Back in 2010, I made a pilgrimage to Shimane prefecture to visit the great Izumo Taisha. While planning that adventure, I found a reputable aquarium, just 1.5 hours by train from Izumo, in a little-known town called Hamada. Although I was interested in exploring a rural Japanese aquarium, the schedule was too tight in 2010, and I never made it to Hamada that year, and I though I never would.
However, in a strange twist of fate, I got a new job and was sent back to Shimane prefecture in a small town 1.5 hours from Hamada by car. I thought for sure I would check out the aquarium one weekend, but I didn’t have to. One day, in another stranger coincidence, my boss asked me to accompany a group of Junior High school students to AQUAS in Hamada as part of their school trip. The trip was scheduled for exactly three years from the day I first ventured to Shimane.
When I first set foot in this isolated and beautiful prefecture in 2010, I never imagined that I would be back and leading a group of local school children around an obscure aquarium. Whether it was my destiny or a happenstance, this trip gave me unprecedented access to the behind-the-scenes workings of an aquarium.
The first half hour was spent on a guided tour of the aquarium, from the inside out. Upon entering backstage, we walked sideways through the narrow pathways between glass tanks. This was where they kept the extra fish, the “understudies” as I like to think of them. When one fish becomes ill, it is taken to a different tank out of public view. While the veterinarian are tending to the sick fish, another healthy one is put in its place in the show aquarium. These tanks were Spartan, lacking all decorations they were purely for utilitarian purposes. I felt like I was walking through the live seafood section of a market.
When we emerged from the maze of glass tanks, we found ourselves in an open room with a giant pool. The pool held sharks, stink rays, and other large sea animals. Beside the pool hung an extensive display of wetsuits, including one made entirely on chainmail. This was they wetsuit that staff wore to feed the shark.
We were allowed to walk over a narrow wooden plank and look down into the pool from above. Below us was the gloriously blue lagoon. We could see the outlines of the sharks and stingray just below our feet. Above us with an intricate web of pipes connecting the pool, with the mysterious world beyond the ceiling.
The tour concluded in the food preparation room. Here, old women were gutting raw squids and fishes to be fed to the animals. The food is then frozen stored in a cooler.
After the behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium, we were allowed to wander the exhibit on our own. I got to see the fish and sharks perform in their staged tanks as they were meant to be viewed by visitors. I now appreciate aquariums much more now that I’ve had the chance to view the operation. For every tiny tank you see with one or two fish, there is another larger one behind it with many more fish, and a scary enablement of pipes connecting the tanks and the walls. When you are gazing through that little window into the fish’s life, you are only seeing a tiny part of it.
After viewing the fish tanks, I spent time observing the other animals in the aquarium. There was quite a large number of emperor penguins and seals, but the main attraction is the beluga whale, or “white dolphin,” as it is called in Japanese. AQUAS is the only aquarium in Japan with a beluga whale and they have regular showings each day.
Beluga whales are incredibly smart, and like dolphins, they can be trained to perform tricks. The beluga whale at AQUAS is famous for the “Bubble of Happiness,” which is the term they have made up to describe the beluga’s ability to blow bubbles in a ring shape out of his head. Yes, just like the smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland.
The show was curiously revealing of culture. For example, at the end of an animal show in America, they always make the animals wave goodbye to the audience, mimicking the American gesture of waving. In Japan, the belugas bow, mimicking the Japanese gesture of bowing. I found this to be an interesting display of culture.
After a long day at the aquarium, we took the kids to a nearby park and had a picnic. I took this time to escape for a little snooze on the hammock. The perfect end to a long day at work.