An Aquarium Too Farcical.
It’s somewhat of a given: Kyoto is not a fish town. It’s a given with which I, as a gaijin (外人), a foreigner, have difficulty grasping, that in the heart of the Kansai Region, one pretty much must go to Osaka for “good sushi.” That Kyoto just won’t do. You see, Osaka is on Osaka Bay, which opens up to the Pacific Ocean. It’s on the coast. Kyoto, however, is around 30 miles (50km) northeast of and inland from Osaka. Now here in the United States, where I sit and write this, 30 or so miles inland is considered “on the coast,” or more-or-less “coastal.” But to many island or archipelago countries, 30 miles in is inland. That’s certainly the case with Japan.
So, I’ve had good natured, all in fun, arguments with friends in Kyoto wherein I say, “First of all, one of the best sushi restaurants I’ve ever enjoyed in Japan was in Kyoto, Edo-Kyo (featured in this story, “A Night in Kyoto“), and I challenge you to find better, fresher sushi or sashimi this side of the fishing boat itself or one of the fish markets.”
The response: “Yes, but it’s in Kyoto. Kyoto’s not a seafood city.”
I continue, “Alright then, let’s assume two sushi chefs — one from Osaka and one from Kyoto — both go to the same Osaka Central Fish Market (<- click the link then check out Drew Davidson’s incredible photos; Drew and I were friends at Kansai GaidaiUniversity, between Kyoto and Osaka, back in 1984). They each buy a fish, both of which were caught about the same moment by the same boat and those fish are now laying next to each other. The chefs then take their respective fish back to their respective restaurants, one in Osaka and one in Kyoto. Then, that evening, they each prepare them at the same time and serve them up at the same moment. And yet, and yet, you’re telling me the Osaka restaurant’s fish is fresher and tastes better?”
The answer I get: “Yes, because it’s in Osaka, not in Kyoto.” Mind you, the fish in Kyoto is excellent and fresh, by an American’s standards. But, compared to nearby Osaka, Kyoto’s just not a “fish town.”
“Special care is taken in the presentation of each dish, on which small portions are artfully arranged on carefully chosen tableware. The origin for this is interesting. Kyoto’s subtle seasoning was initially born out of necessity. Because Kyoto is a landlocked city surrounded by mountains, salt had to be imported from afar, and being expensive, was used sparingly. Likewise, true Kyo-ryori typically features less fish (especially ocean fish) than the rest of Japan, although river fish, such as ayu, appear in the mountains.” (boldface emphasis added) from “Savory Japan.”
Note: “Kyo-ryori” means Kyoto Cuisine. So, have we established that Kyoto is not a city famous for fish?
. . .
A mountain-ringed plain that would eventually evolve into Kyoto became the Imperial Seat in 794 when Emperor Kammu moved himself and his entire retinue there from the first capitol, nearby Nara, to escape the religio-political intrigue that was bogging-down the head of state (the first move, to an area in what’s now a southwestern suburb of Kyoto, came ten years earlier in 784). From Kyoto an unbroken line of Emperors would preside over Japan until 1868 — more often than not as titular leaders while the various generalissimos and shoguns acted as the de facto rulers of Japan. Divorced from the responsibilities actual rule, the Kyoto Emperors and their families, and extended families, and advisers, and legions of hangers-on, could devote themselves to courtly and cultural and spiritual matters: the arts, the fine arts, poetry, artisans, architecture, garden design, development of a Japanese Buddhism, and the Floating World — the world of the Geisha — all flourished for almost 1,100 years while wars and turmoil often raged around Kyoto. Occasionally the waves of war would lap up against or even wash over Kyoto, in the form of fire. But for the most part Kyoto has enjoyed an exceedingly long history of stability in which culture could flourish.
When the Emperor was “restored” to his place as head of state in 1868, ending 250 years of rule by the Tokugawa Shogunite (which always contended that it ruled on behalf of the Emperor and with the Emperor’s blessing – wink, wink), the Imperial Capitol was moved to Tokyo, where current Emperor Akihito serves as Japan’s symbolic head of state today. Kyoto-ites never got over having the Emperor “taken” from them, from their beautiful Kyoto. Notwithstanding the Emperor’s relocation to Tokyo, though, Kyoto continued to thrive as the cultural and spiritual heart of Japan and does so to this day. And after a fashion, Tokyo saved Kyoto.
Kyoto was never targeted for bombing during World War II. Thanks to the Emperor’s move to Tokyo a little more than 70 years prior to the War in the Pacific, Kyoto was not a governmental center. Little to no war-related industry was located in Kyoto. It was not a military hub. Whether or not apocryphal the story survives that, for a very short time — days? hours? — Kyoto was one of the cities listed as possible atomic bomb targets, but that American academics in the War Department quickly intervened, convincing the decision makers to de-list Kyoto: it had no military value and when the war was someday over it would be a tragedy upon a tragedy to wipe out the cultural gem that Kyoto is. While this may still resonate as cold, cruel comfort to the likes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kyoto escaped the war almost wholly unscathed. I say “almost wholly unscathed” because from time to time a stray bomb, meant for nearby Osaka or Nagoya, might fall on Kyoto from a B-29 bomber.
But, all in all, Kyoto remains as Kyoto was, and for hundreds of years has been — notwithstanding, yes, the introduction of electricity, Starbucks and a reggae bar. And the tourists who flock to Kyoto, from both within Japan and certainly from around the world, come to see and experience a quiet enclave of “Old Japan.” They come to walk on narrow, cobbled streets. They come to visit temples that measure their histories in centuries, not decades, like Ryoan-ji, Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Kiyomizu-dera (all photos mine) and marvel at their iconic, tranquil gardens and delicate buildings. They come to visit To-ji Temple’s monthly flea market (the largest flea market in Japan). They come to see the occasional geisha, or, more likely, geisha apprentice, the maiko-san. They come to the National Kabuki Theater, see a Noh play , or simply mediate on the beauty and quiet that can be found in hundreds, thousands, of spots in and around Kyoto. They come for numerous, amazing museums, streets packed with antique shops and galleries. They come for light, delicious Kyo-ryori. They come to learn of or remember times that were.
They don’t come for, and are not disappointed by the lack of . . . an aquarium.
The Osaka Aquarium
But of course if a tourist does crave an aquarium experience while in Kansai (roughly speaking Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and the prefectures in which they’re situated), one of the best in the world is in Osaka. Osaka would be that city on Osaka Bay which, as mentioned, is about 30 miles from Kyoto, Japan’s Cultural Capitol. I’ve only visited the Osaka Aquarium once, but it was, indeed, a thing to behold.
Here’s the general explanation of how the aquarium’s configured, of its “Ring of Fire” theme, from the Exhibits Page of the Osaka Aquarium website, including beautifully odd English:
“According to the Pacific Rim volcanic belt, “Ring of Fire,” KAIYUKAN reproduces the huge Pacific Ocean and neighboring environments, and makes consideration that visitors can easily follow such environments from northwestern part of the Pacific Ocean where Japan locates.”
Here’s my version: the visitor takes a virtual journey around the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire” by taking starting at the top of the aquarium, several stories high, and walking down a spiral ramp, admiring the various Ring of Fire locals along the way. The aquarium’s centerpiece, around which visitors wind their way down, is the shockingly huge, multistoried tank containing Kai-kun (Ocean Buddy), the aquarium’s whale shark.
I encourage you to visit this “Special Exhibition(s)” page. It’s quite interesting, actually. At any rate, the Osaka Aquarium is world class. Very nice. Worth a visit if you’re in the area and have or can make the time. I recommend it.
. . .
“Well someone’s come up with a real nightmare. Real nightmare.”
Robert Redford as Maj. Julian Cook in “A Bridge Too Far“
Perhaps you’ve guessed what this is all leading up to. Yes, there’s not only a plan to put an aquarium in Kyoto, but construction’s recently commenced. In sum, this is an abomination. It’s tacky. It’s non-sensical. Oh, but what about the Dolphin Shows! In Kyoto. Dolphin shows. Can you believe? I mean, gad. I’ve read on a blog where construction’s been temporarily halted when crews found artifacts on the site — at Umekoji Park — but have yet to find a good link to a news report (save for a mention in this, in Japanese). Kyoto does, by the way, have a Municipal Zoo. It’s small and needs updating. But has has sea lions and penguins. There, that’s about all the live ocean-dwelling creatures Kyoto needs, thankyouverymuch.
Thanks and credit to Michael Lambe’s blog, Deep Kyoto, where I found this postcard image.
Here are a few blog posts, information and a petition to halt construction of this aquarium (but, but, the Dolphin Shows! in Kyoto! Wow!). While I’m doubtful this scar on Kyoto can be halted, at the very least we can lament and be disgusted by it. From 10,000 Things from Kyoto, which itself links to both Japanese and English articles and information. A Japanese blogger weighs in (“Stop the Kyoto Aquarium Project!”). From blog A Day in the Life. Another piece by Michael Lambe, in Japan Today: “Fury at Kyoto Aquarium Plan.” An opinion piece from “Seek Japan.” The ” Petition for Stop the Kyoto Aquarium Project!.”
As this blog is chiefly written for native readers of English (though all are certainly welcome to enjoy it), I’ve not included much in the way of Japanese articles. Just in case someone wishes to read a couple of in-Japanese, 日本語で, takes on this controversy, they can read this and this.