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The Artsy Aquarium: Atoa Sannomiya

The Artsy Aquarium: Atoa Sannomiya

Art is both laughably easy and maddeningly difficult to define. For some, art is an eccentric expression of a feeling that words are insufficient to describe. Some would argue that art is experiential, the effect of the art on the individual. In my opinion, the newly opened Atoa (アトア) Aquarium in Sannomiya (三宮) would be a fine example of both.


Close enough to touch the displays. (Image credit: Eugene Lee)


Atoa is certainly eccentric in a way that can be a little confusing. There are several exhibits in the aquarium that were built for the Instagram crowd. Lights and mirrors, fog and shadows surrounding backlit tanks of colourful fish. This contrasts sharply with the exhibits clearly for children. Cartoon mascot cutout photo ops and animated explanations for the different animals on display. 


The Atoa experience, as I said before, can be quite subjective. I was personally delighted by the exhibit called Fragrance (香り), which proudly gave the aquarium-goer the chance to experience the smell of penguin buttholes. However, others may find this somewhat unappealing. Despite the stark differences of going room to room, my personal experience was coloured by a special guest: my two-year-old niece. The little, ‘ooo’s and ah’s’ and the pitter-patter of tiny footsteps running from one tank to the next lead to an overarching experience of whimsy. 


Shimmering icons of Japan. (Image credit: Eugene Lee)


The wonderful thing about Atoa is that the artistic exhibits could still be appreciated by a toddler. The stand-out exhibits of the aquarium were almost certainly the Japanese garden-themed room. Upon entering the room, the clear panelled floors covered a tank filled with bright koi fish. Bridges and a wooden platform arching over a fish-filled pond stands in the centre of the room. A white weeping willow tree-inspired sculpture was at the back of the room. Suddenly, the lights dim, and the walls burst into life. Brightly coloured icons of Japan flash on the walls, reflecting on the hanging branches of the weeping willow sculpture all set to a Japanese-themed soundtrack reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto.


Laser beams and spotlights. (Image credit: Eugene Lee)


The other stand-out exhibit was the light show exhibit with the spherical fish tank centrepiece. The large circular room, dimly lit around the edges. Softly reclining chairs line the walls, and a cool mist is released into the room. Lasers and spotlights reflect off the central tank and vibrant patterns of lights trace across the dark floor. Here, too, there is music. An ambient soundtrack of wonder and whimsy surge to a dramatic crescendo before the music cuts and the lights fade to darkness yet again.


The rooftop view is equally spectacular. (Image credit: Eugene Lee)


My time at the aquarium reminded me of the first-ever performance of Peter Pan, where author J. M. Barrie decided to fill some of the seats of his play with orphans from the street. The effect of children laughing with glee on a mostly adult audience became one of the reasons for the play’s success. There is a risk whenever labelling something as ‘artistic’ that it also becomes somewhat pretentious. However, with so many fun aspects and the clear appeal to children, Atoa becomes a much more cohesive experience. The magic is in the overall effect, the childish aspects that flavour the greater whole.


Atoa (アトア)
Address: 7-2 Shinkocho, Chuo-ku, Kobe, Hyogo 650-0041
Nearest station: Hanshin Motomachi Station (元町駅)
Access: 15-minute walk from station
Admission: ¥2,400 (Adult), ¥1,400 (Children), ¥800 (Toddler)
Opening hours: 10am–9pm


Header image credit: Eugene Lee


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