While I don’t have much to report during this time which is hopefully leading up to a departure for Japan, I thought I’d try writing about my previous experiences there. The first topic that came to mind was the Tokyo Disney parks, since DisneySea was one of the first places I went after arriving the first time, and also because thanks to my mom who is kind of a Disney nut I know a lot about Disney parks. Some background: I first came to Japan as part of a January term class; we flew into Narita early that month (the New Year’s break had just ended), spent a week in Chiba staying with host families and taking basic Japanese classes, then we used the next week/week and a half to travel around the country on the bullet train before returning to Tokyo and then going home. It was my first trip outside of the U.S. and I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship that paid for most of it!
Our group had left together on a Thursday, gotten to Japan when it was Friday, and on Saturday afternoon/evening I came home with my host family, who lived in Shin-Urayasu (one stop on the Keiyō line away from Disneyland, incidentally). The family consisted of a mother, father, and six-year-old daughter; the couple was on the young side and the mom was eager to practice English with me. It sounded like she’d been trying to master English for a while and it just wasn’t coming; she had her daughter enrolled in eikaiwa (English conversation) classes in the hopes that she, at least, could become fluent in it. Most of the time we spoke Japanese, but we did have lots of conversations about the nuances and differences of each language (once–on our way to Disneyland, actually–I recall explaining that while tabun [たぶん] encompassed both “maybe” and “probably,” in English those two words were different. I drew a spectrum between “yes” and “no” in the air to illustrate that one). I’m still not sure what my host dad does for a living (maybe… graphic design?), but he had an office downstairs he spent a lot of time in, and he seemed to make good money, because their house was incredibly nice. It had central air-conditioning and heating and they even had a clothes dryer (used only for certain articles of clothing though!). (Although I should mention that my host mom was not satisfied to just be a housewife and a mom; she also worked 2-3 part-time jobs even though I don’t think she had to for financial reasons or anything. Maybe it was to pay for the eikaiwa lessons! Ha.) They set me up in the house’s one tatami room, with a wonderful futon composed of many super-soft layers:
It’s like sleeping on a cloud.
That night after dinner, I sat down at the table with my host mom to hash out what we would do that week. She asked me where I wanted to go while I was here, and I answered: “Disneyland, and Tokyo Tower.” She wanted to know if I’d been to the original Disneyland, I said yes, and because of that it was decided that we would go to Tokyo DisneySea instead.
I had no idea Tokyo DisneySea even existed before then… but now I know she made the right decision, because Japan’s Disneyland is in many ways a carbon copy of the original, but Tokyo DisneySea is completely its own thing. A little history: the Disneyland park opened in 1983, run by the Oriental Land Company with a license from Disney (Disney doesn’t own it!). But now it’s a resort complex of two parks, three official Disney hotels, a handful of other hotels, and a shopping area, all connected by a monorail line from Maihama Station on the Keiyō line. It’s also not officially in Tokyo, but in Chiba prefecture. It’s about a 20-minute train ride away from Tokyo Station. But it’s also closer to Narita airport than Tokyo is for those who are arriving straight to Disneyland from an international flight.
The next day, Sunday, my host mom, six-year-old host sister, and me (my host dad rarely accompanied us on our excursions–once we all went out to eat together, but that was it) went to Tokyo DisneySea! First impression: it’s gorgeous. And it really, really is. It had only opened five years before at that point (I didn’t notice the “Five Year Anniversary” overlays at the time) and the theme of the park is exploration, adventure, and the sea, and it takes a lot of inspiration from the Jules Verne oeuvre. It’s based on ideas for a Long Beach park that never materialized (meant to be called “DisneySeas” but the plural distinction disappears in Japanese and now even the English branding says “DisneySea” instead) and also some of Disneyland Paris’s Jules Verne-filled Discoveryland. (Incidentally, it’s often referred to as just “Sea” [シー] in Japanese, the way Disneyland gets shortened to “Land” [ランド].) It encompasses a lot of lands that represent things like a Mediterranean/Venetian/Italian harbor, an American waterfront, an Aztec temple, Arabia/Agrabah, and a futuristic “Center for Weather Control.” A giant mountain in the center of the park (surrounded by Jules Verne-themed rides) and a big globe of the world fountain are the symbols of the park. The theming is all so well done and it’s really a beautiful park that it’s a joy just to stroll through.
Host sister and me outside the globe at the front. Yes, please enjoy the star over my face; I haven’t decided how far to take this anonymity thing but no pictures of my face is probably a good place to stay for now.
That day I quickly discovered that my host mom is scared of roller coasters and thrill rides! She bowed out of almost everything more than moderately intense, but encouraged my host sister to go with me anyway, except for the rides she wasn’t tall enough to get on. I love theme parks and water parks so I don’t understand that at all! But I was super thrilled to ride a version of the Indiana Jones ride from Disneyland, one of my personal favorites; this one is called Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (this was before the fourth movie came out, so it was obviously based on an idea they’d had kicking around for a while). Maybe it was because the central room didn’t have flames but instead sort of spooky ghosty smoke, but I didn’t think it was as intense and thrilling and therefore not as good as the California one. Another ride that’s totally cookie-cutter and not worth it is Raging Spirits, which is just an ordinary roller coaster with loops with some Central American theming slapped over it.
Journey to the Center of the Earth was also interesting, because it starts out very slow and then at the end you start zoooooooming through! I also enjoyed Aquatopia, where you twirl and progress across invisible tracks on the water’s surface–so cool. My favorite though was the StormRider show, one of those 4D simulator theater experiences where you pretend to be chasing a storm so water falls on you from the ceiling, wind blows, etc. I fell in love with the voice actor they got to play the lead guy, Captain Davis! And I’m not the only one, I totally found pages online of Japanese girls squealing over him. He’s dreamy!
Since this was the first day I had really been out and about in Japan and moving among crowds, it was my first experience feeling completely and totally–not to mention OBVIOUSLY–out of place as a foreigner in Japan. I could not help but be conscious of how everyone around me looked Asian and I was the only non-Japanese around. But it was also the first time I experienced the high level of Japanese service. I had a pair of pink gloves with me, and at one point while walking around the Mysterious Island area I noticed I had dropped one of them. My host mom quickly flagged down a cast member, who got on her walkie talkie and put out a notice to the other cast members to look for a missing pink glove. Within a minute someone was running up to us with the glove, having picked it up from the ground where it had fallen earlier on our path. It was amazing! I was so impressed. I also noticed the demographics of everyone else there: groups of schoolgirls in matching mouse ears, couples on dates… and realized how differently Disney is perceived here. It’s no wonder there’s a special Christmas Eve price at DisneySea aimed at couples wanting a romantic date!
Mediterranean Harbor/American Waterfront areas
I also had a jarring moment where my Japanese abilities were not up to par; in the Arabian Coast area (sort of inspired by Aladdin) I rode the Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage boat ride with my host mom and sister and I could not understand the vast majority of what the audio-animatronics were saying as we floated by. So much of Disney is in English that until that point my Japanese comprehension had not really been tested, but that definitely made me realize I wasn’t as good as I thought, and it was a little strange to be riding a Disney ride and not understand what was going on. It also didn’t help that I don’t know the story of Sinbad at all. We had lunch in the Arabian area–curry and naan! Yum!
We also took in some shows, first something called Mystic Rhythms in the Lost River Delta area that I thought was SERIOUSLY cool, and then The Little Mermaid show, which surprised me in that all the dialogue was Japanese but the songs were English and the actress playing Ariel lip-synched everything. (Later, in the fall, I met the girl who probably played Ariel when I saw the show, just randomly around Shin-Urayasu!) The other thing I noticed about the park was the different popcorn flavor stands (these are at Disneyland too, like honey popcorn by the Winnie the Pooh ride). Each land has its own flavor of popcorn sold from only one stand each: chocolate at Port Discovery, cappuccino at Mediterranean Harbor, strawberry at American Waterfront, coconut (yuck) at Lost River Delta, curry at Arabian Coast, ??? at Mysterious Island (I’ll have to figure this out someday), and sea-salt at Mermaid Lagoon. In the summer you can also get sea-salt ice cream, just like in Kingdom Hearts! It was winter, though, so I didn’t get to try it and I was a little sad. That’s still something I have to do.
Mysterious Island area, looking down into where the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride is, which we did not do that day
My host sister and I outside the harbor on our way out.
I really had a wonderful day with my host mom and sister, and it was a great official second day in Japan for me.
The first Disney experience I had upon my return to Japan the following fall came mid-September, when I went with my former host mom and sister (who I did not stay with that fall, but I had several weekend stays with them) to Ikspiari, the Disney-owned shopping center around the entrances to the parks (it’s kind of like Downtown Disney in California). In some ways it was a little disappointing to be so close to a Disney park but not go in it, but I still liked wandering around the little mall area and eating some Indian curry with naan in the food court. Probably the greatest takeaway from that day was sighting Gothic Lolita Minnie Mouse paraphernalia!
Finally in October I got to try out the real Disneyland, again with my host mom and sister. I came over for a weekend stay and we went to Disneyland on Saturday. It had the Halloween overlay so all of that was incredibly cool to see for the first time, and we took the chance to get some pictures outside the Mickey in Halloween-colored flowers at the front.
Host sister and me.
But right away I was a little confused… the entrance looks completely different!
What is this Victorian-style building???
In contrast, this is what the entrance looks like in California:
So I was really not prepared for how different it was! And it didn’t stop there… we walked through the entrance only to come upon, not Main Street like I was expecting, but a place called World Bazaar instead! Whaaaat?
And the California original for comparison again:
Apparently the décor inside is still supposed to match early 20th-century America, just like Main Street, and the main thoroughfare that goes toward the castle actually is called Main Street, but the land doesn’t have that name. But… there’s that giant Victorian-style conservatory roof over everything. It’s to shield everyone from the elements, which I’m sure is nice on rainy days but it feels super strange to enter Disneyland into an enclosed space that feels like a greenhouse. Seriously.
As I studied my map, other frightening differences emerged. Frontierland is “Westernland.” There is no New Orleans Square, its rides absorbed by neighboring Fantasyland (Haunted Mansion) and Adventureland (Pirates of the Caribbean) instead. (Even though the restaurants and New Orleans backstreets still exist!) But those were pretty minor things. Tokyo Disneyland hovers between big discrepancies with the LA park and being almost a carbon copy of it. It’s hard to decide which it is.
The other interesting thing I noticed is how English is still the default language. Not on the rides, most of those will have Japanese dialogue of course, but for names of things (restaurants, ride names), signs (English in larger font, Japanese translation underneath), and so on. Plus, I realized how steeped in American culture Disneyland is, and how foreign some of that might seem to Japanese visitors. Maybe, to them, Disneyland feels like “American Culture Park”??
The paths have also been hugely widened to accommodate the huge amounts of crowds that often descend on the insanely popular park. It feels super weird to be walking on giant paths when you’re used to smaller ones you have to squeeze through on busy days. Since we went on a Saturday, we definitely dealt with some crazy crowds. My host mom had to plan out and regiment the entire day so we could maximize our time, and we had a jam-packed schedule as full of (Fastpassed) rides and shows and parades as possible, and we still didn’t get to do everything. I was really impressed by she totally took over and plotted out everything though.
Once again my host mom bowed out of most of the roller coasters/thrill rides, and my host sister went on as many as she could with me unless the height restriction kept her out. Rides: Space Mountain (in no way comparable to LA’s which is the absolute best), Gadget’s Go Coaster (kiddie coaster in Toontown), Pirates of the Caribbean (which TERRIFIED my host sister, which I was not expecting!), Tiki Room, Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, Country Bear Jamboree, Mickey Mouse Revue, Castle Carrousel, Splash Mountain (which scared both my host mom and sister), and Haunted Mansion (with the Nightmare before Christmas overlay–my first time to get to see it!). Some of those rides have since been removed from the U.S. park(s) or altered so it’s like going back in time to get to ride on them. In some ways going to Tokyo Disneyland is like going to 1980s U.S. Disneyland. Ah! I just saw they closed Mickey Mouse Revue in 2009 (and it’s now Mickey’s PhilharMagic just like at Disney World). I guess I’m glad I saw it while it was there!
Restaurants/snacks: Café Orleans for lunch, Queen of Hearts (or アリスのところ [Alice’s place] as my host sister kept calling it) for dinner. I love the original Café Orleans so I probably pushed for us to eat there. Sadly, it is horrible here. It focuses on crêpes and pita sandwiches (not exactly the cajun fries and Monte Cristo sandwiches with mint julep that I’m so fond of!), so I tried a sausage-and-cheese crêpe. It was quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever ordered and had to eat. I had to scrape off a ton of sauerkraut (since I don’t like it, which is my own fault) but the crêpe was soggy and the sausage–AKA just a hot dog–and fakey cheddar cheese sauce completely unappetizing. GROSS. Queen of Hearts was a buffeteria-type place with tons of Alice in Wonderland theming, although sadly not much that extended to the food; I got rotisserie chicken, and was impressed by the Alice theming MUCH more so than the food. For a snack, we also had honey-lemon churros at one point! No flavored popcorn though.
Parades: Scream and Shout (Halloween parade); Electrical Parade. Scream and Shout was amazing. The costumes of the dancers between floats were nothing short of eye candy. I took so many pictures, everything looked so cool!
Electrical Parade was not new to me but it’s always a great parade. Some highlights:
Shows: Kooky Spooky Halloween, a light/fireworks show that took place around the castle (more info on the show a little down the page here). During the show a central viewing area with rows of seats is set up, but clearly those are limited so there is a lottery. At some point my host mom left me with my host sister and ran off to try for tickets. And she got them! So we got to sit in the seating area and watch the show, although my host sister was conked out by that point and fell asleep during it! It was a very full and long day, we had been up since 7:30 a.m. and we probably left the park around 10:30 p.m., and she was seven years old, so I do not blame her one bit. So much fun though! But I have not been back to Tokyo Disneyland since.
A month later I managed to make it back to DisneySea, this time with friends. I’d convinced my classmates in my Japanese class to join me, although I’ll admit my reasoning was mostly because I wanted to ride the new Tower of Terror that had just opened. Our classroom was on the fourth floor or so of a building on a university campus, and on nice days we could see Disneyland in the distance from the window at the end of the hallway (I could also see the Disneyland fireworks from the balcony of the apartment I lived in), so that put the thought in my mind a lot. We had a fun day together! It was in November on a Wednesday (which we always had off from school). Finally, after passing by it countless times on the way to Tokyo, I got to get off at Maihama Station! And ride the Disney monorail for the first time! Although I was shocked to learn it cost money, after years of riding Disney monorails for free. It makes sense of course but I was so surprised at the time!
How cuuute is the monorail?! Mickey-shaped windows and straps!
We got in the park around 11 a.m., got Fastpasses for Tower of Terror, and our time wasn’t until 6:30 p.m.–that should tell you how legit Japanese people are about something new opening. Although otherwise the park was pretty empty since it was a weekday. While we were in the area we made reservations to have lunch at the Sailing Day Buffet–excellent choice (not my idea, shockingly!), and great value too. It was absolutely delicious and there was caramel ice cream!
Rides: Indiana Jones, StormRider, Journey to the Center of the Earth (twice), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (kind of claustrophobic since each tiny submarine only holds six people! Okay, I’m not going to lie, I actually did get legitimately freaked out on this ride even though it didn’t feel like we were actually moving around under the water at all), Aladdin carousel, DisneySea Electric Railway (on a whim; it was boring), and finally Tower of Terror. It was cool to see how it had been reimagined and given an entirely new storyline from the previous incarnations, but it was also not as intense even though–hilariously–there were over-the-shoulder restraints in the ride as if it was. For dinner we went to the Planet Hollywood in Ikspiari, which yeah I’m sure was overpriced and tacky, but it was American food we’d been craving for a while so it was really satisfying. I had a turkey sandwich, and I hadn’t had turkey in so long by then! Also a grasshopper cocktail, which was like a minty alcoholic milkshake! Really good!
It was a really fun day! I am so glad we went. Some pictures of the day…
This is what happens when you go with boys.
Tower of Terror lit up at night with fountains outside it.
I also visited the Tokyo Bay Hilton on Disney property a couple times in December since my host sister was part of “Mickey’s Junior Chorus” which performed Christmas songs there. Once we got the buffet while we watched the performance, which included a dessert buffet!!! It was amazing. Another time we picked out pastries and desserts (loading them onto a tray of course, as Asian bakeries do!) from the pâtisserie inside the hotel.
The thing that surprises me now is that I’ve looked into if any new rides have opened at either of the parks, in anticipation of visiting again… and none really have! DisneySea has added Fantasmic! which is cool, and in Disneyland there’s a flying carpets ride and Turtle Talk (don’t care about either of those kiddy things though), plus Toy Story Midway Mania is supposed to open, but the it really looks like the last big ride addition was the Tower of Terror, and that was back in 2006! It seems like Disneyland and Disney World are always changing and adding stuff so I don’t really understand why the same isn’t happening here. DisneySea in particular I feel needs to be fleshed out a bit; on an ordinary day you can complete the park in half a day, easy. It’s beautiful but it suffers from not quite enough to do. Then again, maybe I just need to go by myself when I’m free to linger as much as I please. For one thing I feel like I’ve barely explored the Mediterranean Harbor area. Definitely when I went with my friends (including several hyperactive boys) lingering was not encouraged, and my host mom liked to schedule things out a lot too.
Oh, and another interesting thing is comparing the prices of season passes between the Tokyo resort and the original California parks. It’s an astronomical difference. For the California parks, annual passports start at $200 a year and go up to $500 a year depending on the benefits you want to add. All give you access to both parks. For Tokyo… an annual passport to both parks is a whopping 80,000 yen or $982 according to the current exchange rate. $982!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! For one year! My jaw dropped when I first learned that. Unbelievable! Annual passports for just one park or the other are 52,000 yen or $638 in comparison. So in Tokyo, you can buy an annual passport for just ONE park that costs MORE than the highest-level annual passport to BOTH parks in California. Un-freaking-believable. I don’t know how they can get away with charging so much; I definitely don’t think the value is enough to warrant it. You would have to visit one park more than eight times to break even on what you paid for the annual passport (for one park), while in California you’d only have to visit twice (on a park-hopper pass each time) to get back what you paid for an annual passport (to both parks). Once again: I don’t know how they get away with that.
That aside… writing this all out, of course I really want to go again now. There’s so many corners of each park I have yet to explore, so many restaurants yet to dine at, and so many rides to go on again now that my Japanese listening comprehension is better. I’d love to go with my sister sometime and try to go on a weekday so we can maximize our time and hit a lot of stuff. I will get my next Disney fix at the end of the summer when I go to the California parks after the second gate has seen a complete makeover, so I’m really looking forward to that (I will attempt to go to everything new in both parks in one day while also hitting old favorites, possibly with family members in tow. We will see how that goes). The last time I went (to Disneyland in California) was Dec. 2010 with Kirk and we went on one of the busiest days of the entire year since it was the first nice day after Christmas. The park was jam-packed with crowds and we both managed to have a very fun day even though he usually hates waiting in lines (which is usually a big part of theme parks so he’s not super fond of them in general) and all of that was compounded by a thousand that day… and despite all that he told me he had a great day… that’s a Disney miracle right there.
If you have a question to ask me related to Japan, or even Japanese language study, please do! I want to write more of these travel memory-type essays but I think I’d do better if I could have a prompt.