Before the Power Rangers, there was Ultraman.
Before Spirited Away (and the anime of the Ghibli studios), there was Speed Racer.
Before Jurassic Park, there was Godzilla and his kaiju giant-monster friends, Gamera and Mothra.
Japan has been exporting its pop culture around the world for ages. Its offerings have certainly been a big part of my life ever since I was a kid, growing up in the late 60s/early 70s and spending my afternoons with Ultraman, Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion. My Saturday evenings, however, were devoted to Godzilla & friends (courtesy of Bob Wilkins’ “Creature Features” TV show). Years later, my adorable partner, Donica, introduced me to the nearly adorable Hello Kitty, and I was hooked. SO – when I heard that there was an island in Japan with both a Godzilla theme park AND two Hello Kitty-themed attractions, I HAD to go. It wasn’t even an option.
Situated as a kind of a connector between Honshu and Shikoku, Awajijima is a sprawling island of hills, small towns and rice fields. It’s also something of a gathering place of attractions, ranging from a botanical garden to a Zen retreat center to a theme park dedicated to the popular ninja anime, Naruto. When my friend Adam and I arrive on Awajijima, we’re immediately struck both by how big this place is, and how bad the gps reception is. Nijigen no Mori, the Godzilla-theme park, should be a pretty easy target to find…and yet, it is so NOT. At least not for us. Truth be told, we never do find the main entrance and parking lot – instead, we’re routed down this tiny, one-lane path in the middle of nowhere…beautiful to be sure, but definitely not the route to a major theme park. Just as we’re about to call it a day, I look past a shed and a vegetable field, and there he is: Godzilla himself, 2-stories tall, with glowing scales and sharp, vicious teeth. To be honest, I actually like seeing the big guy this way, creeping through the Japanese countryside rather than stomping on a Tokyo skyscraper. It’s like Godzilla is taking a moment for himself to plan his next battle rather than actually executing it. Or maybe he’s just contemplating a super-sized nap. At the actual theme park, I’m told that you can zipline straight into Godzilla’s mouth which, to be honest, sounds just plain undignified! I’m glad we could sneak up on him, stealthily, through the rice fields, during one of his non-destroying down moments.
A mere 15 minutes from the King of the Monsters is the Queen of Cute: Hello Kitty! At the Hello Kitty Apple House, you can see the eponymous owner’s “place of residence.” Yes, she lives inside a giant apple because, why not? There’s also a live action show here where Kitty White (her “real” name) sings and dances with all her friends. A few more minutes down the road, on the coast, is Hello Kitty Smile, a multi-building attraction with a gift shop, several themed restaurants and a fully-immersive HK experience. I’ll be honest; all the shows were too expensive for my blood. I declined to pay and go inside. I did, however, stock up on Kitty-brand souvenirs at the gift shop for both my Sweetie and the little girls who live next door. I mean, how often can you give a gift and say, “I bought this from the Epicenter of Cute”?
(Aristotle once wrote: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” I suspect he was bragging about his ability to mold a boy into a spectacular adult. Or perhaps he was saying that the characteristics we display in youth carry on throughout our lives. But I like to think of the expression this way: what we like as kids we continue to enjoy to the end of our days. So, what were your childhood hobbies? What was your obsession from age 7-10? Whatever it was, why not start doing it again? If you loved making model cars, go to the store and buy a model kit! If you loved drawing, go to the nearest art shop and buy some colored pencils. The point is, re-acquainting yourself with your childhood passions can often lead to passionate adulthood, full of energy, creativity… and yes, just maybe, Godzilla and Hello Kitty.)