“I am like the fish in the aquarium, thinking in a different language, adapting to a life that’s not my natural habitat.” -David Levithan
Many cities have a Chinatown. You find them all over the place; in America, in Europe and also here in Japan. One of the most well known on this side of the Pacific is found in Yokohama City. It is world-renowned for the Chinese New Year’s celebrations and festivities that are held here every year. The displays by acrobats, dancers and other assorted performers is really worth seeing if you happen to be nearby during Chinese New Year. The local parade held at the same time is equally eye-popping. However, this article is not going to talk about these, rather I want to bring under the microscope something that is open year-round: a little aquarium that is tucked away in one of the corners of Chinatown; the Yokohama Omoshiroi Suizokukan. This place has a unique interpretation of what an aquarium is really all about and if you are looking for something a little different then this might be up your alley.
Why Go Here?
Kanto, the region in which Tokyo lies, is blessed with some fantastic aquariums in some really good locations. Most can boast huge tanks, underwater viewing platforms and tunnels that allow you to really feel like you are in the water with the fish. They usually have the exotic, the cute, the terrifying and so on and so on. In contrast, Yokohama’s “Interesting” Aquarium or the Yokohama Omoshiroi Suizokukan (in Japanese) is not like these at all. It has none of the jaw-dropping extravagance that these big institutions have access to. Instead, it’s a little slice of weird and could be described as a bit of a dinosaur compared to its lickety-split cousins; it is like tourist attractions used to be for our parents and grandparents. But don’t let that switch you off as the experience it offers is actually quite compelling as a result of this novelty factor. If you come here expecting to see earth-shattering spectacles then you will be disappointed. However, if you are open minded enough to enjoy a touch of earthy kitsch then this is probably a great place to pop along to.
The actual idea behind this aquarium was to gear it towards children and it is certainly pitched at this level, but its execution has such a quirky Chinese do-it-yourself twist to it that adults can get a great deal of enjoyment from it too.
Getting There and Getting In
As mentioned, the aquarium is located in Chinatown, Yokohama. There are two train stations which are pretty much equidistant from the aquarium. One is a JR station called Ishikawacho Station which is served by the Negishi line that runs from Yokohama to Omiya. You leave this station by the north exit and it is only a 5 minute walk north to your destination. The second station is an underground station that opened in 2004. This is the Motomachi-Chukagai Station on the Minatomirai line. Chukagai means Chinatown in Japanese by the way. From here you leave by exit 2 and it is about a 5 minute walk south to the aquarium. Either way, both lead you into Chinatown.
The actual aquarium is located in a building called the Chinese Square just off the main street of Chinatown, called Chukagai Odori, quite close to main gate in the restaurant district. This building is on one of the side-streets but clearly labelled in English so keep your eyes peeled. The Aquarium is on the third floor and there are elevators that take you straight to the entrance. The first two floors are occupied by the famous 100 yen shop, Daiso which seems to sell everything and if you’ve never been in one then they’re definitely worth having a look around.
The aquarium is open from 11 AM until 8 PM on weekdays and from 10 AM until 8 PM on the weekend and holidays. It costs ¥1400 for adults and children from the age of 13 upwards, but only ¥1000 if you are over 65. For younger children it costs ¥700.
What Do You Get to See
Well, obviously with this being an aquarium you get to see a lot of fish in tanks swimming around. Most aquariums try their hardest to replicate the natural environment that the fish would originally have swum around in. However, where is the fun in that when you can fill the tank with a plethora of assorted odds and ends? They have tanks in which toy trucks and sunken boats are artfully placed for their aquatic occupants to interact with. You can find themed tanks where underwater parties in miniature are laid out with shy toy guests for the real fish to flit between. One tank has a pretty eye-catching Chinese Temple, flanked by coral and illuminated from behind for the fishy visitors to dart around. One of the eel tanks has wiggly houses in it (that would not be out of place in a Tim Burton movie) for the wriggly eels to squeeze in and out of. You can find garden pots in other tanks and one even has a full diorama of a school, at sunset, surrounded by plants and a stone wall for the oblivious fish to traipse around. All in all it’s just on the good side of weird.
The weirdness does not stop with the unusualness of the things decorating the inside of the fish tanks. They have feeding times at 1 PM, 3 PM and again at 5 PM where, obviously, they do actually feed the fish, but the process has been turned into mini-performances. You can get to see fish go up to a fake microphone and sing for their supper, fake fish are fed alongside real fish and the onlookers get to say who is real and who isn’t and so forth. Like I said, it is kind of quirky.
They actually have a good selection of species. They boast at having over 300 types of sea animals and over 5000 individual specimens. You can see turtles, octopuses, starfish, eels, exotic fish, tropical fish, jellyfish, crabs, lobsters, plankton and more common varieties of fish. One thing that they make a big deal of, and was really cool to see, were the giant white isopods (or pill bugs as they are also known as) that they have by the bucket load. If you are not familiar with these, they look like giant albino woodlice that crawl over the deep, cold sea beds of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. They look like something from Earth’s distant past or even an alien species. These are one of a small selection of sea life that you can pet. They also have large starfish, friendly turtles and tiny crabs that you can directly interact with.
I now want to turn our attention to the general layout of the aquarium before turning our attention to the baby zone that is the last part of this article. There is the main winding corridor that leads you past most of the exhibits that we have thus far talked about. There are a couple of side corridors for plankton and jellyfish (the latter of which has some good specimens) so be sure not to miss these out. Following this leads you to the obligatory gift shop and a small food and refreshment sitting area. The gift shop has the usual toys and mementos but a great deal of space is given over to isopod themed souvenirs from build-it-yourself robot versions to giant cuddly toys. They even have isopod flavoured crackers if you dare brave them. The exhibits do not actually end here, as off to the right of the shop is the baby zone or akachan zone in Japanese.
The akachan zone is on a raised floor and you need to take your shoes off before entering this area. The toilets are also located here. This area is specifically geared towards babies and toddlers and there are climbing frames into which fish tanks have been set, a slide with a built-in fish tank full of fish that can gawp at you as you play and numerous little ladders that lead to tiny tanks. This area is not only for little ones but it is also populated by little ones. You get to see fish eggs, baby fish and young turtles. If you are a parent this is a great way to finish your visit as you have a rest and let your little angel(s) roam and play in safety and really get to do some hands on learning through play. They do play a sea shanty ad infinitum here as background music so if this is something that may irritate you it may be worth bringing some headphones but it suits the area.
Overall, if happens to be in Yokohama and especially if you have young children, I would say that you can do a lot worse than giving this little gem a try. It’s so kitsch it’s good!