Fukui: Dinosaur museum takes visitors to prehistoric world

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Tyrannosaurus robot moves at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum.

KATSUYAMA, Fukui — What looks like a giant silver egg among deep-green trees is actually the domed building of the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum, the hub of Katsuyama Dinosaur Forest Park.

The museum has been one of the leading dinosaur research centers in Japan, since a succession of fossils of new dinosaur species began to be unearthed in the area.

Visitors can see a number of full-body skeletal specimens of dinosaurs at the museum and experience excavating fossils in a nearby area. I stepped into the “dinosaur kingdom” to get a sense of the prehistoric creatures.

Excavation experience

On a hot, humid day in late August, parents and children at the excavation experience venue in the park, looked intently at rocks dating to the early Cretaceous period, about 120 million years ago. The real excavation site, Kitadani Dinosaur Quarry, is located about 7 kilometers northeast of the venue, and the rocks were brought from there.

“Plant and shellfish fossils are the most common finds, but dinosaur bones have also been found here,” a guide said. Having listened to the explanation, participants placed the tips of their chisels against the rocks and swung their hammers with a clang.

“They’re hard to find. Even so, I can’t help but search diligently,” said a 37-year-old man from Saitama Prefecture. His 9-year-old daughter said, “I’d be happy to find a plant fossil.”

One participant found a turtle shell.

I rode the long escalator down to the basement of the egg-shaped museum, and had the illusion of stepping back in time. In the basement, I was greeted by a robot resembling a Tyrannosaurus. The 7-meter-tall carnivorous behemoth rocked violently and growled at visitors. I flinched a little at the realism.

The ancient world is spread across the floor, with 44 full-scale skeletal specimens — 10 of which are composed of authentic fossils — including the large herbivorous dinosaur Brachiosaurus and the carnivorous Allosaurus. There are also life-size dioramas.

“We value devices that get one thinking about how dinosaurs moved, roared and lived,” museum director Toshihisa Takeuchi said.

In 2009, the dinosaur museum purchased a nearly complete fossil of the herbivorous dinosaur Camarasaurus from the United States, and exhibited the process of removing rock from fossils, assembling the skeleton and putting it on display. Thanks in part to such efforts, the museum became even more popular, and the total number of visitors since its opening in 2000 surpassed 12 million in August.

The facility is currently undergoing partial remodeling and will reopen next summer with a new building that will have a giant screen where visitors will be able to watch dinosaurs moving, and an area where they can try removing a fossil from a rock.

“We hope the new facility will bring dinosaurs back to life in visitors’ minds and also have them experience the world back then,” Takeuchi said.

Research base

Until serious research began in 1989, the valley home to the Kitadani Dinosaur Quarry had no prior connection to dinosaurs.

But as more and more fossils were discovered, including those of five new species — iguanodontian Fukuisaurus and theropod Fukuiraptor among them — dinosaur research centered on the museum has developed. Many paleontology specialists come to Katsuyama, making the city one of the country’s leading research centers.

“We have an excavation site and can use it for free research. That’s our advantage,” said Masateru Shibata, a senior researcher. Dinosaur teeth have been found in the fourth excavation since 2013, and new bones are expected to be discovered.

The museum has conducted excavations in Tokushima, Nagasaki and Kumamoto prefectures jointly with local institutes as well as in China and Thailand. In 2013, the Dinosaur Research Institute was established at Fukui Prefectural University, which has created an environment for nurturing the next generation of researchers in collaboration with the museum.

“We’ll continue excavations throughout Asia to reveal dinosaurs as yet undiscovered,” said Shibata, who is also an associate professor at the university.

I’m looking forward to the day when those who studied here make a significant mark on dinosaur research around the world.

Extend your trip

Field Station

Courtesy of the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum
The Field Station

The Field Station was opened in 2014 in an area overlooking the Kitadani Dinosaur Quarry, which is about 7 kilometers away from the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. Visitors get on a special bus to the site from the museum to join a 2-hour tour that lets them visit the quarry, see dinosaur footprint fossils and try fossil excavation in the same way as at Katsuyama Dinosaur Forest Park, while listening to an explanation about the history of dinosaur research. Admission is ¥1,220 for adults, ¥1,020 for high school and college students and ¥610 for elementary and junior high school students. Reservations are required.

Tours run from April to November. They were canceled this year because a landslide caused by heavy rain in early August made it difficult to access the site, and it has not yet been decided when tours will resume.

How to get there

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Katsuyama Dinosaur Forest Park is a roughly 15-minute bus ride from Katsuyama Station on the Echizen Railway or about 10 minutes by car from the Chubu-Jukan Expressway’s Katsuyama Interchange. Admission to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum is ¥730 for adults, ¥420 for high school and college students and ¥260 for elementary and junior high school students. Reservations are required due to the pandemic. A trial excavation is available by appointment and costs ¥1,050 for adults, ¥850 for high school students and ¥530 for junior high school students and younger.