Kenji with awards
Mr Kenji Kawabata and his many Florida State Fair Awards

Aquarium Illusions, LLC

About Us

AI has been maintaining award winning aquariums in the Tampa Bay area for over 5 years. The business is owned by Kenji Kawabata, BS in Ichthyology (fish biology). He has over six years experience working and volunteering at the Florida Aquarium where Mr. Kawabata created a display tank. He also worked for a tropical fish importer and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. For twelve consecutive years (1997 to present) he has won the Grand Champion Award (and many others) at the Florida State Fair.

"Finest Fish at the Fair"

The colorful artificial and living elements of aquariums are judged as the 98th annual Florida State Fair gets rolling.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer

Copyright, published February 7, 2002 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

The colorful artificial and living elements of aquariums are judged as the 98th annual Florida State Fair gets rolling.

TAMPA -- Jaap-Jan de Greef loves fish.

He loves the mottled brown farlowella, a 5-inch fish that looks like a twig. He loves the shimmering African lampeye that is graced with a neon blue eyebrow. He especially loves the Cubanichthys cubensis, also known as the Cuban pupfish. He loves those so much that he smuggled one out of Cuba several years ago.

"I'm a crazy fish person," admits de Greef, who said he had the proper paperwork to bring the fish into the United States.

De Greef is so crazy that he spent much of Wednesday stooped in front of 49 tanks clustered on tables at the Florida State Fair, which begins its annual 12-day run this morning. He was one of three judges assigned to the fair's Aquarium Beautiful contest.

Think the Westminster dog show. But with fins.

Or "finnage," to those in the know.

In this little-known but intensely competitive corner of the state fair, aquariums are judged on the perkiness of the plants, the clarity of the water and the fullness of the fins. Even the enthusiasm with which the fish circle their tank is considered.

Some of the competitors are students who place artificial plants and goldfish in small, plastic tanks. Some are professionals. They bring their own living coral, anemones and imported plants.

All had 24 hours to set up their tanks in the fair's Family Living building, which sits across from the Florida Grape Growers exhibit and adjacent to the horticulture room, where equally intense orchid growers were setting up their exhibits this week.

At stake in the competition were blue ribbons, a $100 Best of Show check and the knowledge that thousands of people would see some really weird fish.

That was plenty of motivation for Kenji Kawabata, a veteran of these wars. He began collecting fish when he was a boy in Japan.

Now he has 25 tanks in his Largo home. A few turtles, too.

"I don't do mammals," he said.

Like other serious fish hobbyists in the area, Kawabata joined the Tampa Aquarium Society. Some years, he spends thousands of dollars on his fish.

But he wants his aquatic art to reach a wider audience.

"Just keeping fish at home, it's a lot of work," said Kawabata, 29. "Not many people see it."

In 1996, Kawabata packed up tubes, pumps and two aquariums and entered the fair contest. He put his fish in plastic bags and brought chemicals to dechlorinate the fair's water so it wouldn't cloud the tank.

Kawabata is able to arrange plants in a tank so they look natural, like a scene from a stunning snorkeling trip in the Caribbean. Combine that with his love for unusual fish, and he is a formidable challenge in any category he enters.

Last year, he genetically engineered two different types of guppies -- a blue one and an albino -- so he could show a translucent guppy with a blue tint.

Kawabata also goes to Key West periodically to catch his own tropical fish. This year, he used a tiny hook and tinier pieces of squid to lure three bright yellow porkfish. Those fish are swimming at the fair right now, in a 20-gallon saltwater tank.

De Greef and the other two judges gave the porkfish tank first place in the professional saltwater class.

The judges raved about all of Kawabata's five entries.

One freshwater tank had dead leaves and leaf-like fish; another sported plants and fish from West Africa. A fourth had a catfish colored like a zebra and a rare Madagascar lace plant. The fifth contained glassfish, glass catfish and glass that came from Kawabata's truck windshield that was shattered during a break-in.

"I saw the glass and thought, 'I can use it for gravel,' " Kawabata said.

All of his tanks won blue ribbons. The West African-themed tank won Grand Champion for the fresh water category.

In other categories, such as the youth divisions, more than a half-dozen children were entered. Roy Yanong, a veterinarian for the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory at the University of Florida, was one of the judges. He scrutinized the cleanliness of the tanks, the placement of the plants and the quality of each fin, hence the "finnage" criteria.

Deformed, frayed or "faulty" fins can cost a contestant a ribbon.

"It's like gardening or any hobby. Anything that looks good takes time," Yanong said. "They go to great lengths."