Archive

Aquarium

I’m back!

Not from Tokyo, I’ve been back from there for aaages. No, I mean the summer has ended and I am back at work and thus regular blogging service can resume.

As promised here is a tale of my travels in Tokyo.

Tokyo Day 1

Fewer worse starts to a trip I can conceive of.

As I explained previously, I had opted not to take the Shinkansen, the lightning fast bullet train and symbol of Japan, to Tokyo but rather a bus.

My wonderful girlfriend Fran had made the bookings and all the arrangements. We were to catch the bus at 9.30 in an easy to find location in Sannomiya. I was packed and ready to go by about 11 in the morning and I was very, very excited.

And so, we boarded the subway to Sannomiya and emerged at Sannomiya subway station with about 30 minutes to make a 5 minute journey.

Whereupon I realised that I had left my luggage on the train and it was now speeding its way underneath the mountain.

A despair the likes of which I have never known before descended upon me. I was not going to get my bag back, I would be unable to go to Tokyo, my entire holiday that I had been eagerly awaiting was ruined, Fran’s too as she would have to spend 5 days alone in Tokyo or else not go either. I had in a single moment of stupidity ruined months of planning and anticipation.

God bless Fran then for being eminently practical and sorting the whole thing out. Whilst she tried to stall the driver I waited in the tunnel trying to spot my bag on a returning train. When delaying tactics could no more work I went to Lost Property who located my bad in Tarumi, at the opposite end of the tunnel. As I sped forth to Tarumi (at this state just relieved to have potentially gotten my stuff back) she arranged for the driver to pick me up at one his scheduled stops….in Kyoto.

Long story short I got my bag in Tarumi, came back to Sannomiya, got the fastest non-shinkansen train to Kyoto and arrived to find myself lost and unable to locate the south side of the station where I was to meet the bus.

This was because the south side of the station was inexplicably labelled as the West Exit. Why on earth someone should want to call a south facing exit a west exit was immediately obvious to me. It was to confuse me and make me late for the bus and ruin my life. Fortunately the bus was so hideously held up in traffic that my compass based confusion mattered little and I eventually found the bus and settled into the embrace of not quite sleep but decidedly not awakeness that is the best I can manage when I am called upon to sleep upright in a chair.

So yeah. A plan which initially consisted of get subway to bus, get bus to Tokyo. Became, get subway to bus in Sannomiya to leave Fran, then subway to Tarumi, then subway back to Sannomiya, then JR Rapid to Kyoto to meet bus and Fran. There are decidedly less stressful ways to travel.

I would also like to take this moment to profusely thank the lost property service in Japan. They were excellent. They took a detailed description of my item down to the time when the train arrived at Sannomiya. Cross referenced this with a schedule to work out stations it could possibly be at and did all the necessary detective work to find it almost immediately. What’s more they did it with courtesy and politeness despite the sight I must have presented. A near hysterical shrieking gaijin trying to answer questions when he only understands half of them. It is just one more example of how patient and generous the Japanese people are and how all-round excellent the service is here.

I was also very, very happy that my bag wasn’t stolen. It almost certainly would have been in Britain.

Once I got on the bus though it wasn’t a bad way to travel. The seats were surprisingly spacious and comfortable for a long distance coach. There were absolutely no lights and a total silence policy. The only acceptable forms of entertainment were sleeping, listening to one’s i-pod veeery quietly or, in my case, discretely playing gameboy until my eyes hurt and I reluctantly attempted to nod off.

Despite not actually sleeping and being woken from my doze at periodic intervals to wander bleary eyed into a service station to pee (long distance coach with no toilet, an epic design flaw if you ask me) I was actually completely refreshed and wide awake when we finally arrived in Tokyo for….

Tokyo Day 2

Alas the reason I may have been so fresh and relaxed is that I had spent 3 more hours dozing on the bus than advertised. We were meant to arrived at 7 o’clock in the morning, however, partly due to bad traffic in Tokyo and partly due to my antics *cough* we actually arrived well after 10 o’clock. This had entirely thrown our plans into the air so Fran and I dumped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and set off in pursuit of any form of sustenance we felt our stomachs could handle. We plumped for gourmet hot dogs in Ginza and very nice they were too.

With a couple of hours of time to kill before check in we wandered around the Ginza (the guidebook always mysteriously referred to it with the definite article). I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t that impressed. Considering it represents some of the most expensive real estate on Earth and has more money passing through it in one day than say, Jamaica has seen in its entire existence it was singularly unspectacular. Sure the buildings were nice, tall things with lots of glass and polished marble and lovely art deco architecture, but they reminded me of nothing so much as the financial district in Leeds. Ginza was nicer but considering the difference in economic status Ginza should have been on an entirely different planet in opulence terms.

It was also punishingly hot and not especially attractive from a pedestrian viewpoint so at the first opportunity Fran and I ducked into the enormous Sony Building.

The most attention grabbing thing about the Sony Building was the small aquarium just outside it. Aquariums are not typical street furniture and so this one had drawn quite a crowd of gawpers, all gasping at the pretty fish. I am entirely unashamed to say I was one of the gawpers. I have a curious love of aquariums and can happily spend hours looking at pretty fish swimming about. In particular I was quite pleased with a pair of fantastically ugly conger eels, both of which I had initially taken to be rocks until they unexpectedly moved, scaring me and most of the other gawpers.

Apparently the theme of the building this month was “Sony Aquarium” so all the technology demonstrations were somehow themed around tropical fish. The biggest attraction was a series of enormous screens filed with multi-coloured cartoon baby turtles swimming around merrily. A smiling woman offered Fran the chance to make her own baby turtle and being a girl, and thus being capable of finding anything with the word baby in it to be automatically cute, she accepted. Fran created a tiny purple and tan turtle named Squishy that said “wai!” We watched him swimming merrily along for about 5 minutes and then watched him for 25 minutes more whilst we waited for the computer to randomly select him to say “wai!” Which he did, which made Fran happy, which made me happy.

I also had a good luck at the high definition televisions all showing underwater footage. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Sony makes some bloody good televisions. Don’t tell anybody but I think this hi-def thing might just catch on as well. The footage was stunningly gorgeous. It was absolutely captivating. In fact it wasn’t so much the footage itself as the sense that none of us there had seen something quite so real looking before. Hi-def looks more real than reality itself, it’s twice as sharp and infinitely better lit than anything you’ve ever seen before. It actually has the unsettling effect of making everything else for the next half hour look disappointingly crap. You have to strongly resist the urge to try and turn the contrast up on the faces of loved ones.

Up on the 8th floor the guidebook promised free VR games. Although VR is crap I was not going to pass up the chance to have a go for free. Sadly these seem to have been replaced and what we saw was a hi-def 3D film about fish. Quite a nice hi-def 3D film about fish though.

The final bit of technology that stuck with me was this thing.

If I recall correctly it was called a rolly or something similar. It is basically a speaker that dances to MP3’s that it plays. Since the actions synch to the music and since it avoids rolling off the table it must be a sophisticated bit of kit but it is fundamentally pointless. All this technology for no purpose.

I want one. No, I do. Fran and I watched it do about 3 songs utterly entranced by it. And don’t lie, you want one too.

We followed up Ginza by retrieving our bags and making our way to the hotel in Ueno. Despite arriving a good half hour after check-in time the hotel informed us that we wouldn’t be able to use our rooms for another hour. By this stage I was hot, very, very sweaty and unwashed for about a 36 hour period. This was not news I wanted to hear. I resisted the urge to make a scene though because the staff were so lovely and because, well, what would it accomplish really. Still Fran and I weren’t up for much more than drinking cool drinks in an air conditioned café until we were allowed to shower.

The hotel was distinctly unremarkable, although like all Japanese hotels it did come with a free Yukata and slippers.

Refreshed from our showers we headed to Ueno-koen, the largest park in Tokyo and apparently a very popular one. Ueno-koen is filled with museums and we were headed out to see the National Museum, apparently the only one worth visiting.

The National Museum was excellent and well worth a visit. We only had enough time to attend one of the 4 halls that comprise the museum but this one hall was an astounding visit on its own. This hall comprised an overview and sampling of all the major arts in Japan; from Buddhist sculpture to kimono patterns to stark ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

I was especially pleased with the ink paintings. I’m always impressed with the suggestive power of ink works, how with only two colours and a few stark lines an artist can evoke something much greater. Fran found them cold and harsh but I consider them to be remarkably powerful. I’m not usually one for fine art (I prefer sequential art) but I can happily admire Japanese ink works for hours. The Buddhist sculpture selection was also really informative if a bit lacking in actual works. Fran preferred the softer ukiyo-e prints and the kimonos. However, both of us enjoyed the museum overall and I strongly recommend it. It’s definitely geared towards those like me who no nothing about art and is very helpful in its contextual information and its explanation of artistic devices.

Finishing up at the museum we hit up a restaurant Ueno is very famous for ……. which specializes in unagi, or eel.

Eel is very popular in Japan during the summer as it is said to help provide stamina to cope with hot days. During summer months it is absolutely everywhere, from street vendors to school lunches. I like eel but I don’t eat it very often because it’s kind of pricy and usually pretty underwhelming but I was eager to try it prepared by the experts. I was not disappointed. Fran ordered the basic eel bento and I ordered a set that came with what I had assumed to be soup but was actually some kind of eggy dipping sauce. After some brief experimentation with the sauce I set it one side and focused on my unagi. It was delicious, tender, delicate, sweet but not too sweet and with a really rich flavour to it as well. Happily stuffed full of unagi we retreated to our hotel for an early night and to watch the Olympic opening ceremony.

We needed that early night, as tomorrow we were headed to Tsukiji.

Well sorry everybody for the state of last week’s blog. As I write this I am sick as a dog and only really just got out of bed but here is the entire epic post that I complete last week with all the videos and photos attached.

What follows is all from last week.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

For everybody that was on the edge of their seat my last minute rushed class actually worked out okay. In fact it’s probably one of my more successful classes to date in terms of keeping the kids attention (I question its educational merit but the JTE came up with it and she knows more than I do). It was a bit of mess today though. Between a visit from the local elementary school and the fact that it was snowing it was virtually impossible to get the kids to focus on anything.

Oh until I showed a picture of my friends and they all asked me if the girl in the picture was my girlfriend. Despite the fact that they’ve:
a) seen a photo of my girlfriend
and
b) know that my girlfriend is half-Japanese

One bonus of the elementary school visit was that a boy I got to talk to a boy I see everyday on my way to work and who says hello to me everyday.

Anyway enough work natter lets move onto

EXCITING THINGS 4: OSAKA AQUARIUM

Osaka Aquarium is one of the best aquariums I have ever been to. Not the best, that’s Seaworld, but Seaworld is more a sort of amusement park. It has rides and shows and that’s what puts it over the edge. In terms of simply having really cool fish to look at Osaka Aquarium edges out. I mean it has a whale shark for god’s sake, A WHALE SHARK. THE BIGGEST FISH IN THE WORLD!

I had wanted to see the whale shark for some time now but what actually prompted me to seek out the Aquarium was a mission I was sent on by one of my Nakayoshi kids. Sannai is obsessed with penguins and she’s autistic so she can get properly obsessed with things. People might joke about being obsessed but Sannai really does border on it. She has a stuffed penguin pokemon doll that she has in class with her everyday and she involves it in nearly every activity, if she so much as hears the letter p she yells penguin, basically she really likes penguins.

Incidentally she’s really, really good at cards. We’ve been learning the alphabet recently and playing matching games to practise the lower and upper case versions of letters. You know the game where you have a load of cards face down and have to pair them up? She beats me every time. I used to let her win but now she beats me even if I’m trying. It really is like Rain Man.

The link between penguins and aquariums is of course that Osaka aquarium has penguins. More than that though, for a limited period they have a “penguin parade”. Sannai had seen the flyer for this and really wanted to go but her mother was too busy to take her. Well being something of a penguin fan myself I resolved to go and take as many photos and as much penguin video as I could.

Taking my travelling crew of Ryan and Patrick with me we set off bright and early and got to Osaka around lunchtime. On our way to the aquarium we got stopped by some kids who started speaking to us in English. After a brief and awkward chat (an occupational hazard I’m afraid) one of them randomly shouted Fantastic Four at us. Ryan pointed out that there were only three of us and I corrected him that this was because the fourth member, the invisible woman, was invisible of course.

Before we got to the aquarium we stopped for lunch in some strange marketplace that was made out to look like Japan in the 30’s or 40’s. Complete with old film posters and old cigarette packets. It was really quite cool and completely unexpected. Had we not been on a mission we could have easily spent hours wandering around there. As it was we had a quick lunch of ebi tempura and soba (prawns fried in batter and noodles) and headed on our way.

The penguin parade wasn’t due to start in about half an hour leaving us in the awkward spot of not being able to do anything but having to wait. Fortunately the aquarium had laid on some street performers to keep the waiting kids entertained. The guy we watched had a signature act consisting of giving a rubiks cube to the audience to randomly scramble up then finishing it in less than 30 seconds. Impressive but odd. Then he put a rubber glove on his face and blew it up…….only in Japan.

However, not long did we have to wait for soon the penguin parade began and luckily for you I have videos of such a magnificent spectacle.

Yup, it was completely naff.

Basically the guards put out some crowd barriers between two pens creating a walkway and then chased the penguins down it. As Patrick said, “it was less the march of the penguins and more the leisurely jog of the penguins.”

Still naffness aside we still got to see some penguins and Sannai was delighted when she saw the video.

Most rewarding part of this job? Seeing kids when they’re happy.

Penguins dispensed with we headed onto the aquarium proper which was significantly less naff. Our first amazing sight was this replica of a fossilized Giant Sea Turtle shell. This thing was HUGE! Ryan said it reminded him of Gamera and I had to agree.

This is Gamera.

Gamera is a Kaiju. Literally a Sea Monster but more truthfully a film genre in which blokes in rubber monster suits hit other blokes in rubber monster suits while a really tedious/mad human story happens in the background. Godzilla would be the Kaiju most people are familiar with but Gamera has the distinct advantage of “being friend to all children.”

No really, that’s his catchphrase. Giant fire breathing sea turtle monster thing, friend to all children. In Japan that makes perfect sense.

I am quite a fan of Kaiju films and weirdly myself and Ryan had watched one the night before that unbeknownst to us was set in an aquarium. Ironically though it was sea world (and at not point in the film did they explain why the last defence of the planet earth was being co-ordinated from seaworld.)
After a fairly dull “Japanese Forest” exhibit we moved on to the cool stuff. Sea Otters!

Look at ‘em go. Pay special attention to the little girl in the tank with them. This was feeding time and along with the 2 members of staff they had clearly got some little girl to volunteer to help them. The problem being that the little girl was absolutely terrified. She was too scared to even cry. She was just frozen to the spot staring at these enormous monsters within inches of her. Although as Ryan quite correctly pointed out they are about 3 times the size of her. I know I’d be shit scared of an otter 3 times the size of me.

A sloth, living up to the stereotype.

I have decided that Porcupine fish are very cute. Look at his face, he’s smiling. Awww who’s a cute widdle smiley fish, you are, you are.

An absolutely demonic looking crocodile.

The single ugliest living creature I have ever seen. It’s either some kind of turtle or a genetic experiment.

Rockhopper penguins. Made all the funnier by the description on the website.

“King penguins, gentoo penguins and rockhopper penguins are displayed in KAIYUKAN. You can easily distinguish their differences by their figures, as well as their feet colors. King penguins have black feet while gentoo penguins have yellow feet and rockhopper penguins’ feet are pink.
Their characters are also different. King penguins and gentoo penguins have rather mild characters. On the other hand, rockhopper penguins show an aggressive nature, featuring red eyes and decorative yellow feathers. Being fond of fights, they may tend to fight even with human beings. So, watch out not to fight with them.
Penguins are monogamists. Like human beings, they select their own partners. They sometimes divorce or get remarried.”

The fighting with humans thing is true by the way. When we were watching a woman came in to take the temperature of the water. The penguins clearly thought this was feeding time and wandered over to her. All the swimming penguins leapt out of the water and landed on the ice. However one leaping penguin smacked her right in the shoulder and knocked her back. She did not look best pleased.

The fluffy penguin is an adolescent before his feathers have moulted. So he’s big AND fluffy.

Nemo.

Patrick should have a career narrating nature documentaries. Here he proceeds to make stuff up on the cuff for ages about some phenomenally big and ugly fish. Ryan believes everything he says.

Okay this was more than a bit freaky. When we came to this tank the fish were swimming against the current. What this looked like though was loads of perfectly still fish all looking in the same direction. Now that is creepy.

Especially when we saw that they were all looking at one fish pointed in a different direction. Was he making some kind of a speech? What are the fish planning!?

It was of course at this point that my camera’s battery gave out like the useless piece of crap it is. So from here on out we’re camera phone only. Sorry folks.


This is a Sunfish and its one of the strangest fish I’ve ever seen. It looks like most of it is missing. Also the museum guide for it is hysterical.

“The popularity of ocean sunfish is as high as the whale shark. Visitors love its innocent charming expressions. At the time of feeding, it rushes to the feeder keeping its mouth small and round eyes wide open.
He skillfully eats a mixture of ground shrimps and squids in small bite sizes. When the feeding time is over, it looks disappointed.”

I think in this photo we really captured his disappointment.

Ryan also looks disappointed when feeding time is over.

This Manta Ray was huge! From tip to tip he easily cleared 10 foot. I could have watched him for ages moving lazily through the water, he seemed tso majestic and alien and just plain cool.

There is a Pixies song called “Manta Ray” in which Frank Black screams “fish no swim, fish fly”. Watching them in motion I totally agree. It seems to be swooping through the air not paddling against currents.

Eels scare me.
Unless I’m eating them.
Mmmmmmmmmm Unagi.


There were some awesome (and again huge) Sea Turtles in one tank. I dunno if its because of their age but turtles always seem to look wise to me and kind of melancholy. They’re absolutely beautiful to watch swimming though.

This guy was a “cowfish”. He looks grumpy.


Ryan’s favourite exhibit was the “Japanese Deeps” feature. I’ve used the word alien a lot in this post but it’s entirely appropriate here. These crabs were freaky. The exhibit had some really odd fish too but the stars were these enormous Spider Crabs that littered the floor and walked across it like the alien tripods in War of the Worlds. At one point two even had a fight.

Easily the most disturbing part about them though was that in addition to their legs and claws they each had a miniscule set of pincers above their mouth constantly snapping. And their jaws were just another complicated set of claws. All told we counted about 12 limbs! The things seem to be made of nothing but claws.


Many weird and wonderful Jellyfish.



And here he is, the man of the hour, KAI-KUN the Whale Shark.

Whale Shark’s are the biggest fish in the world, FACT.

“Kai-kun swims in the Pacific Ocean tank very well.” FACT (according to the guidebook)

Unfortunately he wasn’t as cool as the crabs. Still he was mightily impressive. I don’t think my pics give a proper sense of scale so try this video to appreciate just how massive the guy is.

Also take note of the other fish hitching a lift underneath him.

So that was it. I hope you enjoyed looking at fish. I certainly did. However when we left the aquarium we were greeted by an even cooler sight.

POP-UP-PIRATE!

Everywhere I go in Japan Pop-Up-Pirate follows.

I leave you with the cutest fish photo ever.

Awwwwww who’s a cute widdle smiley fishy.

%d bloggers like this: