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Monthly Archives: May 2009

I’ve got some free time coming up at work so I’m going to finally get some write ups of what my parents and I did on their trip to Japan. No particular order, just some highlights and fun things in Japan.

So let’s start with what I got up to on the last day my parents were here.

We went to Disneyland!

Well actually we went to DisneySea. Tokyo is host to two Disney parks, Disney-land and Disney-sea. Disneyland is another version of the standard Magic Kingdom park that I have already been to four times, thrice in Florida and once in Paris. In contrast DisneySea is unique to Japan so whilst it would have been fun to see how Disneyland differs in Japan to a European or American flavour we thought we’d explore some novelty instead.

DisneySea is themed around a large lake with a series of “ports of call” arranged in a ring around this lake. The worlds included Mediterranean Harbor, Mysterious Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront.

You start with Mediterranean Harbor and the first thing that struck me was how good the actual design and decoration of the park. We’re all used to the term “theme park” but often this actual theme-ing is not very good and limited purely to the rides themselves. Universal Studios in Florida, for example, is very good at recreating the settings and worlds within its attractions and the lines waiting for them but much of the park itself just feels like a generic space. DisneySea has astonishingly good “theme-ing” and the only place I have been to which remotely compares is Universal Islands of Adventure. Every building and every view here is themed and often with a tremendous eye for detail and imagination. I don’t often say this regarding theme parks but the real attraction at DisneySea is just wandering around the park itself.

This theme-ing even extends to the train ride to the resort which features mickey shaped windows and mickey shaped train handles.

American Waterfront, Port Discovery and Mermaid Lagoon are particularly good.

American Waterfront is split into two sections. The first seeks to evoke a 1920’s/30’s New York Port and the second a New England fishing village from the same period. The New York Harbor is amazingly well recreated with a brilliant eye for detail and lots of subtle visual gags. It also boasts possibly the best example of forced perspective I’ve ever seen in the form of the S.S. Columbia, a replica sea liner that cannot possibly be the same size as a sea liner but seems to be so from every angle.

There are even replica period vehicles that people can cruise around in (if they want the slowest tour ever).

Port Discovery in contrast springs entirely from the fertile imagination of the Disney “Imagineers.” It’s a kind of futuristic floating city populated by startlingly original plane, boat and submarine designs. I was particularly fond of these fish submarines.

Mermaid Lagoon is based around Disney’s Little Mermaid and is an underground cave covered top to bottom in mosaics that Fran spent hours taking photos of. It is quite frankly stunning and the combined effect of the architecture, mosaics, music and lighting is nothing short of magical.

We went there on a Thursday two weeks prior to Golden Week, a time on the Japanese calendar when a lot of national holidays fall close together and thus a really busy time for tourism in Japan. But by going just beforehand and by going on a weekday we ensured that we had the entire park practically to ourselves. So empty was it that we managed to ride nearly every single ride in the park in less than three hours!

As great as this was though the rides themselves were not very impressive. Although apparently some of the independent theme parks in Japan have quite extreme rides all the theme parks I have been to here have really astonishingly tame rides. This is a bit of a disappointment for an adrenaline junkie like myself but the rides weren’t wholly disappointing.

The best of the bunch was the Tokyo version of the Tower of Terror. I have ridden the original Tower in Florida and the version in Paris. The Florida version is particularly nasty; an elevator ride that takes you up 13 stories and then pulls you down quickly with 3 times the force of gravity. My father is no wuss when it comes to theme parks, he has ridden the Kraken in Seaworld, Nemesis at Alton Towers and The Big One at Blackpool, yet once was enough for him with Terror Tower. This thing is genuinely stomach churning and one of the most extreme rides I have ever ridden and certainly the most extreme ride Disney have ever made.

Sadly in keeping with the overall theme of DisneySea their version of the Tower of Terror was much tamer, generating only 1g and feeling relatively sedate. Yet it makes up for it by being the most elaborately and effectively themed version of the ride. It has a unique back story about a real estate magnate and a haunted fertility idol, a giant room filled with “artifacts” the magnate had collected (that have some great in-jokes and gags) and well, just look at it. The Florida Tower may be a scarier ride but it doesn’t look anywhere near as scary as that grand gothic countenance.

The other two good rides were Indiana Jones and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Both of these are “dark rides” where the rider sits in a car and rides around looking at decorations, animatronics, etc. Think of an up market ghost train. Indiana Jones was the more exciting ride and properly jostled us about. It also had the single best animatronic I have ever seen. The resemblance to Harrison Ford is uncanny!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a bit more sedate but it holds a special place in my heart because it genuinely tricked my family and I into thinking that we had gone underwater. I won’t spoil how the trick is done but it really is very clever.
The only real disappointment is “Raging Spirits,” a roller-coaster that has an annoying habit of stopping the cars when you want to go faster. It does have a loop-de-loop but overall it isn’t great.

But the real appeal of DisneySea is the shows. The rides are okay, the theme-ing is amazing but the shows are simply mind blowing.

Disney shows usually are pretty good but I genuinely feel that with DisneySea they have improved immensely. Most of the smaller shows could easily be expanded and made into a proper Broadway piece and the two big shows, well, words fail me to be honest.

Mystic Rhythms is a kind of South American/Jungle themed modern dance show. It starts off very slow, with people in animal costumes that range from very good to a bit naff wandering around a stage doing a pseudo-I’m pretending to be an animal-dance. It soon picks up though s the naffer costumes disappear acrobats emerge, natural spirits start wielding magical forces, tribes of warriors chant and pound on the stage, walls explode and generally it builds to a frenzied and spectacular climax. I’m not one for modern dance, I can appreciate the skill but generally the spectacle of dance leaves me a bit cold but this was absolutely mesmerizing; a feeling that was enhanced by the hypnotic and empathic music.

Big Band Beat was a Jazz and Big Band revue complete with top hated and fish-netted chorus line, plenty of tap and some appearances from Disney characters dancing and singing along. They weren’t the best big band I’ve ever seen but they were still pretty damn good and massive props have to go out to whoever was playing Mickey Mouse. Whoever that actress is she can play the drums and tap dance to a really high standard all whilst wearing a mouse costume and a giant head! The highlight was definitely a rendition of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” that used the tap dancers to great effect. My only complaint was that “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” was absent. What’s that all about Disney? You have a film all about Jazz and even have one of the characters from that film in your show but you don’t include any songs from that film? I think they missed an obvious trick there.

Over the Waves is a story about a cruise which is run by Mickey and Minnie and it is.

Um.

Energetic.

Finally the lagoon in the centre of the park is host to two shows a day. The Legend of Mythica and BraviSEAmo.

Putting these shows in the lagoon is a great idea and really hammers home how much theme park design has improved over the years as it means that there is a huge area where the audience can see what is going on. In the Florida parks there are always massive crowds at the parade routes making it hard to see. In DisneySea it is possible to see from a much greater area and so there are less crowds.

The Legend of Mythica may be the most overblown spectacle that has ever been produced by anyone ever. Words cannot do justice to this show. It seems like when designing what to include in a show the Disney Imagineers made a giant brainstorm chart of all their ideas. Then they used all of them.

To give some impression of just how big and overblown this thing is I will simply list a fraction of the stuff that happens.

Giant boats made to look like mythical creatures, giant eggs that reveal woman on extendable pillars singing, people in animal costumes dancing, audiences clapping, most of the main Disney characters dressed to look like knights, kites, waterskiing, jet skis that look like dragons, trapeze and acrobatics, giant robot hydras, dragons, unicorns and phoenixes that shoot water and fire, insanely catchy music, explosions, fireworks and more.

It is like being allowed for a walk in the mind of a six year old. I recommend it.

BraviSEAmo though is even more impressive although a damn sight simpler. This is the night show, also in the lagoon, and features all the usual lasers, dancers, music and lights that one would expect. But it is mostly all about two enormous structures.

The first is a boat that shoots water into the air and illuminates it in a variety of colours. It’s all very nice and sparkly and generally quite girly. Later the water begins to spurt into a shape that resembles a human form wearing a dress. This is the spirit of the water and it is in love with the spirit of fire.

The spirit of fire is the second structure and it is A GIANT ROBOT FIREBREATHING DRAGON!

…..

JAPAN HAS BUILT A GIANT ROBOT FIRE BREATHING DRAGON!

I mean, I…..it is a robot, and it breathes fire and…

Alright that is cool. That is just fantastic. There is not one person in the world you wouldn’t impress with a giant robot fire breathing dragon. Well done Disney.

It doesn’t just breathe fire either. It first starts underwater so all the audience can see is the boat/water spirit. Then, ever so slowly, the red arms start to rise from the water and eventually it begins to take the shape of a dragon.

I’m sorry, I’m welling up just remembering it. I think I may have to have a lie down.

Ahhh, that’s better.

Let’s talk about the food.

Food is always the area that Disney is weakest in as a rule. Not that their food is bad, but it is uninspiring and generally lacking in the same level of polish and imagination as goes into the rest of the park.

DisneySea is much the same but it does do the Florida parks one better in one respect. DisneySea is designed to be a more adult Disney park, hence the focus on shows. The upside to this is that in certain parts of the park they can sell beer.

WooHoo!

Of the two meals I had one was a meh, Mexican dish and the other an all you can eat buffet that had awesome deep fried catfish. What I mostly want to talk about though is some of the weirder food available. Namely curry popcorn…

…which sadly we didn’t try and Black Sesame churros which we did. I am quite a fan of black sesame, I like black sesame ice-cream and my favourite ramen flavor is black sesame. It’s quite a hard flavor to explain, kind of cakey with a cereal quality to it but also very tangy. My family were less keen on black sesame, the upshot being that I got to eat multiple churros.

Mmmmmmm, churros.

So, great shows, okay rides (but hey, no lines), brilliant theme-ing, strange food. All in all I liked DisneySea a lot. It is distinctly different from the Florida parks. It definitely has its own identity and individual flavor but it also is recognizably a Disney park with all the professionalism that entails.

I do have one big complaint to make. The park is laid out around a lagoon in a rough circle. But rather than being an o shape it is in fact a c shape with a wall preventing users from walking all the way around the lagoon. Why? That is just stupid and counter intuitive. It means people have to walk further and means it takes longer to get around the park. It is bad design and not something I expect from Disney.

I won’t end on that sour note though; instead let’s have a look at me meeting one of my all time heroes.

Scrooge McDuck. This guy is a bad ass. It’s a shame that none of my students know who he is.

Fran met Daisy Duck and the actors playing her and Donald did a great little play for the people waiting in the street. Daisy grabbed some beefy guy from the crowd and rubbed his muscles. Donald came over and challenged him to an arm wrestling match, which he won, before sweeping Daisy up and giving her a kiss. Really sweet and a nice touch.

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I mentioned in my post about the ninja museum that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of advertising standards law in Japan preventing exaggerated or false claims made by products. Or if there is then it probably doesn’t apply or get enforced to claims made in English because some of the English blurbs written on products in Japan are unbelievably grand.

I think I have discovered the finest example of this in the form of Starbucks Japan.

Starbucks Japan sells a Chicken club sandwich that contains no chicken.

None.

It does contain crab, salad, mayonnaise and prawns and it is a very tasty sandwich but seriously Starbucks; what’s that all about?

Why you no post Adam Halls?

Long story, combination of golden week, my parent’s recent visit, my need to clean the house on a semi-regular basis, joining the gym and something to do with the letters w i i.

But post today guys regarding pretty much my only real adventure during Golden Week. A trip to a little out of the way village near Nara known as Kasagi.

I hadn’t intended to go to Kasagi that day, I had thought I was going to go to Nara for some kind of a scavengers hunt. Apparently I thought wrong.

The plan, as it was explained to me, was to go to Nara, meet up with some of my girlfriend’s friends and wander around the town solving riddles taking photos of things we thought were the answers to the riddles.

This was wrong in pretty much every respect.

For starters, before my girlfriend and I had even reached Nara we discovered that we weren’t in fact going to Nara but instead going to a town just beyond Nara, and slightly beyond the best named town in the whole of Hyogo prefecture. Kamo, or duck.

This was fine with me albeit a little surprising. I quite like the small towns in the area just beyond Nara and Kyoto. They are full of cool surprises such as the Ninja Museum.

In fact this scavenger hunt was going to be ninja themed slightly. I had no idea in what way it would be ninja themed but I brought my ninja mask and my kunai in preparation for the possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man with my half remembered tae-kwon-do and rubber knife.

It seems that Kasagi is actually quite close to the ninja museum and the area was previously a ninja village, however it hasn’t turned this into a tourist industry like nearby Iga Ueno.

Fran and I arrived by cab having already taken three trains to get there and met up with Charlie and Sarah, the two people organising the event. They hooked us up with two free maps (neither of which had any scale and had the landmarks only in a rudimentary positional relationship to each other), a free cup of coffee and our final team member in the form of Sarah’s visiting brother, a freelance web page designer.

They also explained that the actual aim of the hunt wasn’t so much to find everything on the clue sheet as to go to all the areas on the clue sheet and take a ninja pose there. Fair enough, but apparently we weren’t just looking for places in Kasagi but in a neighbouring village that we needed to cross a mountain to get to.

Hang on a moment. Climbing a mountain? Nobody mentioned that before and neither me nor Fran were in particularly good shoes for such an endeavour.

However as we set off to go collect our photos thoughts of difficult mountain climbs were far from our minds.

They’d return.

Things started out really cool. Kasagi, like many small Japanese towns, has lots of small scale attractions. The kind of curios that it wouldn’t be worth the effort for a tourist to seek out but that are nonetheless cool little treats for we long term residents. Take for example this diorama of samurai in combat with some kind of super human rock throwing man.

Also note how the stealthy ninja dispatches the arrogant samurai. Foolish samurai!

I should probably explain why on earth Fran is posing the way she is. Well everybody had to come up with a name for their ninja team. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles having already been taken we opted for Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters and Fran took it upon herself to pose like a hamster in every photo.

Hence photos such as this.

We were also commanded to do a “Ninja Disco Dance of Death.”

BEHOLD MY MIGHTY MOVES!

At one of the targets, a local onsen, we met up with one of the competing teams…

… and mercilessly slaughtered them.

There are ninja hiding here, can you spot them?

Having found all the spots in Kasagi, at about 11:30 in the morning, we set off up the mountain to get the spots on top of the mountain and head over to the next town.

This is where it all started to go wrong.

After about 40 minutes of waling we had no idea where we were and we were seriously scared that we had wandered onto the wrong mountain or done worse. The maps we had didn’t detail most of the roads we had passed and there was no sight of the peak, the turning to the next town or anybody else on the mountain.

To make matters worse it started to rain, I lost my kunai and Fran began to get serious pains in her foot. Fran had come directly from Tokyo the day before without getting any proper sleep in between and a mountain hike did not seem like the smartest plan in the world.

We gave serious consideration to retracing our steps and calling off the whole thing but at last we were emboldened by meeting up with another team on the same road. This meant we hadn’t been mistaken or lost just underestimating quite how high the climb was.

With courage restored we pressed on and finally reached the sight we had come to see, an 80 foot Buddha carved into the side of a rock.

I love Japan. I love that interesting sights like this are so common that they are hardly ever mentioned. I love turning mountain bends and been confronted by something completely unexpected and perfectly Japanese. I love that art and aesthetics find their way into seemingly everything. It’s a great country.

There was an even more interesting carving of a Buddha that had seemingly faded away over the years. Seen here with a ninja “scaling” it. It was certainly less well done than the other Buddha but I consider it more interesting because it prompts so many questions. How old is it? What did it used to look like? Why was it allowed to wear away? Just what purpose did it serve?

Having done our best ninja poses at these two spots we set off down the mountain again to get to the next town and complete all the spots there.

We would never make it.

Oh we made it to the town but the combination of heavy rain, terrible maps and a member of our combined team that was unfortunately wearing heels meant that the travelling was painfully slow going.

It was a lovely walk though. The views from the mountain top were typically grand but furthermore this may be the greenest place in the whole of Japan. It almost reminds me of dear sweet England, except for all the mountains.

It was completely deserted too. No tourists, hardly any buildings and maybe 2 or 3 cars. It is staggeringly rare in Japan to get that level of privacy and I cherished the absence of people. Particularly once we descended the mountain and the valley opened up into these really wide rice fields. It was so..spacious. Not usually an adjective one associates with Japan.

Mostly what impacted on me was the noise. In the absence of human sounds the noises of nature were noticeably louder. There were frogs EVERYWHERE. We never once saw one but the sound of their croaking was omnipresent. The rain too was thundering down and the noises it made as it rushed over roads, gurgled down drains and splashed against rivers made a kind of natural trance. For a long time we just walked and listened as nature filled all that human need for noise for us.

By the time we finally got to the other town (which is so small it isn’t listed on wikipedia and I cannot remember the name sadly) it was nearly 3 o’clock. What was supposed to be an easy hike had taken us nearly 4 hours, and worse we were supposed to survey the town and somehow make it back to Kasagi for 5 o’clock.

Simply not happening.

Instead we sussed out a bus heading back to Nara and all poured into the only restaurant in the entire town that was open. I had curry udon, a dish that consisted literally of udon noodles in curry sauce and as such not something I recommend to anyone. It wasn’t bad as such but it was deeply unsatisfying in comparison to ordinary udon or ordinary curry.

So that was Kasagi. A bit of an adventure but ultimately a frustrating one. Whilst there are many parts of it I enjoyed I can’t help but regret that we didn’t get the chance to explore further.

As for the scavenger hunt? Well we never really got to hand in our photos did we. For all I know Charlie is still waiting for us to show up.

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