Tokyo's Best Aquarium: Shinagawa Suizokukan
"The essential is to excite the spectators. If that means playing Hamlet on a flying trapeze or in an aquarium, you do it."
- Orson Welles
The underlying concept of aquariums and zoos is abhorrent to some; if you were to envisage the breadth of opinion as an ocean, then to the west, it oft crashes upon stony beaches, the roiling sea hurls waves against fearsome cliffs and the unprepared, ignorant swimmer is easily sucked beneath the briny surface. For these, the confinement and exhibition of animals in unnatural captivity is as bad as the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay packed up into a 19th century carnival and shown to a crazed public under the banner “Come see the Freaks”. However, to the east, opinion laps onto smooth sandy beaches populated by easygoing folk who toss coins into the clear waters and make quickly-forgotten wishes. For these, they provide one of the few ways that many will ever get to see some of the amazing and mysterious creatures that inhabit our planet and are a resource to both educate and enthuse the next generation. I would hazard that the majority of opinions probably lie somewhere between these two diametrically opposed views, but in Japan it is definitely in the eastern half.
Aquariums actually have quite a long history. In antiquity, the Romans had tanks made of marble with a single pane of glass on one side to more easily see the fish inside. In China, fish were kept in specialist porcelain tubs which resemble our more modern glass fish bowls in shape. In Japan, there are wood-block prints or Ukiyoe that depict ladies and gentlemen in the late 18th century, during the Edo period, looking into large wide wooden-sided buildings. The lower floors of these buildings are filled with fish swimming in shallow water over which attendants stand on planks tending to their charges.
The idea of an aquarium as a miniature balanced environment able to support both fauna and flora arose in England in the mid-19th century and after prominently featuring in the 1851 Great Exhibition, the craze truly began. London Zoo’s Fish House was the first public aquarium. The never-miss-a-trick businessman P.T.Barnum soon after established an aquarium in New York and from here the idea spread to Boston, Paris, Berlin and, in 1882, Tokyo. Japan’s first aquarium was part of Ueno Zoo.
Shinagawa aquarium was opened in 1991 and is situated in Kumin Park. It is a bit of a walk, about 8 minutes, from Omori Kaigan station on the Keihin Kyuko line, but it is signposted clearly enough to find without too much confusion. It has remained popular since it was established so, more often than not, you simply need to follow the groups of young Japanese families heading away from the station to get yourself on the right track.
Kumin Park is a worthwhile attraction in itself. Being a more modern construction, it was established in 1987, it has been landscaped with an eye to looking naturalistic so it nicely juxtaposes with the urban surroundings and the hard lines of the aquarium building. The park is quite large, covering an area of 31acres and about a kilometre in length.
As soon as you enter the park proper, you are immediately drawn to the large body of water at its heart. This lake is known as Katsushima-no Umi and is fed water from the Katsushima Canal of which it was once a part. The park is a great space to go for a pleasant stroll, have a picnic or do sports. There are even two swimming pools. It has been filled with an unusual selection of plants and trees and anyone with botanical leanings can find some very interesting specimens to appreciate. The aquarium sits upon the edge of the lake and its associated restaurant, Restaurant Dolphin, overlooks the lake.
The aquarium opens at 10am and closes at 5pm everyday. Last entry is at 4:30pm. Be careful as it is closed every Tuesday apart from Tuesdays during the spring, summer and winter school vacations. It is worth contacting the aquarium beforehand if you are intending to visit on a Tuesday during the holiday periods to see if it is open or not.
Like a majority of modern aquariums, Shinagawa aquarium or Suizokan is located near the sea, in this case Tokyo Bay. Saltwater aquariums require access to millions of litres of saltwater so the slightly out-of-the-way location of one of Tokyo’s main aquariums is as a result of this logistical necessity. So please think about this before you complain about the 8 minute walk from the train station.
The proximity to the sea also forms the theme for the aquarium: it focuses on the coastal interface between the freshwater rivers and estuaries that then stretches out into the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. The story, as it is told by the exhibits and tanks, begins with displaying the fish, other sea-life and flora that can be found where inland rivers flow out into the sea. These tanks have bits of quays and harbour-sides in them and are rather dynamic. It then moves onto the rocky coastlines and the beaches that surround the bay and the creatures that one encounters there before showing you the aquatic animals that are commonly found out to sea and in the shallower tidal basins. With the local story of the sea explored there is a change of pace and you will find yourself at the penguin enclosure. This is a slightly smaller area than I had expected, especially when compared to, say, the more modern penguin area at the aquarium at Sky Tree, but the birds seemed content and were in no way shy or uncomfortable. However, the seal enclosure is really well made. They have larger outside multilevel habitats linked together by broad clear pipes that the animals can swim up and down. The water in their enclosures swishes and splashes and was really engaging. The remainder of the upper floor then focuses on larger groups of fish that one encounters in the ocean but I imagine everyone will be quickly drawn to the dolphin and sea lion “stadium” nearby.
I think that the chance to see dolphins up close is the major draw for many people coming to this aquarium. Although for those of you who disagree with keeping such intelligent creatures in captivity and on top of that, performing for the crowds, this is likely the number one reason you would not come to this particular aquarium, or any like it.
The aquarium holds at least three Dolphin Shows a day. On weekdays there is one at 11am, 1:30pm and 3:30pm. At weekends they are at 10:45am, 13:30 and 15:30. These are really, really popular and it is well worth you getting a seat early for each of these. I would say at least 20 minutes before each starts. The dolphins are out in the pool before each show begins and frolic and play with anyone who comes to the glass. Each show is about 15 to 20 minutes. The dolphins are truly elegant and graceful creatures and seeing them in real life is a surprisingly moving experience. Simply seeing them on television in no way communicates the vibrancy and immediacy of their way of being. Obviously, the ideal would be to see them in their natural environment but that is far beyond the reach of the average income family.
The aquarium also has sea lion shows. During the week there is one at 2:30pm but at weekends there are two, on at 11:45am and the other at 2:30pm. Compared to the dolphins, the sea lion shows are a tad underwhelming. They perform tricks with balls and respond to commands which are likely to be entertaining for younger kids but will probably fail to inspire awe in their parents.
The lower floor has some of the more spectacular tanks. The underwater tunnel that goes through the main tank is particularly good, as are the larger tanks that contain turtles, sharks and a variety of eels and other exotic animals. The jellyfish tanks are also most striking. As you head out towards the end of the tour there is the obligatory “touching pool”. This one is filled with cleaner fish that nibble and tickle away at dead skin. Kids may be a little disappointed if they put their hands in here. They have nice fresh healthy skin so the cleaner fish will largely ignore them in lieu of adult hands that are far tastier.
Other highlights are the octopuses and underwater windows into the dolphin and seal areas. The tanks with the more exotic seawater and freshwater fish are also noteworthy.
Overall, if you do have an interest in the sea and its life and you are based in or near this area then there are certainly many worse ways to spend a day. With it being indoor consider visiting here as a back up if one of your day trips is weather-dependent. If you have kids and want a change of pace from visiting shrines, museums and the usual Japanese tourist spots then this may well fit the bill.
It costs 1350yen for adults and 600yen for kids so it is not an overly expensive day and so long as you know what to expect, and if you’ve read this far you ought to, then you will not be disappointed.
Website : http://www.aquarium.gr.jp/en/