Tokyo Sea Life Park and Emi-san

Yesterday was a wonderful day. We started in Tokyo Sea Life Park (the surrounding park was very aesthetic, photos at the end). Then, we ventured through the aquariums, encountering VERY adorable penguin plushed animals. In the afternoon, we met Oda sensei, who immersed us in a wonderful learning experience about tuna and the aquarium’s educational efforts. We started by drawing the bluefin tunas through direct observations and catching a glimpse of the “Employee Only” mechanical rooms. Lastly, we got to touch a frozen tuna for educational purposes. Then, we continued into an engaging conversation/Q&A about marine biology conservation and education efforts.

I am not the fan of neither aquariums nor zoos, but if I had met such an inspiring educator such as Oda-san and experienced his directly involved approach, I may have headed toward a different research direction in life. All I felt from aquariums (even more so than zoos) were the unethical confinement of sea creatures for recreational purposes. While the majority of the families yesterday still went for recreational purposes, I really appreciate the efforts done by the aquarium towards outreach (especially the free part). Compared to aquariums in Houston, where $$$ is the main goal and it is impossible to schedule an educational event without an organized school field trip), I have grown to see such institutions as just another money-making agency that exploits the livelihood of sea creatures (and a white tiger) for the amusement of humanity. I do think there still exists ethical problems with containing living organisms (since we would never do that to another human, hopefully). But, knowing that one can really learn and grow to appreciate life through close contact is settling. The best part was how enthusiastic the staff were. I am glad to see that despite language barriers, the mutual feelings of “interest” and “excitement” transfer and can be enjoyed by both.

At night, we went to Emi-san’s house and had the best time karaoke-ing, trying on yukatas, and eating homemade vegetarian food. Finally the “cultural immersion” aspect as marketed by most study abroad programs. I am extremely glad to be in the suburbia where “average” people live, not just those represented in popular forms of media. It felt like home, as in Hangzhou, with the high rise and the community. Emi-san was such a wonderful host, offering us food and taking us places. I will definitely be improving my Japanese to be able to communicate with my host family this fall.

Education in Ambient Lighting, ne?

Today we visited the aquarium.

I honestly think it was a more educational experience (species wise) than the zoo. We did a quick aquarium round with our very own guides, Julian and Michael first, but then we really got to meet an expert: Mr. Ota. The first order of business was to go to the Tuna exhibit and draw “in great detail.” I really enjoyed this exercise, because it was hands-on and engaging. Even though I thought I did my best at capturing the tuna’s detail–I inevitably missed some of the key aspects for the tuna’s survival. The most surprising thing for me was the size and smoothness of the fish. We all know that fish have scales and would maybe feel tough to the touch. But, the Tuna’s scales are so small that it feels smooth which is great because it allows for faster swimming speed (essential for this “voyager of the sea”). YES, WE TOUCHED A TUNA FISH! (well it was dead—it had been dead for three years! Rather than eating it, the tuna’s body has been continuously used for educating groups like us).

Mr. Ota really went over the other features that make the aquarium an educational place. Certain informational blurbs are posted at different eye-levels to catch the attention of both children and adults. They also have sets of programs for student of all ages (they are arranged in a way that would interest students according to their age)-however he has noticed that high school and college students are the least frequent visitors. The aquarium has thought of ways to capture their attention, which of course is coffee and food!

It really seems that Tokyo Sea Life Park is trying its best to capture the attention of the Tokyoites. Through these programs as well as summer events.

Like zoos, aquariums have come a long way in trying to replicate habitats, however, they haven’t truly reached perfection. Mr. Ota attempted to answer the question of the ethics of animal captivity…Although sometimes he feels the habitats are not appropriate or too small (this aspect causes him grief), he feels that education is worth it, because education can rally up the cause for conservation of animals and the environment.

Blue Fin Tuna Sketch

I also want to thank Emi-San (Selinger Sensei’s life friend) for inviting us to her house for dinner. The food was delicious and the karaoke was extremely fullfilling. Thank you for preparing a night of yukata and fun for us!

ありがとうございました。

6/6 Tokyo Sea Life Park and Home Visit

I have not been to zoos or aquariums for over ten years, and like zoos, I always thought them as places imprisoning animals to suit purposes of human, whether financial or political. However, our visit to Tokyo Sea Life Park convinced my of another purpose of aquariums—education.

Although both institutions have the primary purpose of exhibiting animals to the public, the spacing is incredibly different between them. While the zoo is all open space, the aquarium is dimly lit and designed for a more immersive experience. At Ueno Zoo, most visitors are families, and there were activities suited for kids, like collecting stamps for animals; whereas the average age of visitors at Tokyo Sea Life Park was much bigger, with the majority being 10-30.

Although I am not sure how to make of these observations and differences on the age groups, I was inspired and moved by Tada-San’s presentation on aquarium education programs and response to Julian’s questions. Tada-San opened the presentation with a tuna lecture, telling us to first observe and sketch tuna and then showing us to above the tuna tank to see them from above, and finally letting us touch a real tuna. This tuna education is highly interactive, and far from my exception, was not just suited for children. Part of the education program for high schoolers, the tuna section is a great introduction to get students’ attention and interest and show them the amazing biological mechanism behind each body part. It was very lucky for us to have Tada-San, who is an energetic and honest gentleman passionate about delivering aquarium education and sharing his experience. According to him, the aquarium has been trying hard to bring high school and college students to the aquarium, and thus created various programs for different groups. Looking through the brochure, it was evident that the courses were thoughtfully planned and all of them had an introduction related to Japanese cuisine.

Although the aquarium still faces ethical issues as confining animals, my concern on this level was relieved by Tada-San’s passion and dedication, as he mentioned he had been working at aquariums for over 20 years trying to show people the educational purpose of aquariums.

After Tokyo Sea Life Park, we went to visit Prof. Selinger’s friend, Emi-San’s house. Thanks to her generosity and kindness, we had the opportunity to try on Yukata, a lighter and more casual version of kimono. The visit to her house was a great cultural immersion experience, and we got to practice the manners we learned about visiting a Japanese home. We also got to see the small buddhist and shinto shrines at Emi-San’s home, and how shinto and buddhism were immersed in Japanese daily life. Although exhausted, it was an amazing day—we pretty much passed out in the bed right after going back home.

“This is the dawning of the age of aquariums”

Oh man. Where do I even begin. There’s so much I want to say about today. Put simply, it was absolutely incredible. Even the title of this post I had a lot of trouble deciding. I ended up settling on this modified lyric from “Age of Aquarius” by 5th Dimension. If you haven’t guessed already, we visited an aquarium, Tokyo Sea Life Park. And as I think you’ll see in this post, I think now more than ever, amidst an ever-changing world filled with climate change, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss, it’s imperative that we inspire care for animal life and conservation in people. And that’s where aquariums come in.

I guess maybe the best place to start is a little context. Last night, I read several chapters (15-18, 23) from A Fascination for Fish by David C. Powell. Powell is an aquarium design consultant and has worked with numerous aquariums around the world, notably Monterrey Bay Aquarium. The chapters I read dealt with the inception of Monterrey Bay Aquarium: from designing exhibits to collecting animals to aquarists at work. Chapter 23, the last chapter, served as a reflection on Powell’s experiences with aquariums and his thoughts on aquariums and their purpose. I’ll get to that in a little bit. I mentioned this to Selinger-sensei on the way to Tokyo Sea Life Park, but I thought it was a very publicly-accessible reading, in contrast to “Ciliated Sense,” which I discussed in a previous post. To be honest, it made me seriously consider the possibility of becoming an aquarist. One thing that really struck me about this reading was Powell’s description of aquarists. It’s not just about “feeding the fish”; yes, that’s involved and knowing the specialized feeding needs (something I can kind of relate to being a vegetarian in Japan) of different species is incredibly important. It goes beyond that to having a fascination with the animals you’re working with and being able to “read” them; that is, being able to tell just by looking what a particular animal needs.

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We began with a walk-through of Tokyo Sea Life Park, perhaps on the surface no different than the other tourists and local aquarium-goers. I’m going to be completely honest here: I was worried my peers and friends wouldn’t get all that much out of just walking through the aquarium. I love learning about animals, especially marine organisms, so visiting zoos and aquariums for me is more than just marveling at the animals. But, based on everyone’s reactions to the Ueno Zoo the other day (notably, after the panda exhibit), I was worried everyone wouldn’t be too interested. Maybe it was just being outside in the sun.

I was absolutely wrong. Something about the aquarium captured the interest of everyone, and I found myself explaining what marine biology of the animals I knew alongside Michael (we spent a solid 5, 10 minutes in front of the hammerhead exhibit, the very first one of the aquarium). I don’t know if I really expressed this to anyone during the day, or if I’ll even be able to capture the feeling in words here, but I was just so relieved and thrilled that everyone was taking so much interest. Last night, I was talking with Aridome-sensei about how much time I thought we’d need in the aquarium (at the time, I didn’t know how big or small it was; turns out it’s about the size of Maritime Aquarium). I realized during lunch that we probably could’ve spent more time at the aquarium, frankly. Oh well, all the more excuse to come back, right?

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The highlight of the trip for me, though, was our meeting with Tada-sensei, head curator at Tokyo Sea Life Park. I’d corresponded (through Aridome-sensei; 多い質問をほんやくしてくださってありがとうございました!) with Tada-sensei prior over email, so he’d be able to prepare himself with the questions I’d sent him beforehand. But first, he gave us an educational program on bluefin tuna (クロマグロ; kuro maguro) that the aquarium designed for elementary and middle schoolers. He surprised us all by handing us sketchbooks and pencils and taking us to the tuna exhibit. He wanted us to get a feel for the observation and attention to detail needed in his line of work and in biology in general. He gave us 5 minutes to sketch tuna as they swam by, and then talked to us about many of the adaptive features of tuna. He even took us behind the scenes, above the tuna exhibit, to show us firsthand how countershading works (basically, many marine species are dark colored on their dorsally and light-colored ventrally. When seen from above, tuna are hard to see because they blend in with the dark, deep water. When seen from below, their light coloration lets them blend in with the sunlight streaming down). I was actually able to pick up on a lot of what he was saying in Japanese, through a combination of language and my own knowledge of marine biology, so it was really cool to be able to help with translating those elements! Finally, he took us back to the presentation room and brought out a dead, frozen tuna for us to explore by touch.

Following that, Tada-sensei began to answer the 9 questions I had posed to him via email as well as other questions we thought of on the spot. I’ll probably include those in a separate post, for sake of flow and length here, but a lot of what he talked about echoed ideas I had read about in Powell’s A Fascination for Fish. It was fascinating to see and hear parallels between Monterrey Bay Aquarium and Tokyo Sea Life Park. Selinger-sensei later told me that Tada-sensei thought I had raised really important questions and that some in particular (especially my question on the ethical capture and keeping of animals in captivity) were incredibly difficult to answer. Selinger-sensei assured him that these questions weren’t meant to be severe or critical in nature, but rather since I, myself, am considering aquariums as a potential career path, these are the very questions I am asking myself. And, she told me, Tada-sensei said that he could really pick up on my enthusiasm and fascination (incidentally, he’d extended the original hour and a half meeting to two hours).

What struck me most, though, about Tada-sensei’s talk was how honest, sincere, comprehensive, informative, and engaging it was. In particular, I was moved by Tada-sensei’s own emotional investment in his work, that he thinks education and inspiring awe and conservation (echoed also by Powell in chapter 23) is by far the most important of the aquarium’s goals. I recall a particularly relevant, though long, passage (though, there’s many and it’s hard to pick) from A Fascination for Fish that I think is at the core of aquariums and their mission:

We may have only one chance to turn a visitor’s head toward conservation and conscience and away from complacency–a chance that is offered through our exhibits. For an exhibit and a visitor to make a connection, those of us designing displays and defining messages must be cautious.

Do we assume the visitor knows nothing and it’s our obligation to explain as much as we can? At one time, I would have answered yes to that question. My original goal was to bring as much factual understanding as possible to the visitor, to describe every detail of a creature’s existence, from feeding to spawning to its relationship with the other creatures in its environment. And I expected the visitor to absorb all this eagerly.

Now I see things quite differently. I’ve come to realize that perhaps our true goal in the aquarium world is to inspire awe, to create a sense of wonder and appreciation that will grow into caring. Communicating facts is all well and good, but without a sense of caring we have accomplished little.

David C. Powell, A Fascination for Fish

Put simply, these ideas resonated strongly with me.

And, Tada-sensei was extremely honest in admitting that Tokyo Sea Life Park’s exhibits aren’t enough, he thinks, for its inhabitants, especially size-wise. Still, I thought the exhibits quite well replicated the natural environments they were portraying, even if they were small and cramped as Tada-sensei thought. Tada-sensei also apparently has been to Monterrey Bay Aquarium and thinks it’s the best in the world and uses that as something of a role model or exemplar. Talking with Tada-sensei I think solidified the sense I had gotten from reading A Fascination for Fish; that is, I think becoming an aquarist is something I really want to pursue. But, I think something else that resonated with me about reading about Powell’s experience with Monterrey Bay Aquarium, visiting Tokyo Sea Life Park, and talking with Tada-sensei is that there’s still so much to learn about this marine and aquarium world. And I want to leave you with a passage from Powell’s last chapter that I think was really inspirational for me and hopefully for you, the reader, and for anyone reading A Fascination for Fish interested in marine biology and aquariums:

When meeting young, eager marine biologists, I do my best to steer them in a direction that will give them as much satisfaction as I’ve had in my work. When they ask what they can do to get started, I pass along commonsense tips: Get an education. Learn to dive, so you can experience the underwater world firsthand. Volunteer if you can. Keep learning, diving, and working with the animals you love.

David C. Powell, A Fascination for Fish

So, will I become an aquarist in the future? Perhaps. I’m excited to intern at Maritime Aquarium this summer (an Education internship; Animal Husbandry was rather popular and full) and experience this aquarium world on the other side firsthand. I plan to follow Powell’s advice and see where it takes me. So, stay tuna’d.

Shinkansen, Yokkaichi, and Bureacracy

When I first learned that we would ride the 新幹線 (Shinkansen, or bullet train) during this trip, I became immediately excited. I’ve grown a fondness for traveling long distances by train and to me, the Shinkansen is the apex of travel. As the sleek, white train began to accelerate away from the station, the familiar site of downtown Tokyo megastructures passed by, still at the pace of a normal Shinkansen. Once south of Shinagawa and Shin-Yokohama stations, the high-rises began to sink and sweeping views of the ocean and coastal towns and rice paddies dominated the landscape outside of the train windows.

Our journey on the Shinkansen ended at Nagoya where we transferred to a train to Yokkaichi city. From Yokkaichi, we took a local train to our destination: The International Center for Environmental Technology Transfer (ICETT). Before I go into the proceedings of our day with ICETT, I want to mention the revered 田舎 (inaka). The inaka is a term that evokes a romantic view of the Japanese countryside. It is represented as the ideal setting for life in important cultural drivers such as Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. On either side of the train tracks between Yokkaichi and The ICETT campus was the inaka. The implications of the importance put on the countryside indicates that farming, especially rice cultivation, is an essential part of Japanese interactions with nature. But I think there is a danger in ascribing too much importance on the inaka since Japan is every increasingly urbanizing, and interactions with the environment become based on creating and sustaining urban life.

At ICETT, we were quietly guided to a seminar room where a staff manager, Mashita-san, gave a presentation about the work done at ICETT and its goals. His assistant, Kanda-san, offered lengthly answers to questions in addition to Mashita-san. The presentation and following Q and A session also provided a general observation of the intersections of business, government, and environmental work in Japan. Mashita-san and Kanda-san were joined by a company representative for whom Mashita-san carefully structured his presentation and responses. So our visit not only demonstrated an example of environmental work in Japan, but also the close ties to industries. Furthermore, leaders from municipal and prefectural government sat on the board for ICETT. I was inspired to learn more about the relationship between various branches of society in this setting almost more than wanting to know about the actual work done at ICETT.