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Osaka's new blue behemoth of an aquarium.

Island nations have special ties to the sea. In Japan, the ocean was for centuries a moat to keep out foreign influences. Today it is a tanker-laden superhighway that keeps a powerful economy humming. The sea puts food on the Japanese table, inspires poetry and painting, is an abiding presence never more than 70 miles away. Osaka's spectacular new aquarium honors and analyzes these oceanic ties. If you're visiting Japan's third largest city or nearby Kyoto, a day by the water is time well spent: you'll see some creatures you won't see at home, and learn about a force that has mightily shaped Japanese life.

A graceful behemoth with

whale sharks and spider crabs

Completed last year to lead off a major renovation of the city waterfront, the 18,880-square-meter Osaka Aquarium was designed by the American firm Cambridge Seven Associates, architects of Boston's New England Aquarium and of the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The architects have produced a graceful blue behemoth of a building whose exterior evokes the elements being celebrated within: mosaic fish swim a mosaic sea, and red tile peaks rise like the volcanoes ringing the Pacific rim.

"Ring of Fire" is in fact the aquarium's theme, and as you enter you're assaulted by a multimedia barrage of spewing lava and smoking cinder cones. You then glide down a moving walkway to the first exhibit, a Japanese coastal where river otters cavort in clear streams.

From there, you foot your way around the Pacific Ocean: 14 tanks mimic habitats from the Aleutian Islands to Monterey Bay to Antarctica and back to the Pacific depths off Japan. You not only circum-navigate, you descend, first viewing the shallows, then dropping to the ocean bed. Well laid out as the aquarium is, if you are like us you may have a couple of initial quibbles. Compared to more didactic facilities like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Osaka's is short on signs and background information, both in English and in Japanese. (The 300-yen--$2.20--English guidebook is worth getting, though even it leaves you a little hungry for hard information.) In addition, some of the exhibits don't exactly teem with different species--Monterey Bay, for example, is more or less represented by sea otters.

Never fear. Keep walking and you'll reach the main, 5,400-ton Pacific Ocean tank, which will leave you gaping a good long time. In it swim a 14-foot whale shark, numerous Pacific manta rays, and countless other fish. Scuttling in a side tank are a coven of Japanese spider crabs: enormous, hairy-legged, bathed in ultra-violet light, and worthy costars for the next Godzilla epic.

Getting there

The Osaka Aquarium lies about 20 minutes by subway from central Osaka; take the green line to its last stop, Osaka-ko, then walk three blocks north to the aquarium. The aquarium's hours are 10 A.M. to 9 P.M. daily in July and August, to 8 P.M. in other months. Based on currency conversion at our press time, admission is $14 for adults, $6.60 for ages 7 through 17. Once you've finished with the aquarium, you might head next door to the new, airy Tempozan Marketplace. Apparently sired by Portland's RiverPlace out of San Francisco's Pier 39, it features kite stores, Benetton outlets, and T-shirt shops to warm any American mall maven's heart. We knew it was wrong, but we sat in the food court, ordered a bowl of udon followed by a hot fudge sundae, saw Japanese families doing the same thing, and had a very good time.
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Title Annotation:Beyond the West; Osaka Aquarium
Date:Aug 1, 1991
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