There is nothing quite as hypnotically relaxing as gazing at a tank full of jellyfish, calmly bobbing around. Technically neither fish nor plant, these ‘gelatinous zooplankton’ are like natural lava-lamps that can slow down even the busiest of brains just by sitting for a while and watching their slow, rhythmic propulsion. For an over-active thinker such as myself, a trip to the world’s largest Jellyfish display was exactly what the doctor ordered. The Jellyfish ice-cream, however, was perhaps not…
Tsuruoka KAMO Aquarium is located on the coast of the Sea of Japan in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture. Tsuruoka City itself is a sleepy little town, neighbouring the cultural hub of Sakata City and picturesque Yunohama Onsen. Attaining UNESCO recognition as a ‘Creative City of Gastronomy’ in 2014, the delicious and healthy local cuisine reflects the city’s blessed position between both sea and the sweeping mountain ranges of ‘Dewasanzan’. In fact, Tsuruoka is for many tourists the gateway into the Dewasanzan area, with local buses running between Tsuruoka Station and the hiking paths of Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono. If you’re planning on a hiking pilgrimage this summer, Tsuruoka is well worth a stop-over for a least a meal and casual out of body experience at the KAMO Aquarium. And I really do mean out of body experience!
Entering the aquarium, there is nothing to suggest that it differs from any other small-scale aquarium in a coastal country-town; that is, until you reach the ‘Kuranetarium’! Kurage is the Japanese word for jellyfish and walking into the ‘Kuranetarium’ is not unlike walking into the dreamy darkness of a planetarium. The stars, in this case, being display case upon display case of beautiful, tiny, bioluminescent blobs.
There are over 60 different species of jellyfish on display at KAMO Aquarium, making it the largest display of bioluminescent jellyfish in the world (Guinness World Records Certified, 2012)! There is every kind of colour and shape you could possibly imagine, and many other other-worldly creatures that are simply beyond imagination itself.
Whilst there are different species of jellyfish represented from all over the globe, the actual jellyfish on display have all been born and lovingly raised under careful watch of jellyfish experts at the research laboratories belonging to the aquarium. One such expert, Mr. Ikeda, kindly gave us the chance to look behind the scenes and showed us how the many tanks holding hundreds of tiny baby jellies have to have their water changed every day! This painstakingly careful process continues for up to six months until they reach maturity and can be relocated into the main tanks of the aquarium. Fun fact: did you know that the life span of a jelly-fish (once at maturity) is only one year?! A terribly short life, indeed! But with no heart or brain, I guess they aren’t too worried.
The absolute highlight of the Jellyfish display is the ‘Dream Theatre’ – a massive circular tank 5m in diameter holding between 3000~4000 Moon Jellyfish! Inside the otherwise pitch-black theatre, standing back and staring into the bright blue orb of circling jellyfish, I found myself in a state of total hypnosis. Apparently, it is not uncommon for patrons in need of a little relaxation therapy to sit inside this theatre for hours on end (sometimes all day!) and to be honest I do not blame them. The only thing on my mind as I shook myself out of the trance was how do get a seasonal pass for this place??
Once passed the displays, your return to the outside world is not a complete return to reality. The aquarium also holds a restaurant, kiosk and gift shop offering everything and anything jellyfish themed, from your usual plush toys and sweets to jellyfish ramen noodles and jellyfish ice cream – literally ice cream with dried jelly fish sprinkled on top! It was a fun life experience worth having once but probably not one I’d try again…!
The jellyfish at KAMO Aquarium are so much more than just a gimic, though. Only a couple of decades ago in 1997 the aquarium was an the verge of bankruptcy. It was only the brave decision by aquarium director Tatsuo Murakami to throw all eggs into the jellyfish basket (tank?) that not only saved the aquarium itself, but put Tsuruoka on the map of bioluminescence, collaborating from scientists such as Dr. Osamu Shimomura who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008.
It’s horrible to think that the aquarium came so close to disappearing without allowing us this once in a lifetime chance to escape to Jellyfish Paradise. I think it’s safe to say that it won’t be going anywhere soon – this is only the beginning of an exciting new chapter for KAMO Aquarium! Be sure to drop by and benefit from some jellyfish therapy on your next visit to Yamagata.
There are flights with ANA from Tokyo Haneda Aiport → Shonai Airport in Yamagata. From there, head to Tsuruoka Station (and follow bus/taxi directions below).
Tokyo Station → Tsuruoka Station (via Niigata, about 4 hours)
Niigata Station → Tsuruoka Station (about 2 hours)
A useful site for looking up train services from anywhere in Japan can be accessed here.
By Highway Bus:
There are highway bus services to Tsuruoka Station from several major cities in the Tohoku area. From Sendai City, it takes around 3 hours for 3500 yen. A useful website for looking up bus times can be accessed here.
By Local Bus:
From Tsuruoka Station, take a local bus service towards Yunohama Onsen and alight at Kamo Aquarium. It takes about 30 minutes. A timetable can be found here (Japanese).
A taxi from Tsuruoka Station will take you around 30 minutes. You can also take a taxi directly from Shonai Airport for around 20 minutes.
TSURUOKA CITY KAMO AQUARIUM
Address: 656 Okubo, Imaizumi, Tsuruoka-shi, Yamagata