Japan City Guides: Aqua World, Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture アクアワールド 茨城県 大洗 水族館
by Johannes Schonherr
Aqua World, also known as the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium (Ibaraki-ken Oarai Suizokukan), is situated in Oarai Town, south-east of Mito city and right at the mouth of the Naka River, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Opened in 2002 and seven floors tall, Aqua World houses a vast array of fish and other sea creatures of all sizes but it is probably best known in Japan for its dolphin shows.
The dolphin shows take place in a round building rising from the 4th floor deck of the aquarium complex. Centered on a large pool, all audience seats are directed towards the glass front windows right behind the pool, offering splendid ocean views. When entering for the shows, people intending to take front seats are offered plastic sheets - water will splash right into the audience area during the performances.
Under the incessant chatter of the dolphin trainers, the dolphin will swim a few calm rounds at the beginning of the show before being tasked to jump through rings, catch balls and balance them on their noses, jump high out of the water (yes, you need those plastic sheets to stay dry in the front seats). They jump out of the pool to receive the occasional reward of a fish, they jump right into the water again to continue to perform the many tricks they have been taught.
Another major attraction of Aqua World are the shark tanks. Huge, illuminated tanks house big sharks, creatures you would certainly want to stay far away from when on an ocean swim. Here, it's possible to pose with them for a photo, the sharks quietly floating by right behind the thick glass wall.
In fact, shark breeding is one of the major concerns of Aqua World - many varieties of shark are by now considered to be endangered in their natural habitat.
Some of the sharks share their pool with large manta - those manta look actually quite cute when they move up right behind the glass wall, displaying their underbelly. They seem to have smiling faces - to the untrained human eye, anyway. Out in the sea, they are hungry predators just as the less "cute" looking sharks populating the tanks.
The tank with the sunfish, mambo in Japanese (and sometimes called molas in English) is another popular gathering spot for visitors. Sunfish are large but their bodies stop right behind their dorsal and anal fin, thus giving them the look of being only "half a fish".
As strange as the sunfish might look, they are not the strangest sea animals on display at the aquarium by far. In fact, a lot of animals that may seem familiar from the fish market, like say, giant crab, look very different when you can observe them moving about in a setting somewhat resembling their original habitats on the ocean floor.
Jellyfish can take on very strange forms - and so do some of the creatures from the deep sea on display.
Very tiny but very cute are the clione, also known as sea angels. They live under the Hokkaido drift ice and they exactly look like floating little angels.
Feeding time is always a spectacle at Aqua World. The times are announced as special attractions and visitors can watch how young employees serve buckets of feed to their animals in charge. Unfortunately, they mostly dish out dead fish, so you won't see any thrilling chases of predators going after their prey.
Not announced are the cleaning times of the tanks though they tend to look quite interesting. Divers in full gear head into the tanks, doing their work right among all the sharks and manta swimming about.
On the 7th floor of Aqua World, an observation deck offers good views over the surrounding area. On very clear days, it's possible to spot Mount Fuji and the Tokyo Sky Tree in the far distance. But even on somewhat hazy days, the long, flat Ibaraki coastline and the impressive mouth of the Naka River are closely in sight. The Naka River mouth is always lined with anglers - there must be some tasty fish to catch.
Yamasa Fish Market
At the exit of Aqua World, you find not only gift and souvenir shops but also a sushi restaurant. If staring at all those fish in the tanks made you hungry, however, best head over the nearby Naka River bridge and check out the Yamasa Fish Market in neighboring Nakaminato (now part of Hitachinaka City).
The Yamasa Market is the most famous fish market in Ibaraki Prefecture, offering a very wide array of fish and seafood. Very popular are the large rock oysters sold at the market - ready for immediate consumption. A number of restaurants on the upper floors above the market serve sashimi and other fresh fish dishes.
Aqua World Access
Aqua World Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium
Oarai-machi, Higashi Ibaraki-gun
Tel: 029 267 5151
By train and bus from Tokyo
Limited Express Hitachi or Tokiwa (JR Joban Line) from Tokyo or Ueno stations to Mito Station (about 75 minutes). Change to the Ibaraki Kotsu bus straight to Oarai Suizokukan (Oarai Aquarium) or towards Nakaminato (via Oarai), get off at Oarai Suizokukan (40 minutes). The Japan Rail Pass can be used on the JR Joban Line.
Yamasa Fish Market Nakaminato
Daily from 7 am to 5 pm
Tel: 029 263 6333
Ibaraki Kotsu bus from the Aquarium to the Fish Market takes about 5 minutes.
Japanese-language website yamasa-suisan.com
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