The Giant Salamanders of Japan

On my first morning in Japan, I woke up at 4:30am to catch a Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. Upon arrival, I went with my son and one of his friends to the Kyoto Aquarium, where I immediately discovered a major difference between a Japanese aquarium and the ones I’ve visited in the United States.

The marquee creature.

Aquariums usually place a large-draw creature close to the entrance, because the visitors want to see the animal as soon as they enter. Other “big-ticket” creatures may be located far from the entrance (ensuring that guests stay long enough to make the full circuit) but there’s always one big attraction right at the opening, to boost excitement about the aquarium from the start.

In the U.S.A., the “opening exhibit” is usually something dangerous or impressive–a tank of sharks or a massive aquarium featuring giant rays or a deep-sea turtle. 

In Japan, the opening salvo was … salamanders.

Kyoto Aquarium

The Japanese Giant Salamander (in Japanese, Ōsanshōuo: “Giant Pepper Fish”) can reach five feet in length, and weigh up to 100 pounds, making it the second-largest amphibian in the world. (The largest is the Chinese salamander–because I know you’d lose sleep wondering.)

They sleep in a giant dog-pile under the water:

0606 Giant Salamander Tank

Salamander pile, up close:

06-06 Giant Salamander Pile

It wasn’t easy to tell where each one ended and the next began.

Japanese Giant Salamanders live only in clear, freshwater streams. They eat fish, insects, and smaller amphibians. Their eyesight is poor, so for hunting and sensing the environment Japanese giant salamanders depend primarily on a lateral line system of sensory organs–essentially modified sensory hairs–similar to the sensory system of a shark. 

Although a salamander might not seem like a “crowd-pleaser,” these were clearly a primary draw for the busy Kyoto Aquarium. The salamander tanks had a perpetual crowd around them, and the gift shop featured a LARGE assortment of salamander merchandise, from plush stuffed toys in ten different sizes to rubber salamanders, keychains, desktop toys and even salamander cookies. (That would be cookies shaped like salamanders, or imprinted with their image. Thankfully, none of them contained any actual salamander.)

The aquarium had a salamander-themed exhibit upstairs as well, with several smaller specimens, including the Japanese black salamander–the only one I could get to pose for a photo. (He even seemed to be smiling.)

0606 Black Salamander

The other salamanders seemed less interested in 15 minutes of fame. I could see them clearly, but none would pose in a way that made for a decent image.

That’s salamanders for you. No love for their adoring fans.

However, the fans at the Kyoto Aquarium didn’t seem to mind the star attraction’s apathetic attitude. (Which, in fairness, might have been sleepiness, given that salamanders are nocturnal.) The creatures were clearly a giant hit…and I have to admit, I liked them just as much as everyone else did. Possibly more, because they gave me a chance to learn about a creature I knew little about….which is really the point of aquariums, after all.

Have you ever seen a Japanese Giant Salamander? Do you think they’re cute or … not so much?