There’s a palpable difference between Kyoto and Tokyo. While they may give you the same score in a game of Scrabble, and a dyslexic cartographer a heart attack, it is the depth of their history that holds the key to the difference.
In 794AD, when Kyoto became the home of the Emperor, and as such the capital of Japan, Tokyo didn’t even exist. At a time when Vikings were pillaging most of Europe and the Mediterranean, and Charlemagne battled the Saxons, Tokyo was little more than the Kanto plain, with a few dozen people living on it.
For over one thousand years, Kyoto remained the home of the Emperor, during which time Tokyo gradually evolved into a fishing village named Edo. It wasn’t until a Shogun warlord decided to build a castle in 1457AD that it began to grow. And in 1868, following 800 years of military rule by Shoguns, power was handed back to the Emperor. With it, Edo was renamed Tokyo, or ‘eastern capital’, and this most populous city in Japan gladly took the crown as the capital.
Tokyo thrived, with rapid development of roads, telecommunications and steam trains. Western style haircuts replaced traditional topknots, and bowler hats, high collars and bustled skirts became the fashion. And with this, the most geographically eastern country of the east became the most socially western country in the east.
Today, Tokyo is a thriving metropolitan prefecture. Its special wards populate 9 million people, its prefecture houses 13 million people, and the whole urban area holds 38 million people. And while Tokyo may be somewhat confused about its official population, it is definitively the world’s most populous metropolitan area.
And they do it so well. Even at peak hour, Tokyo’s streets are not chaotic. During this time, subways feel less busy than London, or for that matter, even Melbourne. There is an order and preciseness about Japanese locomotion – both machine and human – that is indeed a thing of beauty. I can only imagine a Japanese person dropping their bag or losing their wallet. Whilst in Japan, I observed people on the metro system, searching for signs of disorganisation, or haste, or forgetfulness.
It never once happened.
Sorry, let me rephrase that. The only way a Japanese person would consider tripping over, is if a westerner gets in their way.
* * * * *
Our disorganised, hasty, forgetful family of four returned to Tokyo on the Shinkansen, the very fast train, following ten days in Kyoto. After a week-and-a-half in the Japanese capital of culture, we were ready for the capital of fun.
And what better way to celebrate than hanging out with old friends? For the first time in nearly a year, Suse and I caught up with Joey and Nat Sgroi and their kids, friends from Australia, who like us, just happened to be holidaying in Japan. Apparently it’s far easier this way.
And, after thirteen days of feeling like the main attraction at each and every restaurant, it was sweet relief to share the limelight with another Australian family. We elected to meet at Watami Casual Restaurant, which, by its title, sounded perfect. And indeed, we were put in a corner and allowed to sit there drooling out of the corner of our mouths without anyone even noticing.
It was bliss.
The following day – just to cap off the bizarre catchups – I spent the longest period of quality time I have with my older brother in years. There is something magical about being away from home, that involves the lack of a desk, a pile of mail, and a ‘to do’ list. Somehow, we all had ‘an entire day to kill’. I seriously don’t remember having a day to kill since recovering from hangovers at uni.
Still, this magical mental state still exists – if only in another country while on leave – and indeed, our family and he returned to the Zoji-ji temple for the hell of it, before having a leisurely coffee at a French patisserie, and taking a train to Tokyo central just because we felt like it. After this, we took a stroll in the rain for fun, had lunch at ‘Family Mart’ because it was there, took a snooze in the afternoon, and then a beer in the evening.
I mean, seriously. What planet am I living on
This sounds like, like… like a holiday.
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With three days left of our entire trip, we were finally in the groove. We’d hit holiday mode. So where to end it, to send it off with a bang? Where else but Disneyland?
Now, I wouldn’t exactly say it was on my bucketlist. Don’t get me wrong, as a child I was well aware of the power Disney – but as one of three boys – well, Disney wasn’t exactly as important as one-day cricket.
I’d never wanted to visit Disney castle. I’d never watched ‘Peter Pan’, or ‘Snow White’, or ‘Cinderella’ the whole way through, until I had girls of my own. I even managed to bypass ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’.
And don’t even ask me about Mickey Mouse.
What can I say? Even as an eight year old, I preferred Monty Python to Disney. I can remember sitting with a group of my cousins, watching ‘Road Runner’ as a kid. I distinctly remember turning to the sole adult sitting there, laughing at Wile E. Coyote, and thought, “Are you serious?”
Sorry. Wholesome was not my thing.
Given this, it has been somewhat of a revelation to have two girls; to live in a house entirely surrounded by female energy, and to watch their natural attraction to nurturing. Suse and I, like many parents, initially attempted to provide non-gendered play toys. And despite this, through the choice of our girls, our house is peppered with pink babies, cots, stuffed, fluffy, non-threatening animals, and Disney. It was a no brainer to visit Tokyo Disneyland on this trip. Hell, we used it as a bargaining chip for almost a year.
“If you don’t get in the bath, we might not be able to go to Disneyland.”
Despite the fact that a night at the Disneyland Hotel would cost four times what you’d expect to pay for a hotel in Melbourne, it had paid for itself with 334 compliant baths, 265 uniform dressings, 176 buckles into the car, and myriad other things I can’t even remember.
So it was always the plan for it to be the finale; even to the last minute we were using it as leverage for good behaviour. But never in my life did I expect to enjoy it. I really didn’t. I figured that it would be nice to see the joy of my kids meeting Minnie Mouse, but that was about it. I’d been to theme parks before, and, well…
…Well. I guess it started when we pulled up at Tokyo Disneyland Hotel. What had I expected? I’m not sure, but I certainly didn’t expect this. Designed in early 20th Century Victorian style, this 700-room hotel was designed to look 106 years old, but was only six years old. It looked like a set, with all the moving parts of…
“Mark,” Suse said. “It’s like a palace.”
And it was. It was a friggin palace. It was a five star palace, with marble, and mahogany, and chandeliers. And somehow, Mickey’s silouhette was subtly woven into the design of the carpet and the wallpaper. It was quality. And it was tasteful.
Who would have ever imagined a themed hotel, based on a cartoon mouse could be tasteful?
Welcome to the behemoth that is Disney.
As we walked from the marble lobby of Disneyland Hotel, and out through the courtyard, we found hedges in the shape of Disney characters; cartoon bonsai.
“Suse, look, it’s Pluto!” I said, looking at it and pointing.
“You’re excited!” she replied.
And with that, I realised that the garnered excitement I project so often to engage my children, had been replaced by the real thing.
* * * * *
As we walked through the gates, we were met with the signature Mickey wave from staff, who seemed genuinely chuffed to be working at security. After all, this was Disneyland.
Built in 1983, Tokyo Disneyland was slightly dated in places – but only slightly. And it was the smoothest and cleanest of slightly dated places I had ever seen. This is primarily because of the 12,390 employees that work here, across 115 acres. Whilst dwarfed by the recently opened Shanghai Disney – which is eight times it’s size – it has a total of fifty rides and shows, the most of any of the Disney parks.
So, we elected to try as many as we could in a three-day period. To begin with, we made a beeline for Toon Town, stopping at Minnie’s house. After this, we lined up for a requisite fifty minutes to meet Mickey, and yet were taken through a cleverly engaging, labyrinthine house, a fully enclosed plastic shell, with no exit or ventilation, and only the faintest smell of urine. This was entirely understandable, given that Asher and Harper almost wet their pants when finally allowed to stand next to Mickey for a photo, let alone being given a hug.
From here, we quickly moved to the toilets, before walking to Suse’s childhood dream, the aptly named Fantasyland. Here, we caught the Castle Carousel, span around in Alice’s Tea Party cups, zoomed up and down on Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and then had lunch, complete with a Minnie icy pole. We wound our way back through the Swiss Family tree house; 21 metres high, 24 metres wide, and made of 150 tonnes of concrete and reinforced steel. After that, we walked through Cinderella’s castle, designed in flamboyant late-Gothic style. Despite its appearance, not a single brick is used. Who new gypsum plaster and reinforced concrete could look so pretty?
You have to hand it to these people – they certainly know how to make an impressive prop.
We were aghast at a lavish afternoon parade, with well over a hundred floats, each with incredibly sophisticated moving parts, wet ourselves through Splash Mountain, and then entered a lottery for the evening show of ‘Once Upon a Time’. Somehow, we won front row seats. Projected on the castle, this journey through the archive of Disney cartoons is complete with fireworks, sparks, and fire flames.
I mean, gee whiz, Mickey.
* * * * *
On day two, we dragged ourselves out of bed, and on to DisneySea, the abutting resort. It is 50% bigger than Tokyo Disneyland, mainly due to its signature rides.
We caught Flounders Flying Fish roller coaster, Jasmine’s flying carpets, before Suse and I tag-teamed a Journey to the Centre of the Earth. We hung out with Indiana Jones at the Temple of the Crystal Skull, a ride that was designed in partnership with George Lucas, before Lucasfilm was bought out by Disney in 2012. The rides provide a reminder of the production giant that Disney has become – having swallowed the Muppets, Pixar, Marvel Comics, and Lucasfilm along the way – with a turnover of 50 billion US dollars a year, and clearing a profit of over 15 billion dollars a year.
However, there is one ride we took, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, that it instructive of this business model, and one that has as long and chequered a history as any Disney ride. The original was opened in America in 1971, but proved incredibly costly to maintain, with an 11 million-litre tank than needed draining multiple times per year to get rid of the pond scum. It was eventually abandoned, at huge cost, its leaking submarines still filling Disney’s junkyard to this day. It took the Japanese to realise that you can run same ride by illusion, filling a space between two panes of glass with water, with exactly the same effect.
In my mind, this is the quintessential tale to illustrate the difference between Japanese and western business logic. And when you understand this, you’ll find it no surprise that Tokyo Disneyland remains somewhat of a thorn in the side of the behemoth that is Disney, as the most profitable of all Disney Parks – and the only one not owned by Walt Disney Company.
* * * * *
DisneySea lacks something of the magic of Disneyland. Sure, Jasmine hangs out there, and they have a full-scale reproduction of various buildings of Venice and Portofino, which gives the effect of actually being in Venice. And yes, they’ve reproduced the Arabian coast, and the American waterfront, and the 58 metre high Mount Prometheus which erupts intermittently, but it still, it just lacks a little something. I understand that this sentence is plainly ridiculous – but when the bar is set as it is at Disneyland – the vast majority of other amusement parks will pale.
But DisneySea certainly does rides. And, at the end of this long day, with the kids and Suse safely tucked up bed, I felt my inner excitement boil over once more, as I caught the train back to DisneySea. Following the overtly disappointing Tower of Terror, I took the chance to finish the day with every spine-tingling ride I could find. No limit to 90cm height, no limit to the pace at which I could walk, no consideration needed for nightmares that may result, I literally ran around the park from the 360 degree, spine tingling Raging Spirits, back to Indiana Jones, back to Raging Spirits, and then back to Indiana Jones, sprinting from one adrenaline high to the next, like I was sixteen years old again.
It seems that you simply cannot overdo hanging upside down from a train track, or having a boulder rolled towards your head.
* * * * *
Our final day was somewhat of a bonus. We knew we were going to be tired after two days of Disneying, the official verb, and we were. But while waiting for an evening flight, do we not just return one more time?
Again – for the sake of the children, and not at all for my wife – we returned to Fantasyland. There we took a trip through mid-twentieth century, on Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Adventure, through It’s a Small World, and onto Pooh’s Hunny Hunt. I caught the Millenium Falcon, Mickey’s took us through his PhilharMagic, we visited Alice’s and her Tea Party once more, and we even took pot shots at Monsters Inc.
Sated, we returned to our hotel, packed, and made our way on the bus to Narita airport. The entire way, our children – now buzzing with excitement from three days at Disneyland – were their usual, demure, quiet, contained selves. We didn’t once feel the disapproving body language of every single person on the bus.
We made it to the airport, apologising to every person we passed, and checked in. We went through security, begging pardon as we did, and excused ourselves as we walked through customs. We asked for forgiveness as we walked to the gate, and finally found ourselves to our seats.
We placed our bags down, atoning once more, and the girls very quickly turned their attention to the lovely Anglosaxon bogan sitting to their right. Asher popped her head right in front of his, to get a better look at his iPhone screen.
“So sorry,” Suse said.
“No worries.” A feeling of relief washed over me, as I recognised that his reply was genuine – that he actually wasn’t judgemental of our children’s behaviour.
Asher’s eyes diverted to the bag at his feet, and he watched as they did. He bent over, and pulled out a yellow Pokemon, Pikachu and held it up. It was at least as big as Asher, and she hugged it with glee, rubbing snot on Picacku’s pristine face as she did.
“Again, I’m so sorry,” Suse said.
“Honestly, no problem. This is for my three-year-old nephew. No worries at all.”
Until that moment, I’ve never really understood the ‘laid back Aussie’ thing. I’ve always thought that Australians can get fired as up and verbally and physically aggressive as any race on the planet, and that the whole ‘laid back’ thing was overplayed.
But at this moment, I understood that it is not this that people are referring to. They are talking about the lack of overt formality, the willingness to accept people for their circumstance. They are talking about exactly this. This moment. This bloke.
That a child is snotting on this guy’s toy, and he genuinely doesn’t care.
Hey, this guy probably even sits on grass, and eats while walking.
Japan, we have loved you. You carry yourself with dignity, and honour, and hard work, and with such great respect. You have given an extraordinary lesson in how a country can maintain itself through millennia, not just centuries, in symbiosis and reverence for your natural surrounds.
There is so much that we can learn from you.
But boy, it is good to be heading home.
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