Off the Beaten Path Tour: “Saitama Aquarium” of Freshwater Fish, Rare in Japan, too!
Japan is an island country surrounded by the sea. Naturally it has many aquariums, and Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Kaiyukan in Osaka, or Hakkeijima Sea Paradise in Yokohama are world famous. In recent years aquariums have been putting great effort into attracting viewers, and they offer shows with killer whales and dolphins, exhibit whale sharks as big as 5 m in giant tanks, or you can look up at fish swimming through a tunnel-shaped tank. Aquariums are very popular sightseeing spots for dates and family outings.
The aquarium we are introducing this time is located in Saitama Prefecture, a prefecture in Japan but completely surrounded by land. Saitama Prefecture, however, has Japan’s longest river Tonegawa River and many swamps instead of the sea. The aquarium displays freshwater fish that inhabit there. Please enjoy a freshwater aquarium that is unusual even in Japan.
Currently Display Is Reduced
First of all I must tell you that the main building has been closed due to an unfortunate fire incident that apparently happened in July 2016. As a result we can only see outdoor displays and small event exhibitions.
But because the displays are scaled down only to the outdoor part, the admission is only 100 yen for adults, and it’s a bargain.
When the main building is open, you can see freshwater fish that live in marsh land or rivers, such as eels, trout, rice fish, diving beetles, crucian carp, or touch frogs and river shrimps.
Carp with a Surprisingly Powerful Presence
Well, what can we see by paying 100 yen? It is mostly carp. The aquarium has several large ponds outdoors, and some of their walls are made of glass to let viewers look into the pond. Many beautiful carp are swimming around, their bodies being from 80 cm to 120 cm, their colors in gold, red and white or grey.
Carp can be roughly divided into two groups, one is to eat and the other to view. I am sure many people know about nishikigoi, the leading variety of ornamental carp, even outside of Japan. Every year a competition is held in Niigata Prefecture and those koi which are considered good in its size and patterns are traded at very expensive prices.
You can feed the carp in Saitama Aquarium at 50 yen per serving of feed. Because carp have been always getting food from tourists, when you merely step closer to the tank, many of them gather closer, appealing “Gimme food!” They are full of energy and splash up the water.
Nishikigoi and the Undiscovered Scenic Town of Koi
A Shark in Fresh Water!?
When you look around the garden closely, there are not only carp but you see a shark swimming in the adjacent pond. This shark in Saitama Aquarium is a sturgeon, the famous fish that produces caviar.
I was surprised to learn some sharks live in fresh water, as I had had the impression that sharks live only in the sea. My own image of sharks was violent and scary, formed by movies such as “Jaws”, “Deep Blue Sea”, or Bruce, Anchor and Chum of “Finding Nemo”.
Generally speaking sharks are cartilaginous fish, but sturgeons are classified as teleost fish with hard-boned skeletons. Though sturgeons are called sharks in Japanese, they are actually not sharks and they can apparently live in fresh water.
Compared to the flashy carp in the next pond, they appeared modest at a glance. But this is actually an ancient fish that has existed since 300 million years ago. Looking at its graceful figure to swim around slowly, I felt a deep feeling of fascination welling up.
“Biodiversity in World’s Fresh Water”, Special Exhibition for Limited Period
Currently the aquarium is displaying creatures that inhabit fresh water around the world, and they include yamame trout in Japan’s rivers, eels, crayfish, turtles, axolotls and their babies.
The exhibition also includes a report on “destruction in natural world” featuring current problems in Japan that invasion of prolific foreign species have been eroding biodiversity in the ecosystem structured by creatures of Japanese origin. There are also recipes of foreign freshwater fish and associated food cultures on display.
The Biggest Feature Is the Least Glamorous
Saitama Aquarium is a freshwater aquarium, and its centerpiece is protection, management and exhibition of “mujinamo (waterwheel plant)”, a Natural Monument of Japan.
“Mujinamo” is an insectivorous underwater plant, and while it eats insects, it doesn’t move around as it is a plant. All you can do is watch aquatic plants in a tank, and it is so lackluster that it might bore you.
However, on the opposite side there is a souvenir shop that will cheer you up. There are fluffy plush dolls of marine creatures, very elaborately made models of fish, dishes, toys and many others. Please don’t forget to check it out.
Enjoy Nature Leisurely at Hanyu-Suigo-Koen Park
There is a large park called “Hanyu-suigo-koen” around Saitama Aquarium. This area used to be marsh land a long time ago, and you can enjoy a slow stroll going around swamps or piers jutting over ponds. You can see ducks, egrets and kingfishes on the shore, and an ancient tree of metasequoia as tall as 30 m high. You cannot easily find such a sight in Tokyo.
In the large space provided in the park, you can enjoy nature season to season, cherry blossoms in the spring, barbeques in the summer, autumnal foliage and illuminations in the winter.
Saitama Prefecture may seem like a modest prefecture, but it has great accessibility, surrounded by the large metropolis of Tokyo full of state-of-the-art entertainments, Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures with leading onsen hot spring towns in Japan.
Some of you might feel that prices are high in famous sightseeing destinations and they are too crowded with many people. Then I would like to recommend a trip to places like Saitama Prefecture by going away a short distance from the metropolis and enjoy the countryside of Japan.
Saitama Aquarium we introduced this time is rarely included in typical travel guides as a sightseeing destination. But its surrounding area has delicious local sake and local beers, traditional indigo-dyeing crafts, natural onsen hot spring facilities, and a large shopping mall, too. If you would like to spend relaxing time on the road, this aquarium is just perfect for you.
Open: 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM
Closed on Mondays
General Admission: Adults 310 yen, Children 100 yen (Adults 100 yen, Children 80 yen until the main building reopens.)
Address: 751-1 Mitakaya, Hanyu City, Saitama Prefecture
By Car: Drive 3 km towards Kurihashi from Hanyu IC on the Tohoku Expressway.
By Train: 7 km (15 minutes by taxi) from either Hanyu or Kazo Station on the Tobu Isesaki Line