The weird world of Tokyo Disneyland, the happiest place on earth

That's me on the left at the Lex nightclub. I'm WASTED

That’s me on the left at the Lex nightclub. I’m WASTED

It’s 3am and I’m dancing on a cracked red vinyl banquette in the “VIP” section of a dingy basement bar in a back alley of Tokyo’s neon-lit Roppongi city centre. I have paid for neither my entry to the club (ordinarily ¥3000), nor any of the drinks that were brought to the table (an entire bottle of Belvedere Vodka, a dozen Red Bulls and a jug of a shot called Blue Sky), not the pizza and fries my friends and I have shared, and I do not want to leave. Later, we will be given ¥5000 towards the cab fare home. Why? Because I’m partying with the young, beautiful, white performers who work in Tokyo Disneyland, and this is a standing arrangement – where they go, the Japanese will follow. Welcome to the weird, weird world of the “face cast” of Tokyo Disney theme parks.

I got to spend a week at the performers’ village with a friend last year, and it was a real window into the odd world of the Disney industry. I met a 30 year old woman who played Wendy from Peter Pan. She’d been working for Disney all around the world since she left college. I heard about the incredibly strict rules surrounding the performers’ identities as character actors – there could be no intimation that they were actors: when in costume, they were those characters. Even in the “backstage” area – anywhere beyond their private dressing room – they were in character. I discovered the hierarchy between the white and Japanese performers – Japanese performers are instructed by management to always make way for the westerners backstage. I heard a rumour that Tokyo – the only Disney theme park not owned directly by Disney itself – might actually be run by the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. I learnt that if you’ve worked at Tokyo Disneyland, it’s so well regarded that it’s basically your golden ticket to work for any other Disney park in the world.

The Disney experience in Tokyo is a truly bizarre one. There are locals who spend basically every spare moment in the park. They buy year-long tickets. They have their favourite characters, whose meet-and-greet appearance schedules they learn and whose merchandise they buy religiously. I found out how the cloying smell of popcorn and other sweets is pumped into the air to make people constantly crave snacks (it made me mad because it smelled awful but also made me hungry).

DSCF2916

The “Face Cast” do their thing.

Between the two parks, you can visit the Middle East, an Italian piazza, a life-size ship, the Wild West, and a European-style castle without ever leaving Tokyo. You end up marvelling at how real the fakeness is; it’s a strange paradox. Wonderland is mashed up against Agrabah, Mickey hangs out with the Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story characters appear in the same parades as the Princesses. There is no logic to it other than it’s all DISNEY (though some of it only tenuously so). You can tap into any emotional reservoir you want – romance, adventure, adrenaline. It is extravagant, excitable, and manufactured.

I was (and remain) torn about how to respond to this fairground behemoth. On one hand, it’s a blatantly capitalist money-grab, where people go as a total escape from real life. A docile population kept more docile by a world of huge plush characters, actors who wave to you and over-priced food. But on the other, it genuinely makes them happy. Not pretend-happy, real-happy. Does the fact that it’s making some people extraordinarily wealthy negate the fact that millions go through the park each year and have a wonderful time? I don’t know. I’d never been to a major theme park before and spent the whole time oscillating between the fun of it all – there’s no denying it was a lot of fun – but also the feeling of being very uncomfortable at the thought of it all.

Any thoughts?

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Sunday Best: London Marathon

Yesterday was the London marathon, and it was basically the nicest day England has seen in months, meaning the 37,000 runners banking on there at least not being any sun, like every other day, were bathed in warm sunlight as they ran for 26 miles. I’m sure there are a few people with lobster-like faces today.

My boyfriend’s older bro, Tom, was running for Kidney Research UK, a cause very close to the family’s hearts as their dad, Brian, has had two kidney transplants and was on dialysis for a few years – it’s a pretty miserable existence. So at 9am yesterday, my boyfriend’s mum and dad, two family friends and his brother’s fiancee turned up and filled the living room with bacon and purple Kidney Research t-shirts, because we’re about 20 metres from the marathon route at both the 13 and 22 mile points. Which is brilliant.

Basically, it’s like having a holiday house right on the beach: loads of people schlep for miles to get there, carrying things they need for the day, committing to hours of unrelenting activity, and having to search for toilets, letting your drinks get warm and ending the day tired and a little grumpy, having to get back inside a hot car or uncomfortably travelling by public transport in sandy, wet clothes. NOT US. We popped back home after cheering Tom at the 13-mile mark, had a sit down, made 12 ham sandwiches (we ate about half a pig between us yesterday), and got back just in time to cheer Tom again, then went and sat in the churchyard nearby. When we realised they were having a bake sale and we had no money, we popped back to the house to grab some change. NOT BAD.

It’s a great day out – everyone wins. Free entertainment, a great sense of community and human endeavour, raising funds for charity (Tom has raised almost £3000!). Actually that’s not entirely true, someone loses and that is the street cleaners – there is a LOT of rubbish left behind. A compromise of both extra rubbish disposal facilities along the route and people taking their rubbish with them when there’s no room in the bins needs to be reached in these situation.

Although I did the least amount of travelling possible for this particular post, it’s hopefully a reminder to  to check out what’s on your doorstep. Sometimes, events like festivals, fairs, exhibitions and sport are made all the better when you don’t have to traipse for hours to get there.

Sunday Best: Richmond Park

So my boyfriend and I are working on a slew of different webby projects like maniacs recently, and so we’ve designated Sundays as work-free, adventure-filled days. Last week we went to Richmond Park in Surrey, and it was awesome. Getting out of East London and into the vast fields of the countryside (even though it’s still officially London – you can get there on the District line – but boy it does not feel like London) was very invigorating.

Thatch cottage

You can’t actually go in; I snuck this over the fence

We walked from the station along via the Thames, and being a sunny day it was rammed with merrymakers. The park itself is very hilly, and features some lovely buildings, including this cute-as-a-button thatch cottage. We got some weird ice-cream from a van (it was more like frozen milk than ice-cream though) and had a good old explore.

There is a very cool feature in Richmond Park, and that’s at the highest point, from which you can see St Paul’s Cathedral, some 10 miles in the distance. There’s a telescope, but you squint to see it through the trees – which are kept trimmed back so that you can see the dome in the distance. In fact, this is a protected view, which means that nothing can obstruct the view – you can’t build in the way. Seems there are a few protected views facing St Pauls, maybe I should try and catch a couple more. London challenge, perhaps?

Richmond Park has another, slightly more global claim to fame, and that is being the location where Fenton the labrador famously chased a herd of deer, to the great dismay of his owner:

Sadly, no Fenton and no herd today, and we mostly forgot about the wildlife as we sat by a pond and watched some dogs go mental in the water. But as were heading, we spotted a few deer and it was very exciting. They had some pretty epic antlers. It’s always great to be at proximity to large, undomesticated animals with nothing between you. When I eventually write a blog about Nara, near Kyoto in Japan, I will have many, many more deer pictures to post, but for today, here are just two:

P1010623 Two deer

It took about an hour to get there from Tower Hill, and being on the District line it was largely above ground, which I vastly prefer – I’m still not that comfortable travelling underground. That route also took us past Kew Gardens, not as famous for marauding dogs, more for its horticulture and research, but still worth a visit I’m sure.

Eight things to do in Brighton

I moved to Brighton from Sydney in February 2011 because I wanted to move to England but thought an Australian living in London was too much a cliché for me (also because of a boy, but that’s beside the point. I was being INDIVIDUAL, dammit). Brighton is a small city or a big town on the south coast of England. It’s arty, gay, left-wing, weird and awesome. It’s been a party-town since the Prince Regent built a holiday house (aka Palace – see below for picture) there and went for lavish orgies and feasting with all his society mates. These days it’s more a destination for over-the-top stag and hen dos, but being only an hour south of London it makes it a pretty easy weekend destination.

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