Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Random Memories #40

Tokyo Disneyland is now 30 years old. This is a 5-year anniversary guidebook that I received. The math tells you that, indeed, I am quite old.

There are people out there who are absolutely bonkers for Disneyland. I'm not sure what the appeal is, but the place really does something for them. They'll post pictures of themselves next to staff members in costumes of Minnie, Mickey, or Goofy, or all three of them. Emotional attachments are made to the food or the attractions. What is most puzzling is that you've got people who are 50 years old who are willing to wait in phenomenally long lines for a chance to ride some less than exciting rides or see things they've seen dozens of times before.

The magic of Disneyland has always escaped me. When I was a kid, there was a T.V. program called "The Wonderful World of Disney". It showed Disney movies that were once shown in theaters or old television shows that they had produced from the 50's and 60's. My sense of Disney was related entirely to these moldy oldies that were on at 7:00 pm on Sunday nights and the somewhat dazzling opening sequence which featured an animated Tinkerbell flying around Cinderella's castle. I'm not sure I even was aware that Disneyland or Disney World existed when I was growing up. I certainly never aspired to go there. 

When I met/visited my boyfriend in Tokyo for the first time in the spring of 1989, he planned what we were going to do with our month together. He had been there for around eight months and hadn't done much in the way of sightseeing. Most of his time was spent working, record shopping, and talking to or listening to me on cassette tapes. Part of what he planned for us was to see KISS in concert at Budokan. Another was a trip to Nikko to see temples, because you have to see temples in Japan. And, we planned to go to Tokyo Disneyland.

I didn't approach any of these plans except the KISS concert with any degree of anticipation or with any particular expectations. I didn't really care about the itinerary. I just wanted to finally spend time with him in person. The rest wasn't so much "gravy" as side dishes that I didn't give much thought to.

Yes, this is the original group from 1989.

The truth is that I do not remember much about what we did at Disneyland and, when I look at some of the pictures of us doing activities, I don't recollect the experiences at all. Most of what I know actually comes through listening to tapes sent contemporaneously to my husband's parents. He told them about my visit and relayed a particular story in which he and his brother stood in an area high above a group of Japanese visitors in a canoe who were rowing. They were rowing in time to an employee who kept saying, "ichi-ni, ichi-ni (one-two, one-two)" in order to guide their strokes. My boyfriend and his brother yelled down at the canoe, "san-shi, san-shi (three-four, three-four)" as a joke. As is so often the case, the Japanese took the goofy foreigners in stride and gamely smiled and waved at them for their efforts.

Ah, they were so friendly and tolerant.

The interesting thing about this experience as I reflect back on it is that this is the sort of thing that we would not do by the time we left Japan. Part of the joking around was youthful behavior. We all do silly things when we're young, and, in this case, at least it was good-natured and the Japanese saw that. However, I do believe another part of it was that this early time in Japan was one in which our perception of life there was that it was somehow less "real" than life back home. We were either indifferent to or oblivious of any consequences of how we were perceived in public. That being said, and this is certainly true, it really did not matter what we did because we would always be stared at anyway. Perhaps yet another part of it was that it was easier to be a big goof in public when you knew you were going to be seen as a weirdo anyway.

Other than this story, I only vaguely recall a few things that we did. I knew that we rode the sorry little train that takes you through some sort of jungle area with animatronic animals and other bits and some models of the American West and that we rode Space Mountain. I also know from a tape that I made to a friend, but never completed, that we saw Captain Eo, but we apparently spent the entire movie groping each other in the security of the darkness.

Despite the vagueness of my memories, Tokyo Disneyland was to end up occupying a special place in our personal history. That is not to say that we suddenly became fans of Disneyland or went there on yearly pilgrimages. The truth was that we went only twice, in spring of 1989 and late winter of 2013. 

It became a touchstone for the beginning and end of our life in Japan. The reason for this was that, on both occasions, my then-future, now-current brother-in-law was with us and he is a very good photographer who took a lot of pictures of us while we were there. There are more pictures of us together at Tokyo Disneyland than at any other event excluding our wedding (though the count may be pretty close). These pictures reflect how joyous we were being together after such a long and difficult separation and how incredibly in love we were/are. They're very romantic and loving, and we returned there in 2012 to recapture some of the classic poses from our initial visit. We have a "then and now" comparison of two pictures in the same spot in roughly the same pose. The pictures represent bookends to our time in Japan. Tokyo Disneyland unintentionally became a very special place for us, not because of its attractions or cartoon characters or atmosphere, but just because it was the photographic backdrop for the beginning of our in-person relationship.


  1. "our perception of life there was that it was somehow less "real" than life back home"

    This is something that seems to particularly plague students and ALTs on one year contracts. There's a lot to be said for living in a smaller town; in my first year here although I felt pretty anonymous I quickly learned that everyone around me was somehow related to someone at a school where I worked. Even the overnight bus driver came up and introduced himself as the father of one of my students. It helped me get perspective very quickly!

    1. Hi, Sophia.

      I was never a student nor an ALT. I spent 2 years working for Nova (an eikaiwa), 15 years at a Japanese company and the remaining 6 years working freelance for that company, teaching on my own at home, and working part-time at a different eikaiwa.

      I think that it had more to do with the sense of being outside of the social order and on the fringes. The fact that I was married to an American and did not have a strong connection to any Japanese person or family (which those who date or marry Japanese people have)and I think that factors into it as well. I never had any "family" there, and the friends I had, both Japanese and foreign, were always in a constant state of flux. Perhaps part of it was also having lived in Tokyo for 23 years.

      Thanks for your comment.

    2. Sorry, I was meaning "the phenomenon you describe is particularly prevalent in short-term visitors". I know you were here for years :)

  2. Your story about the canoe ride made me remember the very first time I went to Japan (a vacation of two weeks), coming from Western Europe without much knowledge beyond the "myths" of Japan as being a technological, futurist wonderland full of intelligent, pacifist people.

    If I concentrate, I still feel the shockwaves flowing through me when I crossed the river from Kansai airport and looking out of the modern train I rode, got my first glimpse of Osaka's shoddy suburbs and the abused nature all around.
    As they say about Japan, there are phases of culture shock, usually starting with a honeymoon phase where the Western person has not seen the "ura" of things, and I certainly went through such a phase of amazement and thinking "they are doing many things better here", but at least for me, there was a short "reality check" phase of about a week before that, where I didn't yet apply the knee-jerk "white guilt" filter of "got to respect their culture" to what I saw and experienced.
    Now, having fallen completely out of love with Japan and its culture to a point where I am counting the days until I can finally get out (forever), I tend to think that this first week was the most honest view on this country that I ever had: "It's all lies - it's all ridiculous - something is very wrong here".
    As I got to know people (there are a few nice Japanese people out there, but they are definitely a small minority), you start to make excuses for all the ridiculous and wrong things you experience, and lose that first gut feeling of "what the heck is this crap?", but as the lies pile up and myths crumble one after the other, I have come to the conclusion that I should honor my gut feeling more.

    Can you remember your impressions when you came to Japan for the very first time? Maybe you've even written about it, but a quick search didn't find anything.


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