Okinawa: A Year in Review


  “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

1stanniversary

Well, when I wrote this we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary of relocating our domicile to Okinawa, and although it’s now over two months past due, I still thought it would be a good idea to do a “year in review” blog. So, here’s an eclectic summary of the King’s Flirtations with the Far East to date (as of this past August), along with a personally favorite blog selected for each month.

9395886181_577e957bef_b

July 2013.  Preparations for our overseas move.

See Sayonara Amerika to read and see our Asian-inspired going-away blowout

12803196154_8109387002_b

August 2013.  Moved!  Rented our Florida home and moved overseas with our cat!

See Jody Drives Naked about used-car shopping in Okinawa.

14560601340_a0c983c434_b

September 2013.  Divine winds!  Experienced something like 8 typhoons in two months.

See Surf Nazis Must Die to read about a scuba diver’s angst with the powers that be on Okinawa.

244768034_f79132018f_b

October 2013.  Scuba Diving!  Kevin becomes a PADI scuba-diving instructor!

See Are You Breaking Up with Me on Mount Fuji for perhaps my favorite breakup story of all time!

321927569_6195c13f32_b

November 2013.  Jody’s birthday!  Celebrated by exploring the northern reaches of Okinawa.

See Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys about my first foray to Okinawa in 1999.

12649834565_d1059691a9_b

December 2013.  Household goods!  Our forgotten “stuff” finally arrives on-island.

See Oh Christmas-Half-a-Tree to read about Christmas in Okinawa.

11164886004_9c2d14828b_b

January 2014.  Kevin’s birthday!  Celebrated by our first off-island trip to Kyoto, Japan.

See Okinawa Kijimuna for Okinawa’s version of “Red Power!”

14759900253_bdc4bc16e6_b

February 2014.  Contracted!  Dive the Blues Scuba gets well underway.

See Surprising Swastikas about an unlikely and unfortunate connection between East and West.

12606496083_78e4c0f1bf_b

March 2014.  Earthquake!  Friends breaking bad on Okinawa.

See Cat Cafes in Japan to read about the special bond between the Japanese and their feline friends.

13374457233_98f4b1bc0f_b

April 2014.  White Day and Zip-Lining on Okinawa.

See Timeless Townhouse for our rustically historical stay in Kyoto, Japan.

11170751576_a2ab7ba840_b

May 2014.  Iriomote!  Off-island weekend getaway to this remote nature preserve.

See Tainted by Tats to read about the stigma of body art in this corner of the Far East.

14454495572_a08d6935a4_b

June 2014.  My daughter gets married!  A whirlwind trip home to the states and detour because of an unexpected hospital stay.

See Placenta: Prescription or Placebo to read about some strange herbal remedies popular in Japan.

14315757449_60983fbea2_b

July 2014.  Ishigaki!  Off-island weekend getaway to dive with manta rays.

See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa to read about the special guardians of the Ryukyu Islands.

14680672389_d5781d109d_b

August 2014.  Okinawan World and Hospital Caves.

See Okinawan Hillsides & Hornets to read about my past explorations in the Okinawan jungles searching for traces of WWII.

com___happy_anniversary_by_tsubaki_akia-d4jm8lw

Tokyo Disney: Japan’s Infatuation with the Mouse!


“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”  ~Walt Disney

Tokyo3LARGEFINAL

The band jams on as the sold-out show rings most fans to their feet. The live performance is captivating, and the electric excitement crackles through the crowd while all await the stars’ appearance.

He appears! And the crowd goes wild.  And then she appears, against the surging backdrop of energetic applause.  But it is when they start to dance together, when he sweeps her off her feet swing-style, but especially when he pauses slightly to give her a love peck on the check that the females in attendance coo, giggle and scream like only school-girls-in-love would.

So who offers such star appeal and at what venue in our Far East Fling? Is it a modern-day rock couple, like Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, or perhaps Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed, or even Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson?

Not even close. What I am talking about is TRUE star-power in Japan.  And that can mean only one thing:  Mickey and Minnie Mouse!

Now that is a thorn, worthy of a mouse.

Now that is a thorn, worthy of a mouse.

15323490096_cedbcfc615_bAlthough Mickey-san and his wo-mouse Minnie, along with their eclectic ensemble of Disney characters, entertain the masses in Japan in many of the same ways they do in the California and Florida Disney parks, it is a wholly different experience. Yes, there are fans of the mice in the states, but they are not openly FAN-atical like so many more are here in Japan.

Small in Size, large in Adventure

Small in Size, large in Adventure

15159964878_0fcdb27107_bWhen Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) was built in 1983 it was much smaller than its counterparts in States. But with the construction in 2001 of the adjacent DisneySea, TDL added more than 100 acres and became better known as the Tokyo Disneyland Resort (TDR).  The resort rivals that of any theme park anywhere in the world, being composed of Disneyland, DisneySea, three themed hotels and six partner hotels.  Circling the complex is the Disney Resort Line monorail, which most disappointingly, is neither free nor included in your park admission.  Buying a multi-day pass for the ride, however, is very economical.

15305923486_912bbfeb37_b

15346342992_d182c76aa1_bSo what’s so different about the Japanese fans of Disney? Well, for most obvious starters, their appearance.  Simply put, people dress for the occasion.  Matching outfits, between female friends visiting the park as small giggly gangs, or as a dating couple where effeminate clothing is simply not a worry, so whole families dressed to the nines in full mouse regalia, you see it all!  Girls actually do their hair up into mouse ears; the hats, the popcorn carriers, the purses, umbrellas, and trinkets – they are all displayed proudly and in your face!

15305938586_e76aa5879c_b

15142384318_e9fc1885bd_bTDL, as expected, is a theme park based on the films produced by Walt Disney, and was the first Disney theme park opened outside of the United States. Modeled after the parks almost any American would be familiar with, Tokyo Disneyland is made up of seven themed lands and features seasonal decorations and parades.  In essence, it is essentially just a facsimile of the parks in the US.

15346257282_1884bcb1b8_b

15142280680_080d011f3e_bBUT, the parade experience is different. The Japanese love a show, and from all indications, at TDR they love a parade where water is involved.  Not just floats and fireworks over the parks’ lagoons, but I mean actually being sprayed down with water.  The Japanese go gaga over a costumed character aiming a water-spewing nozzle at them, and claim their spots on the tour routes literally hours ahead of parade time.  Covering themselves in plastic and using umbrellas as shields, it seems as if they are being baptized by the holy spirits of Disney.  It seems to verge on a rite of passage….

Note the Water Cannon; a kindler, gentler form of crowd control.

Note the Water Cannon; a kindler, gentler form of crowd control.

Disney-wild-fansSo what’s special about Tokyo Disneyland? Over the years (and after almost going under in the late 1908s), Tokyo Disneyland has grown into the second most popular amusement park in the world, second only to Florida’s Magic Kingdom (DisneySea on its own is the 5th).  It has also become the centerpiece of Japan’s truly fantastical Disney resort that, many claim (and I agree), has surpassed its American forbears.   Spotlessly clean, impeccably run, and now featuring many attractions unique to Tokyo, TDR is a wonderful place to enjoy a fascinating fusion of American and Japanese culture, all through the combining lens of Walt Disney.  And the Mouse.

These four literally  lost their minds when "Mickey" waved their way!

These four literally lost their minds when “Mickey” waved their way!

15346620305_876354214f_bHey Japan, the ones who are screaming, jumping up and down, and waving emphatically at Mickey and his crazy cast of characters, you do realize they are just people in costumes, right? I’m really not sure they do.  It’s not the kids here that engage in the fantasy with wild abandon; rather, it is the middle-aged women that so desperately need that Disney character to wave back.  I believe, from the emotional meltdown that happens in response, that clearly being acknowledged by Mikey or Minnie (but any of the lessor Disney royalty seems to work in a pinch) is on most Japanese’s bucket lists.  Surprisingly to me, Tokyo Disney visitors are overwhelmingly Japanese (over 97% are from Japan), unlike all the other Disney properties that rely heavily on foreign tourists.  This audience is diverse, but a good chunk is twenty-something females, many of whom are infatuated with Disney characters and American culture.  It is truly a unique Japanese experience.

Tokyo Disneyland is divided into six themed areas: AdventureLand, WesternLand, Critter Country, FantasyLand, TomorrowLand and Toontown. These themed areas are not much different from the other ones found in the rest of the Disneylands.

The lagoon at DisneySea.

The lagoon at DisneySea.

15343448341_82977cf0f1_bRight next door, however, DisneySea opened in 2001 and is the only Disney-associated theme park outside the United States not to use the “Magic Kingdom” design. DisneySea realized many of the concept designs that Walt Disney Imagineering had developed for a possible Long Beach, California theme park, back when Long Beach and Anaheim were competing for Disney’s second theme park after the original in Orlando.  Inspired by the myths and legends of the sea, DisneySea is made up of seven themed “ports of call:”  Mediterranean Harbor, Mystery Island, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront.  Each port offers different nautical themes and nautically-themed rides.

Real food, actually affordable, all with a Disney twist.

Real food, actually affordable, all with a Disney twist.

15159875880_04dc2f99de_bWhile suitable for all ages, Tokyo DisneySea was designed to specifically appeal to adolescents and grown-ups, much like Islands of Adventure is to Universal Studios. DisneySea is an elaborately crafted, beautiful theme park offering a number of excitingly unique rides and attractions.  In this sense, it’s a must-see for any theme park enthusiast.  The park offers a much wider selection of table service restaurants than Tokyo Disneyland, and even serves alcoholic beverages, unavailable at the neighboring Disneyland.

The double-decker carousel is a must-do!

The double-decker carousel is a must-do!

15159998067_6765a1435e_bOne of the funniest things we concluded during our visit is that, for the staff working the concessions throughout the parks, if you’re not selling something, you’d better be waving. It’s so true!  When you visit the parks, keep this in mind.  It’s so automatic and so ubiquitous, that at times I came to believe that these staff members were actually Disney’s latest incarnation of animatronics.  It’s as if there is pain of death for any cast member caught not waving and smiling eagerly if not directly involved in a sale.  Jody and I would walk around the parks and point them out, one after another:  “if you’re not selling, you’d better be waving” the park wardens bark out as the metaphorical whip cracks for effect.

He doesn't have to wave; he's driving (and smiling!)

He doesn’t have to wave; he’s driving (and smiling!)

15142433167_2a50307a44_bBecause of the Japanese infatuation with the union of Disney and American cultures, don’t be surprised by the massive lines for Duffy’s meet & greet (Duffy is a stuffed-bear character that flopped in the US), or limits on how much of his merchandise you can purchase! When we were there on 1 September, one of the main-street stores was opening with Disney’s Halloween line of merchandise; the line for that store was literally hours long….  In fact, meet & greet locations for characters are often swarmed, often by fans dressed as their favorite characters.  This was one of the more disappointing aspects of our visit:  due to the line, I didn’t get a chance to meet, in person, Ariel!

15142278320_9de3ffef1a_b

15160002337_1720640a23_bThe resort also includes a huge commercial complex called “Ikspiari.” It features more than a hundred shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as Cinema Ikspiari, a 16-screen movie theater.  Divided into nine themed zones, shoppers can find anything from high fashion, to household goods and travel services.  Two of the zones specialize in food, featuring various restaurants and a food court, while numerous cafes and bars are found scattered all around the mall.  We had a fabulous dinner here, and I highly recommend the venue for a good, away-from-the-parks sit-down meal where you can help recharge your weary feet without discharging your already shrinking wallet.

Kevin at DisneySea's "Venice"

Kevin at DisneySea’s “Venice”

If you have only one day at the parks, I suggest you skip DisneyLand and detour straight to DisneySea. A one-of-a-kind attraction found only in Japan, it’s sure to delight all your senses, no matter your age.  Besides, DisneyLand is Disneyland, albeit a rather good copy of the parks back home.  Take my advice:  with limited time or monies, expend both FIRST at DisneySea.

A must-ride ride.  We rode it three times!

A must-ride ride. We rode it three times!

15159745259_163e3fcff8_bSetting some of the really neat rides aside (like Journey to the Center of the Earth and Sinbad’s Storybook Adventures), as well as the shows, the rather good and affordable food and everything else Disney, what really impresses is the park’s attention to detail. This park offers a transportive sense of place, and combined with the infectious attitudes of other guests and Cast Members, it’s a hype that is delivered upon.  The whole of Tokyo DisneySea is so much more than the sum of its parts, each of which is already pretty impressive on their own.  The Inca temple in the Lost River Delta, the lighthouse at the American waterfront, the Gondola rides in the Mediterranean harbor, the back streets of Venice, the double-decker carousel in the Arabian Coast, Ariel’s underwater playground in the Mermaid lagoon; there simply is a level of craftsmanship displayed that truly impresses.

"Megellan's" comes highly recommended.  Go directly there and get priority seating.

“Megellan’s” comes highly recommended. Go directly there and get priority seating.

The most awesome popcorn containers...EVER.

The most awesome popcorn containers…EVER.

If you are planning a trip to Japan’s Kingdom of Magic, think about buying an “After 6″ or “Starlight” Passport. The Starlight Passport cost 4,900 yen for Adults, 4,300 yen for Juniors, and 3,400 yen for Children (11 and under). It is valid after 3pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and National holidays. The After 6 Passport has a flat fee of 3,300 yen, and is valid only after 6pm, Monday – Friday.  These tickets can be bought online or at the park on the day of your visit.  If you don’t necessarily want to spend all day in the park fighting what can be truly massive crowds and lengthy lines, try one of these evening passes. In Japan, hours for family life often are reminiscent of the 1950s back in the states. In other words, as the families (most with kids and/or elders) start to depart in late afternoon, the parks become much less crowded, and lines to even the premier attractions are drastically reduced.

Food-art, Japanese-Disney Style

Food-art, Japanese-Disney Style

There are a few things I think TDR could do to improve what is already a world-class themed-operation and resort.

Fast Pass Caste. The good news is that the Fast-Pass in Japan is free, but the bad news is that if you don’t have one for a ride, be prepared for a loooooonnnnnngggggg wait.  In other words, the Disney “Cast Members” cast aside the lowly standby riders, to allow Fast-Passers to go directly on the ride.  It’s fairly annoying to see ratios of (seriously) like 100 to 1.  And you can only have one fast-pass ticket out at a time.  So there is some “strategery” involved here on how to maximize your chances at hitting the most rides in a day.  Seriously Japan, find more of a middle ground.  HINT:  if a rider as a single-rider line, THAT is the way to go!  They are rare in TDR, but some rides do have one….

Non-Asians used in key roles!

Non-Asians used in key roles!

Incorporate Japanese Anime and/or Manga. A rather obvious conclusion and listed first for good reason.  The parks are in Japan, and despite the rich history of Japanese comics, anime animation and the manga movement, they are wholly absent from every aspect of the resort.  Why not a themed area with Manga or Anime?

Potato Head is a bad stand-in for Anime....

Potato Head is a bad stand-in for Anime….

Park Pass Limitations. In Tokyo Disneyland, a 1 or 2 day pass does not allow park hoping; rather, the desired park must be designated when the pass is purchased.  Worse yet, the designated days must be consecutive.  Even though we bought a 2-park, 3-day pass, we still were limited to visiting only ONE park a day for the first two (consecutive) days, and then we could “hop” to our hearts’ content the final, third day.  This really limits flexibility that many families want and need, especially the ones with younger children.

15142232819_b349540627_b

Charging for the DisneyLine Monorail. This is just plain surprising.  Is it part of the resort or not?  It’s Disney-themed and rings only the Disney Resorts.  At no other DisneyLands is there a separate fee for this convenient service.  And, note that the monorail systems at our parks in the states are much larger systems!  Disney, do everyone a favor and just build in this cost to parking fees, or with the park pass, or in hotel fees, or heck, spread the cost of operation across all these revenue streams!  Everything else costs, and costs plenty; the monorail should be “free.”

In any case, the parks are totally terrific, and should be visited with anyone spending a length of time in Japan.  The price-point is no worse than the parks in the states, and with a package deal, I do believe it may actually be more economical!  And to think, that it was all started with a simple Mouse….  Thank you Walt Disney, for realizing this astounding dream.

Life is more of a journey at Tokyo Disneyland Resort!

Life is astounding at Tokyo Disneyland Resort!