Sea life and hula on Japan’s north coast

Five years after the tsunami, Iwaki is open for business – and good times
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa Aquamarine Fukushima
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By Time Out in association with NHK World

A piece of advice as you approach the futuristic-looking Aquamarine Fukushima: Don’t be alarmed. Those guttural honks erupting from the famous aquarium – which sits encased in a glass cocoon on the coast in Iwaki – may sound like something from Jurassic Park, but their source is something much friendlier. They’re coming from a playful group of sea lions, and it’s lunchtime.

Aquamarine FukushimaPhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

There are three of the playful beasts on display (between 200 and 300kg each) at Aquamarine Fukushima (50 Tatsumicho, Onahama; 0246 730 2525, marine.fks.ed.jp), along with a family of smaller seals and a fat little ribbon seal that was rescued off the coast of Hokkaido. To watch them all feed – the big guys down 5kg of fish a day – is a joy you could revel in for hours. The slippery gray animals seem to celebrate each morsel, diving deep into their pools to frolic and twirl in jubilation with juicy hunks of fish they swallow.

And then, they come up and honk for more.

You could watch them all day, but you probably shouldn’t. There is too much else to see at this water-filled institution, a highlight for any sightseers visiting Iwaki. There’s the museum’s centrepiece, a two-million-litre tank that simulates sea life among the colliding currents just off the coast of Fukushima (a little sadistically, you can watch huge schools of fish zipping through the tank as you sit at a sushi bar), and a family area that includes a pond in which kids can fish for salmon and mackerel – but only if they promise to eat and not waste their catches.

Aquamarine FukushimaPhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Iwaki sits just south of the epicentre of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and the effects of the tsunami that the quake spawned were felt heavily at the aquarium. Power was cut off, generators failed, and many fish died – though not all. Larger fish and mammals, like the sea lions, were moved to other facilities throughout the country after the disaster; elsewhere, creatures in exhibit 'Evolution of Life in the Seas' – fish from the deepest depths of the ocean swimming in tanks that sit alongside the fossils of their ancient ancestors – survived without any help the four months that the aquarium was abandoned.

Many other Iwaki attractions shuttered by the quake and tsunami are back open for business. From the peak of the Shioyasaki Lighthouse (33 Yadosaki, Tairausuiso) – a European-style ship guider that has survived both the 2011 quake and a series of air raids in the dying days of WWII – you can see miles up the coast, where diggers and pickers are reshaping sandy beaches and erecting defiant concrete walls. When the earthquake shut down Iwaki’s famous Spa Resort Hawaiians – a theme park that combines hot springs, a water park and 'authentic Polynesian dance shows' – the resort’s hula dancers toured Japan raising money for Fukushima’s recovery. The resort reopened in late 2012.

Shioyasaki LighthousePhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Like most areas in Tohoku, Iwaki offers a traditional way to end the day: in one of the onsen resorts. In the Yumoto hot springs area, you can even visit a shrine to the mineral-rich waters found in the ground. The Furutakiya Inn (208 Sahako Jobanyumotomachi; 0246 43 2191) features indoor and outdoor hot spring baths and very traditional rooms; you’ll find the mats to use to make your own bed in the cupboard, if you’re wondering where you’re supposed to sleep.

Keep on the traditional line with a nightcap at a 'snack bar', a kind of hush-hush dive bar (with hostesses) that some people operate from what appear to be their own apartments. The team at reception might play coy at first, but ask nicely enough, and they’ll show to a local watering hole.

Check out the previous part of our Tohoku travel series here.

See more photos of Iwaki

Iwaki
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Shioyasaki Lighthouse
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Aquamarine Fukushima
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Check out our Tohoku travel series

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