Americans may seem obsessed with animals, with day care 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 immersed myself in a culture that shares my appreciation for more unusual creatures.
One of my lifelong dreams was to see a dugong, a relative of the manatee. There are only a handful of these sea mammals in captivity, none in North America. One of them is in the Toba Aquarium (www.aquarium.co.jp/english/index.html) in Mie Prefecture, about three hours by train from Tokyo.
The legend of the mermaid is supposedly based on 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.
Two tons of fun
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.
Unlike seal and sea lion performances 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 2-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.
A rodent belly-rub
Although I went to Toba to satisfy my dugong dream, when I walked into the hotel, I was greeted at the front desk by a photo of another one of my other favorite animals: It was an ad proudly touting the aquarium's recent acquisition of capybaras.
Most people in the United States are unfamiliar with the world's largest rodent, but capybaras are highly appreciated in Japan. There's a cartoon character called Kapibara-san, with a small store devoted entirely to its products in Tokyo Station. The products are also available at other shops, such as the well-known Kiddyland.
And my next dream Japan vacation? It'll be to Nagasaki Bio Park, which has a large enclosure for capybaras, where visitors can wander among the 100-pound rodents and give them belly rubs.
Beetles are big
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.
I didn't attend an organized beetle-wrestling tournament, but I did visit a tiny, perfectly clean shop that sells them as pets. One particularly large specimen -- if you didn't run away screaming first -- would set you back 3,980 yen, about $50.
Pandas and sweets
As a resident of the Washington, D.C., area, I thought I knew something about panda obsession. That was before I stayed for two weeks near Ueno Zoo (www.tokyo-zoo.net/english/ueno/), which is Panda Central for Tokyo.
Local entrepreneurs compete to celebrate the adored beast. Sweet bean-paste buns are already round, so it's simple to decorate them to look like panda faces. But why stop there? An art museum in Ueno Park had an exhibit of Egyptian art, so one bakery featured a bun where the panda wears an Egyptian headdress.
Similar souvenirs were available at other zoos and aquariums. 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.
My traveling companion told me that when Japanese tourists go to Loch Ness, they're utterly bewildered by the absence of Nessie cookies.