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Ultimate Guide to Otaru Aquarium: Cute Penguins, Friendly Seals, and More!

Ultimate Guide to Otaru Aquarium: Cute Penguins, Friendly Seals, and More!

Date published: 27 August 2020
Last updated: 1 October 2020

Otaru Aquarium was built in 1958 as a venue for EXPO HOKKAIDO and has over 60 years of history. It is known for being the first in the world to breed the ringed seal successfully, and Otaru Aquarium is also recognized for the effort that goes into its exhibits, such as its cute penguin shows.

When you visit Otaru, this aquarium is definitely a sightseeing spot not to be missed! Today we’ll take an in-depth look at Otaru Aquarium and show you how you make the most out of your time here.

Table of Contents
  1. Receive a Warm Welcome from the Aquarium’s Mascot Characters
  2. First, let us buy some admission tickets from the front entrance.
  3. The Largest and Panoramic Fish Tank is Here!
  4. The “Honobono Pool,” Where the Harbor Porpoises Reside
  5. Seafood Seasonality: Find Out Which Sea Creatures Taste Best During Each Season!
  6. The 360-Degree Fish Tank “Sea of Okhotsk / Bering Sea”
  7. Showcases by the Dolphins and the South American Sea Lions
  8. The “Marine Mammals Park,” An Exhibit That’s Part of the Sea!
  9. Try Your Hand at Feeding the Seals
  10. Watch the Steller Sea Lions Dive!
  11. The Penguins That Lead Carefree Lives in the Aquarium
  12. Pick Up Souvenirs at the Gift Shop
  13. Getting to Otaru Aquarium from Sapporo

Receive a Warm Welcome from the Aquarium’s Mascot Characters

Receive a Warm Welcome from the Aquarium’s Mascot Characters

Otaru Aquarium is a 15-minute car ride away from Otaru Station. There are buses bound for the aquarium available, too, serving as an alternate means of transport. Although the aquarium’s location is quite a distance away from the Otaru town area, it remains a highly accessible sightseeing spot.

Otaru Aquarium comprises of the main building, the Dolphin Stadium, and the Marine Mammals Park. With approximately 5,000 sea creatures of around 250 species exhibited, the aquarium is beloved by both locals and tourists alike. Upon arrival, visitors are welcomed by the aquarium’s mascot characters “Hacchan” and “Nanachan” at the aquarium entrance, which is a popular spot for taking photos.

Currently, as measures have been put in place against the spread of COVID-19, even “Hacchan” and “Nanachan” are wearing masks, which makes them all the more adorable.

First, let us buy some admission tickets from the front entrance.

First, let us buy some admission tickets from the front entrance.

You will receive a pamphlet along with the tickets you have purchased. Besides Japanese, the pamphlet is available in English, Chinese and Thai.

Once you enter, you will be greeted by the sight of sea turtles. These sea turtles swimming around in the water tank are of two species, the loggerhead turtle and the green turtle.

They bite, so please avoid reaching into the tank with your hands!

Next to the sea turtles’ water tank is an information board. There is a QR code on the board which you can scan for an audio guide about ten sea creatures featured by Otaru Aquarium. This guide is available in Japanese, English, and Simplified Chinese, so do give it a listen. The QR code is also available on the pamphlet.

The Largest and Panoramic Fish Tank is Here!

The Largest and Panoramic Fish Tank is Here!

As you proceed inwards, you will see a large water tank along the wall that offers you a panoramic view. Enjoy the incredible view of sharks, rays, green turtles, and more leisurely swimming around before your eyes!
The green turtle “Tarō” that you hear about in the audio guide is also here in this large, panoramic tank.

Tarō is a sea turtle that was found without one of its forelimbs on the shore of Shobetsu Village in northern Hokkaido. It has been living its life in the panoramic fish tank since 2013. The Japanese audio guide about Tarō contains some Hokkaido dialect, so do check it out if you are interested!

The most iconic part of the Otaru Aquarium is its special, time-limited exhibit, which features a particular sea creature and explains its ecology and characteristics. The crab is the featured sea creature for the year 2020 and will have its dedicated exhibit just by the panoramic tank until 23 November.

Get close with the world’s largest crab, the Japanese spider crab.

The “Honobono Pool,” Where the Harbor Porpoises Reside

The “Honobono Pool,” Where the Harbor Porpoises Reside

The harbor porpoise is a small cetacean that inhabits the coasts of Hokkaido. There are only a few facilities where the harbor porpoise is reared in exhibits – Otaru Aquarium is one of the two aquariums in the whole of Japan that does so.

Go down the steps or slope next to the pool and you will be able to observe the harbor porpoise at eye level.

The four harbor porpoises reared here were caught in a stationary net. In collaboration with the Hokkaido University Faculty of Fisheries Sciences, the aquarium is currently researching the ecology and habits of the harbor porpoise.

Although harbor porpoises are extremely vigilant, they are also full of curiosity. They may seem to be swimming quickly without a care about their surroundings, but in reality, these harbor porpoises are always on their guard, perhaps even watching out for you!

Seafood Seasonality: Find Out Which Sea Creatures Taste Best During Each Season!

Seafood Seasonality: Find Out Which Sea Creatures Taste Best During Each Season!

This permanent exhibit called “Shun no Oishisou” is where Hokkaido’s seasonal sea creatures are exhibited. The sea creatures exhibited are those that can be eaten during that particular season. Otaru is known for its sushi, after all, so be sure to drop by this exhibit at the aquarium before your meal.

Some of the exhibited sea creatures were kindly shared with the aquarium by the local fishermen.

There are information sheets and boards everywhere in Otaru Aquarium, created by the zoo caretakers themselves. At the “Shun no Oishisou” exhibit, these information sheets and boards tell us more about the sea creature and its characteristics and how to consume it. Lots of other hand-drawn illustrations and quizzes are put up by each fish tank so remember to have a look!

The 360-Degree Fish Tank “Sea of Okhotsk / Bering Sea”

The 360-Degree Fish Tank “Sea of Okhotsk / Bering Sea”

In this section, called “Sea of Okhotsk / Bering Sea,” visitors meet the fishes that mainly inhabit the seas in cold areas. Upon entering this space, you will find yourself surrounded by a 360-degree fish tank.

The flat fish present in this fish tank is known as a halibut. It is the largest fish of the right-eye flounder family – among the ones caught by the aquarium in the past, there was even one measuring 2.7 meters in length! Seeing it up close is certainly an overwhelming experience.

A board measuring the same length as that 2.7-meter halibut so you can see how large it is

This fish with the scary face is the Bering wolffish. Because of a legend that claimed that a good catch of the pacific herring would follow after you catch a Bering wolffish, the Ainu people referred to this fish as the ‘god of fish.’

Even though the Bering wolffish typically stays within the crevices of rocks, the ones at Otaru Aquarium swim around in a carefree manner. The explanation for their odd behavior has not been found just yet, but this is where you can catch a rare sight of the bering wolffish swimming!

Showcases by the Dolphins and the South American Sea Lions

Showcases by the Dolphins and the South American Sea Lions

In the Dolphin Stadium, visitors can enjoy showcases of the dolphin and the South American sea lion. There are solo shows for the South American sea lions, but the aquarium also organizes the “South American Sea Lions’ Elementary School,” a show that involves three sea lions. Meanwhile, the bottlenose dolphins charm the audience with their adorable performances and powerful jumps. You have to see the huge splashes from their dynamic jumps!

Presently, these shows are available only on weekdays (from 11 July 2021, the shows will resume on weekends irregularly) as a measure against the spread of COVID-19. However, feel free to enter the Dolphin Stadium on weekends, and you might just catch the aquatic animals in the midst of their training.

The “Marine Mammals Park,” An Exhibit That’s Part of the Sea!

The “Marine Mammals Park,” An Exhibit That’s Part of the Sea!

The Marine Mammal Park is a popular exhibit in Otaru Aquarium that is located outdoors. As you make your way down the mountain path towards the park, remember to look out and enjoy the clear waters of the wide sea!

The pool of the Marine Mammals Park was actually created by partitioning off part of the sea. As this is not much different from the original, natural environment, seaweed like konbu grow abundantly here. Also, sea creatures like sea urchin and sea cucumber inhabit this pool, which is also home to earless seals and Steller sea lions.

Waves roll continuously into the pool, which is not much different from natural environments.

Try Your Hand at Feeding the Seals

Five kinds of seals inhabit the seas near Japan, out of which four types are exhibited at Otaru Aquarium. The aquarium rears 47 seals in total, the largest number of seals among all aquariums in Japan.

Most of the seals reared here are spotted seals. Currently, there are 29 of them

Something you should definitely try while you are here is to feed the seals. You can purchase a bucket of feed for the seals, which will contain Ohoktsk atka mackerel or saffron cod.

Today’s feed is saffron cod

Once you head over to the side of the pool with the feed, the hungry seals will soon gather towards you, eyeing the bucket in your hand! Some of them will ask for food by flapping their forelimbs on the surface of the water, while others will bark. As soon as you throw fish in, the seals will scramble for them so be careful not to get splashed!

Wild seals do not usually bark, but they do when asking for food

Watch the Steller Sea Lions Dive!

Watch the Steller Sea Lions Dive!

Let’s head to the pool for Steller sea lions next. As you approach the pool, the Steller sea lions reciprocate by coming closer too.

There are Steller sea lion shows organized at Otaru Aquarium too. The most exciting part of these shows is when as many as six Steller sea lions dive into the waters together – a brilliant performance you can’t tear your eyes away from.
As part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Steller sea lion shows are available only on weekdays. (The shows will resume on weekends irregularly from 11 July 2021. Most of the shows involving other sea creatures have been temporarily suspended, with the exception of the South American sea lions, dolphins and Steller sea lions, but you can still catch some of them in action during their training sessions.)

The Steller sea lions who participate in the shows are all male. Their dives are impressive and powerful!

The coastline along the Marine Mammals Park is actually part of the Niseko-Shakotan-Otaru Kaigan Quasi-National Park. Here in the sea is where wild seals and Steller sea lions live. In winter, about 100 to 150 wild Steller sea lions gather on the “Todoiwa,” a rock visible from the Marine Mammals Park. If you bring along a pair of binoculars, you might be able to catch a glimpse of Otaru’s wild Steller sea lions and earless seals there!

The full view of Todoiwa
Todoiwa is filled in winter! There are so many Steller sea lions and earless seals in the sea that on seeing them emerging on Todoiwa, some concerned locals would contact the aquarium to inform them that the sea creatures had “escaped!”

The Penguins That Lead Carefree Lives in the Aquarium

The Penguins That Lead Carefree Lives in the Aquarium

Don’t forget to pay a visit to the penguins when you are at Marine Mammals Park! They are one of the most popular sea creatures here at Otaru Aquarium. The penguins reared here are the Humboldt penguin and the Gentoo penguin. In particular, the Humboldt penguins put up amazing penguin shows during summer! The penguins here are well-known for their carefree lifestyle. They do not show any concern about what the caretakers say, do what they want and do not bother showcasing any special talents or skills! For acting according to their own whims, these penguins command quite the popularity at their ‘entertaining’ shows – where they simply ignore the trainers’ instructions and do as they like!

There is a special show put up during summer, called “The Penguins’ Excursion to the Sea.” This is when the Humboldt penguins leave their enclosures and head for the sea while passing the visitors by along the way!
In the winter, the aquarium organizes the show “Penguins Strolling in the Snow.” This show is where the Gentoo penguins get to shine as they walk around on the snow-covered paths freely and adorably, grabbing the attention of all the visitors!

You may feel tempted to reach out to the penguins, but please avoid touching them

On the way to the Dolphin Stadium, there is a little island for the Humboldt penguins that was opened in April 2020. This ‘island’ is an enclosure that was constructed to mimic Chile and Peru’s natural environments in South America that Humboldt penguins normally inhabit. As such, their actions and movements are also typical of wild Humboldt penguins. They climb up onto rocks and hide in the shade on a hot day.

Pick Up Souvenirs at the Gift Shop

Pick Up Souvenirs at the Gift Shop

After going around the various parts of the aquarium, how about ending your trip by picking up some souvenirs to remember all the fun you have had? The gift shop is divided into two sections on the first and second floors. The section on the first floor is just past the main entrance of the aquarium.

Original mini towel (440 yen; tax-inclusive). The penguin designs are popular

Something you should look out for is the aquarium’s original T-shirt. The most popular choice is the “Earless Seal T-shirt” (2,420 yen; tax-inclusive). The “Ohoktsk Atka Mackerel T-shirt” (2,420 yen; tax-inclusive) recommended by the aquarium, has a cute design too.

On the back of the shirt is an Ohoktsk atka mackerel sliced open!

The plush animal toys sold here are of a range of sizes, from small plush toys that fit snugly in your hands to large, huggable ones. As part of the aquarium’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, all plush toys have been wrapped with vinyl packaging so customers can be at ease.

Penguin-shaped magnets (495 yen; tax-inclusive). Aren’t their round, cute eyes charming?

Getting to Otaru Aquarium from Sapporo

Getting to Otaru Aquarium from Sapporo

JR Train + Bus
Ride the train from Sapporo to Otaru on the JR Hakodate Main Line. Then, take a bus (Hokkaido Chūō Bus) from Otaru Station bound for the aquarium. There are different kinds of discounted tickets offered by various companies, so pick those that suits your needs and schedule.
Discounted Tickets

JR Hokkaido “Otaru Aquarium Ticket Set”
・This set includes tickets for JR trains and buses for a round trip from Sapporo Station and coupons that can be exchanged for admission tickets into Otaru Aquarium. You are free to hop on trains between Otaru Station and Otaru Chikko Station too (limited to only non-reserved seats on ordinary trains). The bus ticket entitles you to a single-time round trip between either “Otaru Unga Terminal” or “Otaru Eki-mae” and the aquarium.

Hokkaido Chūō Bus “Otaru One-Day Boarding Pass”
・This boarding pass entitles you to unlimited bus rides for a day on the local buses within Otaru City. If you intend to go around Otaru to explore, this will be ideal. This option also comes with discounts for admission tickets into Otaru Aquarium.

Access by Bus
Purchase the “Otaru Aquarium Pass Set (Round Trip)” from Hokkaido Chūō Bus, which contains round-trip tickets from the city center of Sapporo to the aquarium. Take an express bus from Sapporo to Otaru Station, then change to a local bus. Admission tickets to the aquarium are included in this set.

Access by Car
Go onto National Route 5 from Sapporo. If you are taking the highway, get onto the Sasson Expressway (toll fee applicable) from Sapporo and exit at Otaru IC. If you are headed to the aquarium from within Otaru, go along Hokkaido Prefectural Road Route 454. Paid parking spaces are available at the aquarium.

Otaru Aquarium has lots to offer across the year, with their shows and events changing seasonally. Besides the sea creatures and areas introduced in this article, there remains much more to be discovered. Whether you are a first-time visitor or not, you should definitely stop by Otaru Aquarium while you are here in Otaru!

  • Otaru Aquarium
    おたる水族館
    • Address 3-chome-303, Shukutsu, Otaru-shi, Hokkaido 047-0047
    • Phone Number 0134-33-1400
    • Hours: Normal hours 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (last entry at 3:30 p.m.) from 20 March 2020 (Friday/Public Holiday) to 23 November 2020 (Monday/Public Holiday)
      Winter Period 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (last entry at 3:30 p.m.) from 12 December 2020 (Saturday) to 28 February 2021 (Sunday)
      *Extension of opening hours occurs at times. Please check the official website for more details.
      Fees: 1,500 yen for adults; 600 yen for children (elementary and middle school); 300 yen for toddlers (above 3 years old)
      Closed: 24 November 2020 to 11 December 2020

Text by:minna no kotoba sha

*The information provided in this article is accurate as of July 2020.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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