Unlike seal and sea lion performances you may have seen at U.S. parks, these animals weren't on a distant stage. The audience sat on benches around a floor covered with a wet tarp, with no barrier between us and the blubbery two-ton critters.
Though I couldn't understand the trainers' patter, the slapstick humor of the routine needed no translation. Afterward, anyone could give the performers a pat and have their picture taken.
I went to Toba to satisfy my dugong dream, but when I walked into the hotel I was greeted at the front desk by a photo of one of my other favorite animals: an ad proudly touting the aquarium's recent acquisition of capybaras.
Most people in the U.S. are unfamiliar with the world's largest rodent, but capybaras seem to be highly appreciated in Japan. There's a cartoon character called Kapibara-san, with a small store devoted entirely to its products in Tokyo Station as well as available at other shops like the well-known Kiddyland.
And my next dream Japan vacation? It'll be to Nagasaki Bio-Park, where there's a large enclosure for capybaras where visitors can wander among the hundred-pound rodents and give them belly rubs.
Years of looking for a dugong in American zoo and aquarium gift shops left me empty-handed, but at Toba, you can buy at least two dozen kinds of stuffed dugong and several varieties of dugong-themed cookies. I also bought a capybara-shaped box of crunchy strawberry chocolates.
Similar souvenirs were available at other zoos and aquariums. My travelling companion with told me that when Japanese tourists go to Loch Ness, they're utterly bewildered by the absence of Nessie cookies.
So-ugly-they're-cute animals are big in Japan, but there's also an appreciation of animals that are not cute by any definition. The Tama Zoo in Tokyo, about an hour from the city center by train, has an enormous free-flight butterfly exhibit and a large Insectarium, its entrance adorned with statues celebrating insects, including a dung beetle. But more unusual to a foreigner is the tradition of keeping insects as pets, in particular, huge beetles with frightening-looking horns.