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Theme parks of all kinds are very popular in Japan. Universal Studios recently opened not far from Kyoto, and enormous crowds are flooding the place. But if you're a visitor here, there's another movie theme park, with shorter lines, that you might like better. Toei Movieland in Kyoto offers a taste of old Japan, kitsch­style.

Feature: Samurailand

by Sharon Moshavi, 7/13/2001

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Toei Movieland is decidedly low­tech. There are no rides, no thrills, no spills. This is where most of Japan's samurai TV shows and movies are filmed. Tourists come here for one reason: to walk among the dusty movie­set streets of old Japan and watch swords fly, blood spurt and silk kimonos glisten.

Japanese love samurai dramas. Or at least some of Japan does. Walking through the souvenir shops, the noodle restaurants, the mock store fronts and theatres, you quickly see this is not a young crowd. Most everyone here is over 70. They share an enthusiasm for all things samurai that seems like nostalgia for the way Japan used to be, a time when values like pride, loyalty and honor were venerated.

Today, there's nary a drop of blood in sight, but visitors stand rapt as men in kimono, with reddened pancake makeup and ponytails pointing from the tops of their heads, trudge up and down the streets, until the director yells cut.

Standing next to me is Nobuya Sato. The 73­year­old retired teacher is riveted. He's been here five or six times. There's nothing he loves more than a samurai drama, the bloodier the better. Samurai programs are to the Japanese, he says, what westerns are to Americans.

Sato: "I enjoy because the evil is killed and the hero is survived, like a western cowboy. In both the western and eastern cultures we need the heroes."
Better than the filming, I think, is the fish oil guy. A couple of times a day he performs a sort of vaudevillian act, showing how fish oil was used to heal sword cuts in olden times. His slapstick antics aren't exactly subtle, so even if you don't understand Japanese, you can pretty much figure out what everyone's laughing at.

Or, perhaps the thing that makes the visit worthwhile is the Ninja warrior show. Twenty minutes of swords, gymnastics, screams, shrieks, and grunts. Trying to prove the samurai spirit can be hip and modern, Toei has made the star of the show a woman ninja, who whips around her long hair and prances about the stage in silver tights.

Frank Bauknight, an American tourist and one of the few foreigners at the park, is very impressed with her.

Bauknight: "She was outstanding. She was bad, she was really good. She was so good she was bad."
My favorite part of the movie park though, are the special effects. Or should I say, special effect. It consists of a monster head rising out of a pool. It looks like something from Lost in Space, or an Ed Wood movie. As the head starts to rise, great growling noises emit from a tinny loudspeaker.

This seems to appeal to just about the only young folk I see at the park, a group of boisterous Japanese twentysomethings. They've come to get T­shirts bearing the name of their favorite samurai, a historical figure who lived several hundred years ago. One of the group, a boy named Kondo, claims he's a descendent of the samurai.

"I have inherited his samurai spirit," he says. "See, I was fighting and lost a tooth."

That samurai spirit of loyalty, honor and a good rousing fight is something that Japan must never forget, says Fumiko Sugiyama, an 80­year­old woman who rode 2-and-a-half hours on a bus with her retirement group to visit the movie park.

Sugiyama: "Thanks to those olden times, to our samurai, we have become the successful country we are today. The samurai made a big effort and we can remember that here."
That connection to history is something the Universal Studios theme park down the road can never offer. Many Japanese may find themselves dazzled by the glitz and flash of Universal, with its Back to the Future ride and Jurassic Park dinosaurs. But personally, I'm happier spending a day in Japan's past, where the monsters are a little bit tamer.

I'm Sharon Moshavi in Kyoto for The Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources:

A brief informational page from Passage to Japan: http://www.passagetojapan.com/attraction.asp?attrID=81

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