Kyoto’s Beloved Penguins

What’s not to love about penguins?

16D12 Penguin watching

Though smelly, these little well-dressed birds have a strange ability to flap and waddle directly into the heart of any culture–and Japan is no exception. Both of the Japanese aquariums I visited had large displays of penguins (measured both in size and number of inhabitants) and, just like American aquariums, the windows and walls were lined with adoring fans.

The Kyoto Aquarium’s penguin exhibit differed from those I’ve seen in the states in a couple of interesting ways.

First, in the approach to the exhibit, which was actually an exhibit and education center in its own right.

Black and white panels along the walls showed penguins at every phase of life, with written explanations about the way young penguins eat:

16D12 Penguin feeding 

and moult at about a year old, at which point they grow their adult feathers:

16D12 Penguin molting

Well-lit displays along the wall held everything from penguin eggs:

16D12 Penguin Egg

…to a pile of feathers, representing the molt of a juvenile penguin becoming an adult.

16D12 Penguin molted feathers

As we walked through this portion of the exhibit, I noticed several parents reading the panels to their children, and older children reading the panels and staring into the glass displays. Given that I’m used to U.S. aquariums, where few people of any age read the information cards, it was an interesting experience.

Around the corner from the entrance hall, and up a ramp, we found the penguins waiting:

16D12 baby penguin

I’ve blogged before about the curious “march of the penguins” that takes place each afternoon, where keepers roam the exhibit carrying fish in order to ensure the penguins exercise (in a game of “follow the fish”) and to observe their general health.

15I20 Penguins 1

The penguins seemed eager to get the fish, but also more than familiar with the drill. We saw no shoving, no flapping, and no fighting…just groups of penguins following the keepers like a classroom-full of well-mannered children.

Except for a couple, who seemed more interested in watching the watchmen: 

16D12 Who watches who

This emphasis on education, as well as exhibition, and clear concern for the animals’ welfare carried through the entire Kyoto Aquarium. The animals seemed happy, well-fed, and housed in appropriate environments not only for viewing but for the animals’ health and happiness too. Given the criticism leveled against many zoos and aquariums worldwide, I found it interesting to see the Japanese approach.

Also, I found it amusing to see the Japanese treatment of the aquarium’s “favored species.”

In most U.S. aquariums, the marquee attractions tend to be large, flashy animals like seals, sea otters, and–of course–the penguins. Designers place these exhibits toward the back of the aquarium complex, away from the entrance, encouraging flow and traffic patterns through the aquarium.

By contrast, the most popular exhibit at the Kyoto Aquarium was also the very first: the giant salamanders.

0606 Giant Salamander Tank


Though largely immobile and possessing faces not even the most dedicated mother could love, these improbable favorites created a giant bottleneck near the entrance.

Nobody wanted to pass them by, and everyone watched them intently, cheering and pointing out the smallest movement of leg, tail, or claw. 

The gift shop had giant piles of plush toy salamanders, in every possible size, along with salamander-themed T-shirts, coffee mugs, plates, and other novelties. I even saw a salamander keychain. It stocked a wide variety of other toy animals also–including penguins–but none as plentiful as the salamanders. One of my son’s Japanese friends attempted to explain: 

“Japanese people just love salamanders”–and that’s good enough for me.

15I20 Closeup penguin

I liked them, too…but I have to admit, my heart still belongs to the penguins.