Crashing Japan
Pop Japan Travel: Day 1 (part 2)

by Christopher Macdonald, Jan 3rd 2006
Sorry for the long delay between columns, we've been so busy here at Anime News Network with the regular operation of the website, summer conventions, and adapting to Protoculture Addicts, that I've just been too busy to work on Crashing Japan.

The good news is that there will be an installment this week (this one), and installments for the next two weeks as well. The only catch is that next week's installment and the one for the week after are in issue 85 of Protoculture Addicts. While pictures supporting the articles on Satsuki no Mei's house and the Suginami Anime Museum will be posted online, the actual article text will only be available from Protoculture Addicts.

Anyways, without further ado, here's this week's Crashing Japan.




Hollywood of Japan

Uzumasa, in the Ukyo Ward of Kyoto was the center of Japan's movie industry for several decades. The first Japanese movie studio was opened in Uzumasa in 1925 by Bando Tsumasaburo, one of Japan's most famous movie stars. Within nine years seven more studios set up shop in Uzumasa. At the end of World War II, major movie companies such as Shochiku, Daiei and Toei returned to Uzumasa, launching the golden age of Japanese cinema. The advent of Television brought this era to a close and the movie industry faced a steady decline. Shochiko was forced to abandon its Uzumasa facilities and Daiei ceased operations completely. Shochiko eventually resumed operations at its Uzumasa facilities and in 1975, Toei, in a bid to keep its studio open, turned its studio into a theme park.
After the temples and castles on the morning of Pop Japan Travel's spring tour, we headed to Toei Uzumasa Movieland (Toei Uzumasa Eiga Mura) in the afternoon.

Located in Northern Kyoto, Toei Movieland is a small theme park and functional movie studio. First opened to the public in 1975, Movieland is Japan's oldest movie studio theme park.

Among many other attractions, the theme park contains a life-size, commercial district of a medieval Japanese town. It's easy to imagine it as the real thing—just remove the tourists, add some appropriately dressed Japanese town folk, and voila, you're in 17th century Japan. Of course, that's exactly what Toei does when it wants to shoot a film; the town is used for actual movie shoots from time to time. Like a fair, there are several huts that are used to sell souvenirs or offer games of skill, like ninja star throwing. Surrounding the town is a Toei museum, with exhibits related to Toei's numerous Sentai series, museum pieces related to ancient Japanese warfare, and more. There's also a haunted house that is very popular with the tour and quite effective at scaring the people that venture within.

In the middle of the theme park is a decent sized theater where they present several live plays every day. For us, it was a theater rendition of the last portion of The Life of Benkai It's presented in Japanese, but it's easy enough to understand the gist of what's going on, thanks to background information provided before hand by the PJT tour guides.

Story of Benkai

Saito Musashibo Benkai, one of Japan's most famous heroes from the Heian Period, lived from 1155 to 1189. Benkai (also often transliterated as Benkei) was a warrior monk, strong and extremely skilled in combat, but kind and above all, loyal to the death.

Benkai is said to have been born to the daughter of a blacksmith after she was raped by a priest, other legends say that he is actually the child of a temple god and that he was born after 18 months of pregnancy. Regardless of his origin though, his early life is agreed to have been spent among monks and temples.

He eventually left the temples and joined the Yamabushi, a clan of brigand monks who wandered the Japanese countryside in that period.

One evening Benkai came upon Minamato no Yoshitsune at Goyo bridge. Yoshitsune appeared to be a weak man, but he carried a very nice sword that Benkai wanted to steal. The two fought, and Benkai soon learned the Yoshitsune was far more than he appeared to be. Yoshitsune had been trained by the Tengu, mythical creatures said to excel in the martial arts.

More skillful and agile, Yoshitsune was able to defeat the giant Benkai, but it was no easy fight. Overcome by Yoshitsune's skill, Benkai pledged allegiance to the nobleman and became his vassal. Over the years Benkai remained Yoshitsune's faithful companion and learned much from his lord, in fighting and in planning. A brilliant general, Yoshitsune lead his clan through a series of victories in the Genpei wars Yoshitsune was responsible for the downfall of the ruling Heike clan. Yoshitsune became a hero, but his older brother, Minamato no Yoritomo was jealous and betrayed Yoshitsune by claiming that Yoshitsune was a traitor and ordering his execution.


Benkai and Yoshitsune Admire the Sakura Blossoms

Even when Yoshitsune was forced to flee and live life as a fugitive, Benkai's loyalty remained resolute. Numerous times Benkai save Yoshitsune, through force or through wit. But eventually they were unable to flee from Yoritomo's soldiers and made their final stand in Oushu.

Yoshitsune killed his family to save them from being tortured at Yoritomo's hands, and committed suicide. Meanwhile, Benkai fought off Yoritomo's soldiers, allowing Yoshitsune to die in peace. Benkai fought and killed many of Yoritomo's soldiers, but eventually he was felled by their arrows. Even in death, Benkai protected his master, he died blocking the door to his Yoshitsune's room and none of the soldiers dared move him.

After the defeat of Yoshitsune, Yoritomo founded the Kamakura Shogunate, becoming the first ruling Shogun of Japan.

Some legends claim that Yoshitsune and Benkai survived and lived the remaining days of their lives in peace. Others claim that they escaped to Mongolia where Yoshitsune took on a new name, Genghis Khan.

Wikipedia Entry on Yoshitsune

Benkai and Ushiwakamaru



Souvenir Shop Section for Precure
If souvenir shopping is what pleases you, you'll have plenty to look at in the museum's immense gift shop. It contains a large variety of merchandise related to Toei properties, like a section with masks from various movies, including skullcaps with Japanese hair styles; there's also a section devoted entirely to girls' shows, as well as a section full of traditional items that you would see in Japanese historical movies, such as fans, chopsticks, swords, and other decorations.

The theme park also allows visitors the opportunity to watch a real live movie recording. If you're lucky, you can even sometimes snag a part as an extra, provided you show up on a day that they are recording. If you're planning to hit up the theme park, it's a good idea to call ahead to find out what days they are scheduled to record.



Osaka

In the evening, the tour members are free to do whatever they please. Kikue-san, our guide, kindly offered to take some of us to Osaka to see Shin-Osaka, one of the city's entertainment districts, famous for its neon signs. The tour goes by the same area in the daytime, but because of the timing, none of the signs will be lit. If neon signs don't excite you, though, there are plenty of other things to do by staying behind, like hitting up one of the many bars, a pachinko parlor, a karaoke bar, or one of Kyoto's acclaimed sushi restaurants.

Osaka is a short ride from Kyoto by train, and one of the benefits of having a JR pass is that you can schedule impromptu train trips without worrying about your budget. 45 minutes after leaving Kyoto, you're in Osaka. Fortunately, PJT and HIS are careful to make sure that traveling is convenient and accommodating—both of the hotels in Kyoto and Shin-Osaka are less than a five minute walk from their respective train stations. In fact, all of the hotels booked during the trip are close to major rail stations, which makes it very easy to get to different destinations.

In Osaka, visitors can stroll down several covered avenues that are dominated by restaurants, video stores, used book stores, arcades, clothing stores and so-on. Those of us who chose to go with Ms. Kikue were free to do as they pleased and had 2.5 hours with which to browse the stores at their own leisure. One of the big draws is all the arcades which are still very popular in Japan, despite having mostly disappeared from North America. There's a lot of classic games like Pac Man and Double Dragon, more recent games like Street Fighter, and the latest games like Initial D 2. And of course, lots of DDR and similar Bemani games. There are also a lot of used bookstores, which carry used manga, artbooks, movies (including anime), video games and CDs.

Used bookstores are everywhere in Japan, the largest chain is Book Off. For a foreigner used to paying $30 to $80 for Japanese artbooks, the ¥500 to ¥2000 (about $5~$20) price tags on the artbooks in these stores is almost reason enough to go to Japan. In fact, for some it might be. That doesn't even include the used anime, manga, and music that you can find, which is just as plentiful. And if you happen to read Japanese, they also have plenty of regular books. The appearance of used bookstores throughout Japan might be a wonderful thing for consumers, but to publishers, the industry is a big threat. In fact several lobby groups have been formed to try to work out ways to deal with the “problem.”

After checking out the arcades and bookstores we decided to go eat. The street is littered with restaurants, cheap and expensive. But we're looking for a restaurant that accepts credit cards, so it takes almost half an hour to find one that we like. We ended up eating in a chicken restaurant where we couldn't read the menu, so we just pointed to random things that look good. Unfortunately the waitress messed up the order (because of our inability to communicate), but I was happy with the food. Since I ate most of the food, I offered to pay most of the bill. I paid by credit card, and collected 1000 yen from one of the other tour members for his portion. Yay, I finally had cash! (Can't remember why this excites me? Read the first installment of Crashing Japan here.)

It was very kind of Ms. Kikue to offer to take us to Osaka on her free time. We could have gone on our own, but it's much easier to find where to go and be back on time for the last train, when you have a guide.




Next week's Crashing Japan will be a pictoral guide to the Suginami Anime Museum and Satsuki no Mei's house (Aichi Expo), then the next week things start to get really fun with the first visit to an Otaku Shopping District, followed by more shopping in Tokyo (Akihabara and something even cooler), Tokyo Anime Fair and more....

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