One Day in Ibaraki

Under the Sea

If you’ve never been to Oarai’s Aquaworld, you’re in for a treat. With numerous different kinds of activities under one roof, including interactive displays and touchable marine life, you can enjoy yourself for hours no matter what your age. Not to mention, this is a great way to beat the summer heat without spending all your money or sitting around indoors. But for those who don’t speak much Japanese, the icing on the cake is the new guidance system they’ve introduced in 4 languages, allowing foreign visitors a chance to enjoy and understand the many exhibits freely. All in all, there’s something for the kid in all of us.

I have to admit, before arriving I had been worried that the experience would be a little dry. After all, aquariums are usually aimed at the younger set and have a school trip kind of image. At the entrance to the building is a large ‘free zone’ where you can enter without paying admission; this is where the gigantic gift shops sits, overflowing with rainbow-hued plush animals and other marine-themed goods. Meanwhile, next door is the food court, managed by local eateries and serving, you guessed it, quite a bit of seafood. But once inside the actual aquarium gates I was quite surprised to find how interesting and intriguing everything was.

Large, round plexiglass drums as tall as an average adult filled with glistening, silvery schools of fish were the first to catch my eye. Forget the rest of the building, I would have been quite content to spend a few minutes watching the coalescence and dissolution of various shapes caused by the darting, gliding, hive-minded fish. But it was necessary to move quickly in order to catch the early dolphin and sea lion show. The show is held in a large, atrium-type room with a huge pool in the middle and waterproof spectator seats lining one wall. The other wall, the stage, is one giant window reaching up to the ceiling, allowing the background of the show to be the beautiful blend of sea and sky of Oarai’s coast. For those who prefer to know what’s going on beneath the surface there is also an underground viewing area where you can watch what’s going on below, or visit with the dolphins (who apparently love to come up close to the glass to see people) when the show is over.

The show itself was highly engaging, with the clever sea lion Pudding doing handstands and even giving CPR. But the highlight was, of course, the agile and powerful dolphins. In order to give them so downtime before the heavy schedule of shows this summer there were only two dolphins today, a smaller dolphin and a false killer whale, but they did their utmost to wow (and soak) the crowd. Leaping over twenty feet into the air, doing massive flips and jumps, tossing beach balls at the audience, even waving goodbye with their flippers at the end! Most impressive of all was when they launched their trainer out of the water like a rocket (would love to try that). According to Mr. Otsu, the vice director of the aquarium, the training of the dolphins is not really training as such; it’s not about telling the dolphins what to do, it’s about finding the things they do in their own play and encouraging them to do it again on request. In this way the dolphins are not so much being used by the aquarium but rather displaying their abilities, and getting a decent meal out of it too. The dolphins themselves are shared between other aquariums from time to time, in order to encourage breeding and to avoid needing more from the wild, and there is a vet on hand to make sure they are always happy and healthy.

Later I got a chance to speak to one of the sea lion trainers, and according to her it takes roughly a month to encourage the sea lions to take up a new skill. Not to mention, just like cats and dogs, they all have their own differing personalities, which can make it difficult at times; some are extremely quick to adopt new tricks, while others get bored easily and end up messing around – a lot like children. Just like the dolphins, their total caloric needs are calculated and the food is divided up between regular feeding times and the food they are given as part of the training or shows. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask who names them.

Next we moved on to the giant tank housing various specious of shark, ray, and other sea life. You wouldn’t know to look at it, but the glass on these windows is 50 centimeters thick! Made by special craftsmen who layer 10 centimeter slabs in such a way as to preserve the transparency of the material, these walls are so strong that even in the 3/11 earthquakes they didn’t even budge. Inside they have diving shows a couple times a day, where a diver enters the tank to interact with the creatures and narrates for the audience. You can also watch them feed the sharks at one of the nearby tanks, or stare in wonder at the humorous sunfish bobbing around close by. Each enclosure is specially designed with the particular inhabitant’s needs in mind, such as transparent plastic curtains lining the inside of the sunfish tank so that they don’t injure themselves from bumping into the walls. Not to mention, sunfish food has to be specially prepared from a slurry of shrimp and other crustaceans, frozen into a tofu-like form, and cut into gelatinous slabs to mimic the jellyfish they normally eat.

Each section of the aquarium has different attractions, covering deep-sea dwelling fish such as the anglerfish, jellyfish, crabs, but especially sharks. Aquaworld has roughly 50 varieties of sharks, ranging from the large, vicious-looking giant sharks to the tiny bottom-feeders, one of the biggest collections in the world. There are even displays where you can touch the different kinds of shark eggs (after hatching of course); did you know some sharks lay eggs that look like giant screws? Another section is a veritable oceanic petting-zoo, where you can reach in and handle some shallow-dwelling creatures such as starfish, sea cucumbers, and, of course, even a tiny shark. Nearby they give short educational talks about various creatures, and there are hands-on displays such as different penguin calls and the bubble- net certain whales use to trap fish.

For those who prefer a bit more land-based fun there are penguins, puffins, and, for a limited time, capybara on display. Part of the habitat is outdoors overlooking the beautiful ocean coastline, and above is a café with a terrace so that you can enjoy a snack with your view. Nearby is a kids’ treehouse, so you can let the sprouts burn off some energy before moving on.

One important thing to mention is, nearly all of the creatures on display at Aquaworld are local. The original reason for putting an aquarium in Oarai, in addition to the beautiful scenery, was because it sits at the forks of the Nakagawa river and the Pacific ocean, a meeting place of warm and cold ocean currents and fresh and salt-water species. Aquaworld usually gets their specimens from local fishermen who bring them in when they find something unusual or interesting, but sometimes they will go out with the fishermen in search of something specific as well. This helps fulfill Aquaworld’s mandate to show the beauty of the surrounding area while educating people about it.

However, the most recent addition is the most exciting. As of this month Aquaworld has implemented a guidance system in 4 languages (Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese) that is accessible via the Nintendo DS. Upon entering the building you can choose to download the files, and each exhibit has a corresponding number that you enter to hear a short description in the language of your choice. For now you must bring your own (on the first day there was a man who had brought his son’s DS to use…but not his son!), but as of September 3rd they will be offered for rental within the building.

Due to time constraints my tour was a little rushed, but I am certain that this would have been a great way to spend the day if I’d had more time (and not been working). Whether you enjoy watching sharks devour small fish or the hypnotic movement of pilchard, whether you like to watch dolphins fly or handle starfish, there is something here for everyone, and now it’s accessible to many more. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it; if you’ve already been, bring your DS and enjoy the added dimension that the new guide gives you. Either way, this is a great way to enjoy a day at the beach without worrying about the weather.


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