Saturday, July 24, 2010

Disneyland and Obon Odori

Today (7/24) was my last Japan Disney trip. Disney might not pop into your mind instantly as being Japanese, and whether as a tourist or as someone coming to live and stay, (at least from an American point of view), it probably isn’t on the top of your list of must-see Japanese sights. But, the Japanese see Disney as being an integral part of Japan and its culture, even more so than Tokyo Tower I would argue. In my time here I was never once asked if I’d seen the ancient ships at Hakone, seen a sumo match, or been to Tokyo Tower, but I cannot count the amount of times I’ve been asked if I’d been to Tokyo Disney.

You might recall that I have gone to Tokyo Disney Sea (twice, and loved it), and so my host parents decided that I needed to see the other half of the Disney coin, so we went to Disney Land this time. May I first comment on the heat of a Tokyo summer. It’s hot here. I don’t mean just regular hot, I mean surface of the sun hot. If it’s not in the hundreds, its certainly trying to be, and it is famous for being swelteringly humid. The humid season is, I think, called tsuyu, and while it’s supposed to have ended (because the horrible, nationwide, flood-creating storms have passed) the humidity is here to stay.

Since it was Friday, we had the workweek to contend with and I got my first real dose of what morning means to a salary man in Japan. It means a packed train of men in suits at 7 o’clock in the morning. While not pleasant, it wasn’t the worst ‘packed train’ I’ve been subjected to (as we’ll see in the following entry). We rode out to Disney (a far ride for most anyone), already complaining about the heat, and then we walked down to see about eight lines of people, 70-ish people deep at the entrances to Disney. It wasn’t open yet. This was at 8 o’clock. Some people were sprawled out on tarps on the asphalt, most were wearing hats, none were wearing sunglasses (an absurdity here that I still cannot accept). I asked if the park opened at 8:30. It did not. It opened at 9, and so we waited under the sun for an hour, and when the gates finally did open, it was like the Furby frenzy, or the Beanie Baby craze, or whatever other mass hysteria moments you’d like to liken it to (a sale at Macys?), and people were running, I mean full out running, through the gates into the park beyond, though to what ultimate purpose I never did find out. My group speed walked.

We went first to Space Mountain for a Fastpass, then found that the ‘ride’ next to it wasn’t bogged down with an unbearable line, so we queued up and entered an air conditioned haven, watching monitors that told the behind-the-scenes story of ‘Captain EO.’ Captian EO is a ride/3D movie now only shown at the Japan Disney Land. Back in the 1980s, George Lucas, a team of puppeteers and dancers, and the one and only Michael Jackson, got together to create this 3D movie for Disney. Upon its creation, it ran for some time at the various parks, in the US and in Japan, before being retired and replaced with other 3D attractions like ‘Honey I Shrunk The Kids.’ But then, Michael Jackson died.

The Japanese love Michael Jackson. That, itself, is an understatement. He is, to them, what Elvis is to a good number of Americans. Or Freddie Mercury of Queen is to some others. (Btw, Freddy Mercury was a Parsi Indian, born in India and raised in Bombay; bet ya didn’t know that). They adore him. Even in his death, they adore him. In the regular movie theaters right now, there is another ‘in memoriam’ movie running around. So, suffice it to say, upon his untimely death, the people and Tokyo Disney decided it was time to take old ‘Captian EO’ off the shelves, dust him off, and plant him back in the park where he once reigned. It was this ride that was my first experience of Tokyo Disney Land.

It was typical Lucas, typical Michael, typical 80s. The critters within it, and the space chase scenes could just as well have been out of Star Wars, the costumes and makeup of the dancers could have been from any 80s music video, and Jackson was, well, Jackson. All in all, the ride was like one, long Michael Jackson music video with special effects. For MJ fans, like my host mother, I could see why someone might love the ride, but not being an avid MJ fan myself, it was amusing but just ‘okay.’ The storyline is that MJ, aka Captain EO, crash lands on an enemy planet where he’s been charged to give the Supreme Leader a gift. As he and his wonky fellow space buddies are about to be carted away by the minions of the metallic, witch-like Supreme Leader lady, MJ’s friends turn into musical instruments and he starts to sing and dance, the power of his song turning the gnarly baddies into exotic, beautiful backup dancers until finally, the entire landscape and the Supreme Leader herself are turned natural and beautiful. Then MJ packs off back to the ship and flies off.

So, after that air conditioned respite, we went over to Space Mountain where I got to sit in the first seat by myself. Then, since I’d told the host mom that the two rides I wanted to go on were Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, we headed off in the direction of PotC. We’d just gotten in line for it, and my host mom had just finished relating a story about how, the last time she’d tried to ride it, the boats broke, a voice came over the intercom saying the ride was broken so everybody out.’ My host family seemed apologetic, but it wasn’t really any big deal, and we took the break to go off and eat. My host mom and I had cold noodles (since it was so unbearably hot) while my host dad had ramen, and then I drank about a gallon of water. From there we proceeded to the front of the castle, in the center of the park, to wait for the show.

Here in Tokyo, both parks have ever-changing themes, and the current theme is something about water, so after warnings over the speakers that ‘you might get wet,’ Goofy came lalloping out onto the stage, streams of water shooting up behind him in a rhythm while he fell over himself comically as they eventually made their way around to him. After that intro, Minnie and live backup dancers made their way onto the stage and, as a song started up, from all the balconies on Cinderella’s castle, water rocketed off in enormous sprays, spreading in the air to look almost like white fireworks. We were quite a ways away from the castle, but such was the force of the rocketing water, that it made itself over to us, falling down like rain. In time to the music, rockets of water would shoot off in directions from the castle, or from the stage, and from amongst the gargoyles perched among parapets and ringing the castle walls, up to the highest tower, were steady streams of arcing water spitting out like fountains. At one point, the turrets on either side of the stage (I don’t think Disney World’s castle has separate turrets) started up huge, powerful sprinklers that swept over the audience, soaking everyone, while on the stage huge industrial fans turned side to side blowing mist and the male dancers grabbed water hoses and started dousing the audience. They must have gone through a Sea World-sized tank of water.

When it was all over (15 min. max), the entire audience had transformed from being grumbling and angry, to being happy, clapping and smiling. Myself included. It did not take long, however, for the nice cool water soaking me to dry. Anywho, at this point my host father left, having to oversee the last minute’s Obon Odori preparations, but my host mother and I continued on, nabbing some green tea shaved ice, then pushing on to Haunted Mansion, which is exactly the same as in the states, past the Queen of Hearts small castle (which you can’t go into, only look at), then to Thunder Mountain and lastly to Splash mountain (in whose line we talked about You’re Beautiful, a Korean drama I’ve managed to get her to watch). Once we finally got off of Splash Mountain, sufficiently splashed, we hurried back to the park’s front, did a little shopping, and then hopped the cool, empty train back whereafter we watched an episode of You’re Beautiful, then I came back up to my apartment to survey the sun-burn damage and take a shower.

I’d been told to come down before 7 for dinner so that I could be there for the beginning of the Obon dance, but, with the intention of only ‘resting my eyes’ for 15 min., the next thing I knew, I was awakened by the first beats of the Taiko drums outside my window in the courtyard below. Hurrying into my Yukata (and making a mess of tying the bow), I rushed downstairs and inhaled my food, then my host mom and I went out to look at the dance.

In Japan, Obon is the name of a festival/festival time in the summer. The purpose of Obon is similar to that of Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, in that it is a time when the living are calling for the dead to come back from their graves, home. The main time for Obon is the first week in August, so if you’re coming to Japan or staying in Japan, I would advise you to try to stay through this week (I, not knowing about it, set my fly out date too early). During this week, all schools and most offices shut down completely and everyone in the country gets a week off to celebrate. As far as how the Japanese celebrate it, there are several interesting things that they do. For one, in their household shrines, they place vegetables (typically eggplants or cucumbers), that they’ve stuck through with toothpicks to give the appearance of legs so that the vegetables look like animals. The reason for this is to give the spirits something to ride to come back into the home. Also, they will like lanterns in their houses (ours is in front of the household shrine). Another interesting practice is the floating of small boats (like, toy-sized) down the river onto which they put lit lanterns. During this season, all throughout the month of August, is the time when Japan has its famous, magnificent fireworks displays (usually on rivers or on the ocean). And of course there is the Obon bonfire. On a certain night (I’m not sure when), huge bonfires are lit and around them, people come and dance. At our shrine we didn’t have the bonfire, but we had the dance.

Obon Odori is what it’s called, odori meaning dance. In place of a huge bonfire, men had built a large stage with a metal rafter in the middle, and from it were strung different colored lit lanterns, some with names written on them, others blank. Down the side entrance to the shrine, a few stands had been built, and by the time my host mother and I got on the scene, they were busy at work selling takoyaki (octopus balls), children’s masks, blowup children’s toys, Mizuame (sour fruits on a stick dipped in melted sugar and then placed on a block of ice to cool so that it’s like a lollipop), Sosu-senbei (You spin a board and get however many thin wafers you land on, with a dollop of chocolate, vanilla or plum flavored pudding on top), yakisoba, and water yo-yos (you get a small hook on a piece of paper and you try to fish a balloon out of a pool of water). As we’re a small shrine, there were only these few stands, but it was sufficient for the amount of people in attendance.

We came out and stood, surveying the scene for a long time, the heat of the day lasting far after sunset, but lessened by a night’s gentle breeze. In front of the erected stage, people were playing three large Taiko drums in time to old music that blasted from speakers hanging from the rafter towering above everyone in the middle of the stage. The Taiko drummers were the same people who had carried the portable shrine at the fall festival. Around the stage in an ever moving circle, men and women in uniformed outfits (male and female Yukatas), were dancing in a simple, choreographed way that everyone seemed to know, reflecting the dance of the 8 or so people that we dancing under brighter light on the raised stage. A time or two, my host mother tried to push me into the ring dancing in time, but I vehemently refused until finally she gave up trying.

After every song, a different group of dancers would go up on stage, the previous ones descending to join the circle, and the drummers would continue on tirelessly. There’s not really much more to report than that. We watched from the shrine’s office door for a long time until my host mother, too accustomed to the festival to find any real interest in it, said she was going inside and, not wanting to be left without her, the white girl in a very Japanese ceremony, I retired as well, and about 20 min. later, the festivities drew to a close.

PS: To anyone considering going to Tokyo Disneyland or Disney Sea, I would advise going to Disney Sea. Both are cool, but Disneyland is more or less the same as in the States, and probably Europe, but Disney Sea is something you'll only get to see here.

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