It’s well known that the Japanese like a good dose of sea-creatures served up on their dinner plates every week, but in Japan, the love of fish extends far beyond the dining table. Across the country there are good quality aquariums where you can catch a glimpse of various types of sea life. While many of these aquariums are in and around Tokyo, there are several aquariums down in Kyushu, and one of the most famous southern aquariums is IOWORLD – the Kagoshima City Aquarium.
Opened in 1997, the aquarium was famously visited by the Emperor and Empress of Japan in 2003, and then by Prince and Princess Hitachi in 2007. In 2011, the 10 millionth visitor walked through the doors, clearly showing how popular the attraction is. The aquarium is bound to be busy on any day of the week, but especially on weekends and holiday times. Luckily the queues tend to move quite quickly thanks to the automatic ticketing machines as well as the service counters, but nonetheless you should arrive early to avoid disappointment.
Spread over several floors, there is much to see and do at the aquarium. On arrival, you will cross over the Dolphin Waterway (outside of the main aquarium building) where dolphins can be seen performing tricks. If dolphins are your favourite exhibit, be sure to check out the Dolphin and Seal Hall where a twenty-minute performance takes place several times a day. Seats fill up quickly and the hall is often packed, so get there early if you really want to see it. If you’re not too bothered to see the whole show, it’s nice enough to stand outdoors and watch the dolphins playing in the channel there.
On the first floor you can find the outdoor ‘touch pool’ where you can get a hands-on experience with sea urchins, starfish and sea cucumbers. Despite several signs around the pool warning visitors not to lift the creatures out of the water or be rough with them, don’t be surprised if you see some little toe-rag flinging the poor creatures across the pool to his mate. Children should not be left unaccompanied in this area.
Following the usual visitor course up to the second floor, you will first encounter the Kuroshio Great Water Tank, which features many of the biggest exhibits in the aquarium, including tuna, ray, bonito and a white shark. Good luck trying to get a decent photograph – this is the most popular tank and there is always a fine crowd blocking your view. Also on the second floor is the Sea of Nansei Islands exhibit, where you can pass through the underwater tunnel and see a coral reef display. For the scientifically minded, the Aqua Lab is worth a visit.
Next up on the visitor’s course takes you to the fourth floor (a two-floor escalator with a hilariously terrible quality projection on the opposite wall to keep you entertained on the journey up) which is known as the Sea of Kagoshima area. This section is particularly interesting as it showcases sea life from the local area.
The fifth floor is of limited interest – aside from the Vending Machine Cafe area and a decent view across the bay to Sakura-Jima, the only thing of interest is the complete skeleton of the Longman’s Beaked Whale – the first aquarium where such a skeleton was exhibited in the world. However, if you need a rest then its the perfect place to sit down for a while and relax with a great view in front of you.
The 3rd floor is conquered on the way back down – this is the special exhibition floor which also has a tank of ethereally glowing jelly fish. The circular tank with the jellyfish swirling round and round looks a bit like an aquatic hamster wheel. At the time of our visit, the special exhibition consisted mainly of shiny, sticky frogs, who were so still and unmoving that we thought they were fake. On your way to the exit, check out the Discovery Room on the first floor and the Pirarucu Tank, showing the world’s largest freshwater fish.
As well as all the exhibits, there is a spacious restaurant on the second floor and a large gift shop area on the first floor to buy some souvenirs at, such as stuffed toys, stationery items, jewelry and other toys. Daily events include the dolphin performance, seal feeding, electric eel feeding, pirarucu feeding, a guided tour, whale shark feeding, an informative talk in the aqua lab, and the outdoor dolphin training.
As is usually the case, entry to the aquarium is a little pricey at 1,500 Yen per person (750 Yen for students, 350 Yen for infants and reduced prices for groups of 20+). However, if you live in the area and see yourself visiting the aquarium often, an Annual Passport would be a great idea. The cost of the Annual Passport of equivalent to two visits, so if you visit the aquarium more than twice in one year, you’ll be saving money. Not only does the annual passport cheapen your visit, but you get a 5% discount in the gift shop and you can get a free soft drink when you order a meal at the restaurant. This is a particularly good idea for families who want to visit often, and especially given that a family discount applies if more than one annual passport is bought at the same time.
I’ll be honest – the Kagoshima Aquarium is not the best aquarium in the world. It’s not even the best in Japan. Indeed, it doesn’t even feature in the TripAdvisor’s list of the Top 10 Aquariums in Japan. However, as a fish enthusiast I greatly enjoyed my visit to the aquarium and I can see why it’s so popular. Right next to the ocean, it seems you could hardly have a better place to build a marine attraction. There is enough at the attraction to keep the kids entertained for an hour or so, and if aquariums are your thing then the annual pass is certainly worth considering for the frequent visitor. If you can time your visit to end around sunset, you’ll be treated to watching the sun go down with a backdrop of Sakura-Jima spewing ash into the dimming evening sky.