Our final full day of our vacation, we met up again with our friends, the Watanabe family, for a day touring Osaka. It was raining in the morning, so we opted for indoor activities, which led us to the Pokemon Center and the the fantastic Osaka Aquarium. Later that night, we went to see the Gamba Osaka professional soccer team play at Osaka Stadium. It was as if all of Alex's dreams came true in one day.
The Watanabes picked us up and drove us to the nearby Pokemon Center, which was not far from our hotel. The place was jammed with parents and kids, and looked like a Pokemon lover's paradise. Pokemon snacks, toys, cards, t-shirts, and all forms of merchandising were on sale. Hisashi-san said that when something new is introduced, the line to get in goes outside and around the block. It was quite a mob scene on just a regular day, so I was glad to miss that action.
We hopped into the Watanabe's spacious Toyota Minivan for our next destination: The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. Frank was particularly fascinated with the GPS system in the car, which included traffic information on the map. If a road was congested, the map lit up in red and suggested alternate routes. He told Hisashi-san, "In ten years, we might have this, too." The system also kept track of tolls and told you how much each toll crossing cost.
It was cloudy and raining on and off, so Hisashi-san dropped us off in front of the Aquarium complex to go look for parking. The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is part of a larger complex that includes a giant ferris wheel and the Suntory Museum. The Suntory Museum is shaped like a giant rice bowl and is famous for its IMAX 3D theatre. I didn't get a picture of it because we were busy trying to get out of the rain. The attractions are connected by a complex of shops and restaurants, and make for an interesting way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon. The giant ferris wheel did not seem to be working. This was a good thing, since I think Frank would prefer being eaten by a whale shark then ever boarding a ferris wheel this big.
We made our way up the ramp toward the Aquarium, a huge, colorful building that looked like it was made out of Legos. I wasn't too thrilled about seeing yet another Aquarium, but this is what Frank and Alex wanted to do, so I went along for the ride. I was glad I did.
The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is one of the largest public aquariums in the world, and is unlike any other I have ever seen. Living near the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we are kind of spoiled, and no other aquarium we've visited has ever lived up to it. Until now. To say that Osaka knocked my socks off would be an understatement.
The entrance fee is about 2,000 Yen (around US $22) for adults, 600 yen for kids. Just inside, you walk through a tunnel where the fish swim all around you. It's not clear who is on display here, us or the fish. I think the fish must get a huge kick out of seeing so many different varieties of colorful people walking through every day. The manta rays seemed particularly curious about us, gliding over the glass and eyeballing us.
After the tunnel, there is a photo op, where your group can have their picture taken with a life-size plastic replica of the aquarium's main attraction, the enormous whale shark. Then, you get on one very long escalator that takes you up and up and up. Eight stories up, to be exact. At the top, you enter the world of the Japanese rain forest, with trees, rocks, and pools of otters swimming below. Light pours in from a thousand windows all around, making it a tranquil scene.
From there, you start to descend into a pathway that leads you to exhibits of marine life all over the world, from Monterey Bay's otters and seals, to the colorful fish of the Great Barrier Reef, to Emperor Penguins of Antarctica to the Amazon rain forest. You walk down a gentle ramp and pass by various levels of the same exhibit, so you see life near the surface down to the depths of the ocean.
One of the scenes had a number of dolphins swimming around. I've seen dolphins in the wild and in aquariums before, but this way of looking at them showed their life below the surface. They are impossibly fast swimmers, playful and intense at the same time. There was a steady stream of water falling from the ceiling into the dolphin pool, and one of them surfaced to take a drink.
In the center of the aquarium, is one large tank that houses thousands of fish of all varieties, including sharks. The star of the show are two enormous whale sharks. I was standing by the center tank, minding my own business, trying to get a decent photo of a leopard shark in the dim lighting, when up from the depths, this enormous blue creature emerged. It was about 20 feet long, and followed by a swarm of smaller fish, like a rock star hounded by paparazzi or a flock of adoring fans. On each subsequent level, I was equally thrilled to see the whale shark reappear, and saw that it also had a fish riding under it's belly, like a little navigator steering a big ship. I thought there was only one, until I later realized that there were two of these fascinating creatures in the tank.
The whale shark is the largest living species on earth, and with it's white polka dots on a blue background, looks quite friendly. It lives primarily on plankton, so the other fish in the tank aren't in any particular danger from it. The whale sharks in the Osaka Aquarium are their official mascot, and we left the gift shop with whale shark t-shirts, stuffed animals, and a phone charm. It was an unforgettable sight.
After winding our way down all eight stories of the museum, and spending our way through the gift shop, we headed for dinner at an okonomiyaki restaurant (a separate post), and then a soccer game. Hisashi-san's company, Panasonic, is a sponsor of the Gamba Osaka Soccer team, so he was able to get us tickets for their home game. When we entered the stadium, they handed us fans (very useful for a muggy night) with the player's numbers and pictures on them. The team has primarily Japanese players, with one Korean and two Brazilian imports as well.We got to see the famous Japanese soccer player, Yasuhito Endo, in action (in royal blue, with ball, above). It was an exciting game, with Osaka taking it 1-0 against the visiting team.
By the end, we were exhausted but happy travelers, sad to say goodbye to our friends in Japan, the Watanabes, Pokemon, and the Whale Sharks. I know 8 year old boy who thought the combination of Pokemon, exotic fish, and soccer constituted just about a perfect day. And, surprisingly, his mom did, too.
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