If you’re a huge animal lover like me, then you should enjoy this post. If animals aren’t at the top of your must-see lists when traveling, then just do me a favour and read on, and see if I can hopefully change your mind (by visiting Toba Aquarium).
Being a 90s kid I was big into animal movies (Free Willy, Andre, Homeward Bound etc. etc. – as most kids were) and not only did it end up making me study animal science at university but also fuelled my passion for animal adventures when traveling abroad. Living in working in Japan, there is an abundance of places to go, and lots of adorable animals to be encountered – most notably via aquariums. And yes I know aquariums usually get a bad rap, or have a reputation of being a little second-class compared to zoos, but every so often you can stumble upon one that really delivers – and one of those is Toba.
Japan has many aquariums (and I have been to most of them), and they all have a point of difference from one another but one of the best, in my opinion, is also one of the ones that is not visited by many foreign tourists (not a foreigner in site when I went) – and trust me you’re missing out! If you are visiting the Kansai region of Japan, then Toba Aquarium in Mie Prefecture is a definite must-see.
Originally opened in 1955, Toba Aquarium has amassed over 60 million visitors since opening – meaning you know it’s worth a look. One of the biggest point of differences for Toba is that not only is it one of the largest aquariums but it also boasts the most number of animals in Japan (30,000 aquatic animals from over 1200 different species). This aquatic animal home is not purely for entertainment and moneymaking – and most people are surprised to find out that Toba Aquarium is actually classified as a museum, serving up an adult education institution as well as continuous work in the protection and breeding of endangered sea creatures. So when you visit, you know that this is one animal based business that’s also doing some good in the world. Yay!
Enough of the conventional wisdom, let me give you a rundown of this amazing place. Toba Aquarium, may look small but in fact, is pretty big and you can spend a few good hours here exploring everything there is to see. The place is broken down into 12 different zones as you can see from the map below, courtesy of Toba Aquarium.
You can aww and ahh till your hearts content as you make your way through each area, but one of my favorite zones was Mermaid Sea, where you can get up close and personal with Serena the dugong; the only place in Japan where you can see these cute ocean mermaids.
As you can see in the map, there’s a Performance Stadium where you can watch seal shows, a Coral Reef section for coastal creatures as well as other themed zones such as Jungle World, Polar Sea, Marine Mammals and many more.
If you’re big into fish then you’ll enjoy the Sea of Ise-Shima area, where you can see marine life purely found in the waters around Japan. What’s not on the map is a new addition of ‘Weird Living Creatures’ that has the look and feel of a research laboratory, but houses a huge range of deep dark crawlies and strange sea creatures, which were honestly pretty cool. As with all exhibits and animal displays, all signage and animal descriptions are in both English and Japanese, so you don’t have to worry about a language barrier when you’re staring at something you don’t know.
Onto bigger and better things, personally I’m not a huge fan of animal shows, as I always feel like the animals are used for entertainment purposes and they should be treated more like actual wildlife. In saying that, Toba Aquarium has a range of feeding sessions and animal shows including sea lions, penguins, as well as the one I watched – walruses! The tanks these big guys are kept in are so small for their size, but my excitement at getting up close to these smelly sweethearts (they have really bad breath!) kind of won out in the end! Since reading the poem of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ in Alice in Wonderland as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by these ugly-cute creatures (to me, like pugs are to dogs, walruses are to ocean animals). During the walrus show, two of these fantastic flippered guys weighing roughly 900kg gracefully slide out into the middle of the Aqua Promenade and put on a hilarious show – making noises, blowing kisses, feigning different emotions etc. The best part about the performance is that it really is an ‘up close’ show where you can actually touch these beautiful beasts – an opportunity you don’t get living in Australia – and I was kind of surprised to find them feel a bit like welt felt or wet suede.
I could go on for days talking about all the incredible animals, but besides dugongs and walruses, you can see Commerson’s dolphins (aka panda dolphins) finless porpoises, otters and sea otters, a manatee, flamingos, alligators, endless fish, piranha and living fossils such a the nautilus and the Atlantic horseshoe crab.
A bit of nitty gritty information if you are going to visit (and I hope I have convinced you too!) there’s free Wi-Fi, two restaurants, three gift shops (where I bought too much cute shit I don’t really need) as well as Information Desk with a lot of English information and several guidebooks in different languages such as Chinese, Korean and Thai.
But here is my insiders tip of information – when you visit you can sign up for a free behind the scenes guided tour that shows you how much work goes into the aquarium and as well as providing you with other interesting facts you’d never know or things you’d never see (breeding animals for example). The tour is in Japanese, of course, but if you call ahead a day or two before like I did, the aquarium was kind enough to provide me an English-speaking chaperone (a lovely lady who works in the office department). Not only did she translate the whole tour but she also allowed me a one-on-one Q&A session with one of the marine keepers! Bloody ripper!
Trust me, Toba Aquarium is worth the visit, and when you make your way out to Mie there is an abundance of other amazing sites, shrines, temples and places to see! So my advice, set aside a weekend, or a few free days and include Mie in your Japan bucketlist!
General Aquarium Info
Toba Aquarium is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day and is a short 10 minute walk from Kintetsu/JR Toba Station. Easiest way from Osaka or Kyoto is by taking the Kintetsu Limited Express train (there’s a special Kintetsu Rail Pass available that you can use all over Kansai area which comes in handy). Or if you have an international license like me, then rent a car and you can find easy adjacent parking that’s not expensive.
Entrance fees will set you back ¥2500 for adults, ¥1250 for elementary and high school students, ¥630 for preschool students and kids under 3 years old are free.
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