After visiting Tokyo Disneyland and other culturally important sites, Ed and I left Tokyo and took the train to Kyoto, a few hours south. From there, it was a short trip to Osaka, and the Universal Studios Japan theme park.
So here’s where we start talking about popcorn buckets, an important part of the Japanese theme park experience.
In Japan, it’s bad manners to eat while you’re walking around. Vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo, but when you buy a soda on the street, you’re supposed to stand by the machine, drink the soda, recycle the bottle, and then move on. In America, obviously, we just walk around chewing on anything that happens to be in our hands at the time, because we are horrible and we have no manners.
But it can be a long day at a theme park, so how do you grab a little snack while you’re waiting for a parade to start? Answer: popcorn buckets, little plastic containers with a lid and a strap. You wear the bucket around your neck, and then you fill it up at one of the many, many popcorn carts around the park. (Each cart sells a different flavor, including chocolate, strawberry, honey, curry, black pepper and soy sauce.) Then, while you’re waiting on line, you can discreetly open your bucket, munch a little, close it again and you’re not walking around with an open food container.
This system probably sounds amazingly obvious, but it took us about two days at Tokyo Disneyland to figure out why everybody had a plastic bucket on a strap.
So we were on the train to Osaka and I saw this kid, and I casually turned to inform Ed that I MUST HAVE THAT COOKIE MONSTER POPCORN BUCKET.
Like the Universal theme parks in America, Universal Studios Japan has an odd assortment of different character licenses. The big three at USJ are Sesame Street, Hello Kitty and Snoopy. Other items in the character grab-bag include the Pink Panther, Spider-Man, Shrek and Woody Woodpecker, plus some action-movie favorites like Jaws, Jurassic Park and the Terminator.
But in a welcome change from our Tokyo experience, Sesame Street turned out to be the most important franchise at the park. The front of the park was pretty much all Sesame decorations, characters and merchandise.
Our trip was in October, so the characters were all dressed up for Halloween, including the statues of Elmo and Moppy at the front gates. (Yes, Moppy. That’s a thing. I’ll get back to him in a little bit.)
As we entered the park, we found an open patio area for the walk-around characters, and there were crowds of kids milling about. In theme parks in America, there’s always a line of people in front of each character, waiting for a picture. In Japan, you just loiter around nearby, and the characters kind of pivot in a circle and interact with whoever they see. It’s lovely — more casual and friendly than waiting in a line — but you need to be more patient than Americans can usually handle.
We didn’t have any trouble navigating through the park, because almost all of the signs were written in English. That was actually pretty common everywhere we went in Japan, but in USJ it was particularly noticeable. Basically, all of the signs and headlines were in English, and small text was written in Japanese.
And so it began. Past the entrance patio was “Hollywood Boulevard”, with big stores on either side of the main street — Universal Studios Store on the left, and Rodeo Drive Souvenirs on the right. The stores were huge. I kind of lost my mind. Here’s what happened.
Tricks and Treats
The design theme for USJ’s Halloween season was the Sesame characters pictured as little round ghosts wearing witch hats. The ghosts were holding paintbrushes, and they were spattered with colorful paint splashes. There was no obvious explanation for any of this.
(I learned later that the little Sesame ghost witches were the design theme for the previous Halloween, in 2011. They added the paintbrushes in 2012, because in Japan you’re not allowed to do the same thing twice.)
These critters were served up in every possible format, including plush toys, pins, pens, keychains, mugs, stationery and picture frames.
It turned out that the popcorn buckets were Halloween-themed too, so they weren’t selling the Cookie Monster bucket that I wanted. This was a small disappointment, but it quickly faded as I saw all of the other nonsense available to me.
And there was so much else for me to enjoy, because I love weird-looking Sesame toys, and that is basically USJ’s mission statement.
So now I should probably explain phone mascots. They’re tiny little dangly things that you can loop through the top of your mobile phone, and then I guess it just hangs there and gets in your way. They’re sometimes called “mobile phone charms”, but there’s no good English translation because it’s something that Americans just don’t really do. Every once in a while in America, you’ll see somebody with a little chotchke dangling from their phone, but in general it’s not really a thing.
In Japan, it is a thing. It is a huge crazy unstoppable thing.
Some mascots seem like they’re too big to hang on a phone; people also have them clipped to their purses, backpacks and children. Japanese people basically just live for little dangly things.
And the wonderful thing, as someone who likes weird-looking stylized toys, is that they go nuts with the character design — breaking down the character into component parts and then playing with how far you can take them.
I saw characters squeezed into cubes, characters with string arms and legs, characters turned into cars and letters and donuts. Did I mention they really like dangly things?
My favorite set was the one with Elmo turned into food. There were a lot of these; way more than you would possibly think there could be.
In fact, they love the abstraction so much that it was actually hard to find a toy that looked like a normal depiction of the characters. Occasionally, I’d spot an American-style plush toy:
But that was very much the exception. The other toys were all food, bears in costumes, or geometry.
This tube was one of the absolute weirdest things that I found. It just says “Elmo Red”. What do you think it is?
It looks like a tube of suntan lotion, but it’s not. Is it paint? Ketchup? Cake frosting? Nope.
It’s actually an external speaker for an iPod. Obviously. This is what they do in Japan, they come up with nonsense like this.
The Big Face Project
When we got to the end of Hollywood Boulevard, then we found “New York”, just like in real life. New York was mostly full of Spider-Man.
We turned right, and then it’s a couple blocks to get to “San Francisco”. That’s where we found the Big Face Shop — a store entirely devoted to Sesame Street characters’ faces.
It was madness, just absolute madness. There was seriously no excuse for it.
The walls of the shop were also decorated with Big Faces, and I realized that there’s an interesting difference between the stores at Disney theme parks and the madness of USJ.
In Disney parks, the stores have the same kind of attention to detail, but the details are always in service of a story. Every attraction, store and restaurant in Disneyland is supposed to evoke something — nostalgia for the past, anticipation of the future, magical fantasy.
At USJ, the details didn’t really add up to a story. The Big Face Store doesn’t relate to anything but itself. It’s a purely aesthetic exercise in chopping and rearranging patterns, and seeing how many ways you can express the same colors and shapes.
Outside, just down the block from the Big Face Shop, we found a Big Face churro stand.
There’s also a mobile street show that comes by this area called the “Big Face Project”. They’re really super committed to this whole Big Face thing.
Important question: What is the project of the Big Face Project? We’ll come back to that later.
Sweet, Sweet Waffles
Next door to the Big Face Shop, we visited Elmo’s Sweet Waffle Shop, which took the Big Face iconography and put it on food. Just like you’d expect.
The waffles were glazed and coated in chocolate, and decorated with a little candy disk with a picture of Elmo on it. These were Halloween themed, so it was the little paint-splattered ghost Elmo wearing a witch hat. At a certain point this stuff started to feel normal to me.
So, at this point, we’d basically just walked through the gate and hit a few shops, and look how beautiful it was already. Just wait! It got even more elaborate and wonderful.
Next time: Mostly getting sprayed with water.
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by Danny Horn