Golden Week & Tokyo Disney, Land and Sea

The Land of the Rising Sun, the other dragon in the East, is sleepily stirring from a 10-day vacation, the likes of which are seldom seen. This was Golden Week, and this year’s saw the abdication of Emperor Emeritus Akihito, to be replaced by his son, Crown Prince/Emperor Naruhito!

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As seen on TV. On the right, the Imperial Treasures of Japan. On the left, Emperor Emeritus Akihito and his wife Empress Emerita Michiko.

Golden Week is a time where FOUR whole national holidays line up together in such a way that most people get the whole week off, making it one of the longest breaks and thus busiest travel seasons of the year. These holidays are Showa Day (April 29), Emperor Hirohito’s birthday; Constitution Day (May 3), when Japan got its new constitution under Allied occupation; Greenery Day (May 4), a Japanese Earth day; and Children’s Day (May 5).

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A screenshot from the era name announcement ceremony.

I was in Tokyo for three days, the first of which included a stop by the Imperial Palace where the Emperor lives. This was on May 1st, which, because of Akihito’s abdication the day before, marked the beginning of a new era: from 平成 Heisei (1989 – 2019), “achieving peace,” to 令和 Reiwa, which means “beautiful harmony.” The name is chosen by a panel of experts that includes academics and company presidents, and this particular one was chosen from a line from a classical Japanese poem. Japan uses a special calendar based on Emperors’ reigns, so a new era begins when a new one takes the throne, and ends upon their leaving it (usually from passing away). This has been a tradition for 1400 years. Just to give a sense of how much history these eras can cover, the last emperor before Akihito was Hirohito, who was Emperor during World War II. Go only two more eras back, and you’re already at the time of the Meiji Restoration, when Japan ended its policy of isolation and opened itself up to the world in 1853. Damn!

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Even LEGO Woody wants to welcome you to the new era!

Besides the hubbub, although I was able to get closer to the palace than I was last time, as a mere peasant I was sadly unable to catch a glimpse of the Emperor or anything like that. Anyways, onward to my next two days, at…

Tokyo Disneyland

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I’m a huge fan of Disneyland. I’d go once a month, and even twice a month during my considerably freer college days. It is only natural that I should visit Tokyo Disneyland, and though this wasn’t my first time, it is my first time writing about it!

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Tokyo Disneyland features Cinderella Castle instead of Sleeping Beauty. Credit goes to Rika M. for this one.

Tokyo Disneyland was built in 1983, apparently the first to be built outside the US. If you asked me to sum up the biggest difference, well, I’d say that it’s Disneyland, except in Japanese. The rides/attractions and layout of the park are near exactly the same to its counterpart in Anaheim. Some, like Pirates of the Caribbean, are even still in English! Now that’s some culture shock. All the animatronics, set-pieces, scenery, and so on are the same, except perhaps just a tiny bit differently laid out in terms of order. Some, of course (such as Star Tours), are in the Japanese language, but the rides in and of themselves are exactly the same. There are a few exclusive attractions, like Stitch Encounter and Monsters Inc. Ride & Go Seek, but you will also recognize many others such as Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Western River Railroad (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), and the various Fantasyland rides we all know and love. The lands are also roughly the same, featuring World Bazaar (similar in appearance to Main Street, USA, complete with Penny Arcade), Adventureland, Westernland (i.e. Frontierland), Critter Country, Toontown, and Tomorrowland.

Nevertheless, there is still a distinctly Japanese twinge to the park, in the food and souvenirs they offer– much more focus on snacks, aesthetic packaging to make said snacks candidates for nice omiyage, handkerchiefs, a lot of Duffy products, soup bowls, soy sauce dishes, chopsticks, and so on and so on. Either way, I must admit that at the end of the day I felt more like I was in Disneyland in Japan, rather than being in a Japanese Disneyland. Now, if you want a totally unique experience, head on over to its aquatic neighbor.

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Some of the food offerings at the Tokyo Disney Parks, including seafood calzones and garlic shrimp popcorn.

Tokyo Disney Sea

Hop on the Disneyland Monorail to take you to Disney Sea.

Much as how California Adventure is the slightly more thrilling counterpart of Disneyland, so too is Tokyo Disney Sea. Indiana Jones is housed here instead of in Tokyo Disneyland, but aside from that, it doesn’t share a single ride in common with Anaheim Disneyland.

Being Disney “Sea,” the park is very decidedly water-themed, where each land represents a different region of the world: American Waterfront, recalling early 1900s San Francisco; Port Discovery, its steampunk aesthetic based on Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Lost River Delta, exactly where you’d expect Indiana Jones to be, 1930s Central America; Arabian Coast; Mediterranean Harbor, complete with gondolas; Mysterious Island, another Jules Verne-themed land; and finally, Mermaid Cove where Ariel lives.

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Clockwise from top left: globe fountain at the entrance, Tower of Terror and the SS Columbia of American Waterfront, Mount Prometheus of Mysterious Island, the Temple of the Crystal Skull of the Lost River Delta, and the gondoliers of Mediterranean Harbor.

At the center of the park is the volcanic Mount Prometheus, and the Journey to the Center of the Earth ride takes you into the depths of it. Think Matterhorn Bobsleds except subterranean and with magma instead of snow, and with weird Half Life-ish boss creatures rather than the Abominable Snowman. The ride itself is kind of like Radiator Springs Racers in California Adventure, in that the first part is a slow ride taking you through different scenery and dioramas, and the final part is when you “break out”– it speeds up, there’s drops and bumps, and before you know it you’re back to civilization. I didn’t take a video because it was my first time riding it, but here’s a POV ride-through on YouTube.

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It’s worth mentioning that these pair of parks are the only ones not actually owned by Disney– instead, they’re owned by the Oriental Land Company, which licenses the Disney brand from them. This means that you get to see creative choices that would otherwise probably not fly at Disney parks, namely focusing on things as obscure as Jules Vernes’s works, two of which aren’t even Disney movies: The Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Since I went during Golden Week, both parks are incredibly crowded. We had to wait three hours for each ride, so we were only able to do three rides a day or so. I would not recommend going during this time, absolutely not. But any other time at all, absolutely yes! If you love Disney, or at the very least, enjoy fun and aren’t a contrarian, you’ll enjoy these parks. And finally, since there was nowhere else to put it, there is this amazing, utterly bizarre animatronic alien that “makes” pizzas over at Tokyo Disneyland, at Pan Galactic Pizza Port:

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Christmas and New Year’s in Japan

KFC, disease-curing water, ominous fortunes, bar-hopping in Osaka, traditional New Year’s osechi-ryori, the reappearance of glorious festival food– the holidays in Japan were just as magical as they can be in the US.

“Kentucky for Christmas”

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The order form at my local KFC.

Although not as widespread as, say, the idea of turkey or ham for Christmas is in the US, it’s the closest you can get to the idea of a “traditional” Japanese Christmas dinner in a nation that’s 1.5% Christian. But don’t be mistaken– it absolutely is a thing, with reservations opening up weeks in advance, and hours-long lines on Christmas day if you failed to make one. KFC even offers a bottle of “shanmerry” (their words) alongside their whimsical Christmas-design buckets. I made my reservation about a week in advance, and even by then, they had already run out of said buckets and said champagne.

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Grungy 1980s aesthetic courtesy of Polaroid.

How was it? Well, they don’t change the recipe just for Christmas, but you better believe that combining that warm Christmas drunkenness with greasy, salty fried chicken makes for simultaneously one of the best and worst meals you’ll ever have in your life.

Osechi-Ryori: New Year’s Cuisine

The prevalence of Christmas in Japan is more for marketing and as a couple’s holiday than for religion or family. Instead, New Year’s Day is the most significant holiday in the Japanese calendar. The first part of this is osechi-ryori, traditional New Year’s food. It always comes in a special box, and although you traditionally cook it yourself, it has become much more common to order it instead. Most of the food is pickled, boiled, steamed, and the like: basically, food that could’ve been prepared a few days beforehand and would’ve kept well until the actual holiday.

img-2881It is, of course, best enjoyed with sake.

Hatsumode: Hiraoka Shrine and Saijinja

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Hatsumode is the tradition of visiting your family’s shrine to make prayers and offerings. Each shrine houses a particular god, and there’s a specific way to make a prayer:

  1. Throw a coin into the donation box at the front.
  2. Bow twice.
  3. If there’s a bell, ring it.
  4. Clap twice, to get their attention.
  5. Tell them your deepest desires and wishes.
  6. Bow once more as thanks.
Hiraoka Shrine, my girlfriend’s hometown shrine in Osaka. The rope in the middle rings a bell.

My girlfriend, her grandparents, and I also took a short hike up to Saijinja Shrine in Nara, famed for its mountain spring water with healing qualities.

linecamera-shareimageThe water was dispensed from this stone fountain thing, where people were waiting in line with empty bottles or standing by with metal cups provided by the shrine. It tasted fresh, very mineral-y, and exactly how you would imagine the boulder above to taste, but of course there was no sediment or anything like that. I definitely did feel a little more invigorated, enough to decide to buy some of it bottled– only 100 yen ($1)!

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Click to listen to the meditative sounds of Saijinja Spring!

There was also a bamboo stick piped into the spring, where you could listen to the wonderfully comforting sound of dripping water, echoing deep inside the recesses of of the Earth. Forgiving the background noise of passersby, you can listen a recording I made here!

IMG-6899.jpgYou can also get your fortune, omikuji, at shrines. They are printed on tiny scrolls of paper, and the one you get is determined by shaking around a bunch of sticks inside a wooden box. One stick comes out, and the number printed on it tells you which one to ask for from the shrine maiden. Now, these are the most legitimate fortunes I have ever received: firstly, they contain many different sections, from romantic relationships to your studies to that thing you lost. And they are not always positive or platitudinous either– one year, Rika’s mother got one that essentially said “You will never be happy or successful.” Mine told me to stop eating junk food, and the one I got for my friend told him to stop being lazy, and that the “person you are waiting for, will not come.” Dream-crushing fortunes, now that’s something I can get behind!

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Photo credit goes to Rika’s aunt.

For the price of another coin, you can wash down the sorrows of an outrageous fortune with a pour of sake.

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A shrine maiden pours sake in the background.

Hiraoka’s offering was very light and a little syrupy, with a hint of flowery sweetness.

img-3220Festival food makes its reappearance too– one of these is tamago senbei, which translates to the much less sexy-sounding “egg rice cracker.” It’s a shrimp-flavored rice cracker topped with takoyaki sauce, crunchy bits of tempura batter, and an egg fried over easy, finished off with a generous squeeze or two of Japanese mayo. If you like eggs, or delicious food at all, I’m sure you’d love tamago senbei. As a bonus, the eggs are sometimes fried in fun shapes, like hearts.

That was all New Year’s Day, January 1st. As for New Year’s Eve and the countdown to the beginning of 2019, it’s very much a party atmosphere like anywhere else. I spent it outside a club in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. The name and the details, I can no longer recall.