingrays, small sharks, and starfish). Still, it’s hard to ding Kaiyukan too many points for that oversight as the many other perks that are on offer here more than make up for that.
Although there were many visitors at the aquarium that day, I felt so at peace at Kaiyukan; when you are surrounded by that much water, no matter the din, I always feel there is an underlying sense of silence and tranquility that cannot be denied. Gazing at the diverse marine life on display, I feel as though I have been offered a rare glimpse at a world that is not my own and seems so far away, a place where beauty is given breath. Whether gracefully swirling, or nimbly darting through the water, when I watch fish swim, I feel like I am observing nature’s ballet performed on the largest of stages. Watching otters and dolphins frolic in the water, manically corkscrewing and diving as deep as they can, I feel like I understand what it is to be completely free and consumed by simple joy in the truest sense. I feel elation swell within me, and I am buoyed by the knowledge that I am capable of ferreting out pockets of absolutely peace. I am not religious, but seeing all of this is my version of receiving grace; I feel it deep in my bones that if heaven exists, then it surely does so, not up above the clouds, but far beneath the surface of the waves.
Kaiyukan is no longer the world’s largest aquarium, but its scope is still impressive and it is definitely my new favorite aquarium. Some of the tanks span several floors, and you get a real taste for how expansive the underwater aspect of our world truly is. At 2000 Y (~$25 USD) per person, it is a pricey activity, but worth every cent. We easily frittered away 4 hours here — sometimes laughing, sometimes in quiet contemplation — so guidebook estimates of 1.5 hours are woefully inadequate and clearly suggested by people who don’t actually like aquariums! If we ever return to Osaka, I will certainly visit Kaiyukan again, and would even splurge for the boat tour (on a very cool sail boat!) of the Osaka harbor as well. Kaiyukan probably will not provoke in you the near-spiritual experience that it did in me, but the natural beauties and simply joys it celebrates are ones that will be readily enjoyed even by the more casual aquarium goer as well. If you are ever in Osaka, this is one attraction that you simply cannot miss.