Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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October 3, 2012

When in Japan, see dugongs, eat dugong cookies

TOKYO (AP) — Americans may seem obsessed with animals, with daycare for dogs and TV therapists for cats, not to mention the hours we spend looking at photos of cute critters on the Internet. But it's generally the conventionally adorable ones that get our attention. On a recent trip to Japan I found ample evidence of our two countries' mutual adoration of pets and pandas. But it was a pleasure to immerse myself in a culture that shares my appreciation for more unusual creatures as well. Here are some highlights.

DUGONGS

One of my lifelong dreams was to see a dugong. There are only a handful of these sea mammals related to manatees in captivity, none in North America. One of them is in the Toba Aquarium in Mie Prefecture, about three hours by train from Tokyo, http://www.aquarium.co.jp/english/index.html .

The legend of the mermaid is supposed to be a result of sailors' sightings of dugongs. Only someone who'd been at sea and hadn't seen a woman in an extremely long time could mistake this animal for a human beauty, with its tiny eyes, large floppy lips, and almost rectangular bald head.

But the Japanese clearly appreciate an animal that's so ugly that it's cute, and Serena, at the Toba Aquarium, is the star of all the signage and publicity, as well as the model for toys and treats at the gift shop (more on that later).

I was rewarded for sharing my obsession when my Japanese friend mentioned to a staff member that I'd come all the way from America to see the dugong. A couple of hours later, she flagged us down in the hallway and gave me an impromptu behind-the-scenes tour.

WALRUS SHOWS

Most visitors don't get to meet the dugong, but anyone at the Toba Aquarium can get up close and personal with an enormous sea mammal: Just go to the regularly scheduled walrus show.

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