Elements: Hakone, Japan

Before Hakone, we were in Ginza.  Ginza is the quietest retail high street you’ll ever encounter in the world.  This is the 5th Ave/Rodeo Drive of Tokyo but you can carry on conversations at a whisper.  And the lights, all muted.  True class.

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A centuries-old ryokan.  It practically looks like the building has grown out of the same soil as the trees around it, the way it’s blended in so well.

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The ryokan where we stayed.  Simple wood, polished by decades (centuries?) of guests walking over it.  The wood creaked and bent – almost bounced – under your step.  I’d never had that feeling of walking on wood before, with so much give.

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The warm lighting in the hallway across this garden really makes this scene.  This was in the dead of winter, and it looks like the building promises warm hearths and fresh, hot tea for a traveler that’s come a long way.

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It’s hard to describe why the below scene affected me so much.  To the right of here is a shrine, and that red torii gate is the threshold to the sacred space.

As you stand here, the sun bursts through the crack in the trees in just the right way to light the moss verdantly.  The wind rustles the leaves gently and they sound like palms rubbing together, some sort of reverential gesture.  You have the sense that this space, which if you were in a hurry and passed by it looks completely ordinary – what with the street signs and electric wires – was hallowed.

And why was it hallowed?  Because of the torii gate?  The way the sun hit the trees?

Or maybe because the combination of all these things made you just stop.  Stop, and recognize the sacred or hallowed in the ordinary, which is the whole point of shinto and a core part of the Japanese aesthetic.

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There were very few things in the courtyard/garden of this temple.  But for some reason they looked artfully arranged.  I don’t know why the whole scene was so beautiful.  It just is.  The fact that the grounds were completely silent helped.

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But maybe the point of the space, with very few things in it, is precisely that there is space.

The space brings into greater relief the objects that are in the courtyard, like the bell and the beautiful trees.

Also, the space seems meaningful.  The space allows for things to grow, like the moss.  It provides space for the steps to the shrine.  It provides space for you to move through it.  The space is deliberately there, without space things cannot grow or develop or move.

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Elsewhere in Hakone, this was a restaurant.  And after eating there, you pass through this portal on your way out to the real world again.  The way this dark entryway framed the winter scene outside was astounding.  It wouldn’t have worked, I think, if the distance of this passage were any longer or shorter.

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I just love how these trees are gnarled with character.  Although the branches ended up growing in one general direction, they twisted and took corkscrew paths to get there.  It’s about the journey.

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Elements: The Best Theme Park in the World?

DisneySea is the gold standard of theme parks.  Most people in the industry who I ask will nominate it as their favorite, and as the best theme park ever constructed.  Just a few of the examples are here and here.

There are better guides and writeups on DisneySea out there, but this is my personal note of appreciation for it.

DisneySea is my favorite park too, although I think if you’re talking about the best park in the world, it depends on who you’re asking.

You’ll notice that the people declaring this is the best park in the world, are adults.  Most kids would probably not say DisneySea is their favorite theme park.  It has less rides and attractions than Disneyland and is a more subtle experience.

As way of background, Tokyo DisneySea is the second theme park at Tokyo Disney Resort.  It opened in 2001 on land reclaimed by the Oriental Land Company in the 1960s, and while Disneyland got the better, more stable land, DisneySea had to be built with as much attention to the subsurface because it was over a deeper area.

All sorts of fancy engineering was applied to the land to avoid problems of differential settlement, and the inevitable result was cost overruns.

All this is to say that in my opinion, Tokyo DisneySea is the theme park version of the Steve Jobs standard of crafting things to perfection, even the parts unseen.

First, this is perhaps the most beautifully themed amusement park in the world.  Parts of it do not resemble a traditional theme park.  They resemble an art installation, or a museum.

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This is Ariel’s Grotto, a visually spectacular masterpiece.

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This East Coast waterfront area is visually one of the most intricately themed experiences I’ve ever seen anywhere.  They put that much work into this ship floating in the water, and it cannot even be boarded or accessed.  Only appreciated from afar.

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Most things, when they are simulacra of another, suffer in comparison.  They can’t pass the authenticity test.

This is because too many details are missing.  Here, Tokyo DisneySea has the opposite issue.  It has MORE details and more features, I’m sure, than the originals.

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Gorgeous theming.  Not a brick out of place or corner cut.

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The park is filled with areas like this, in areas you can’t even access.  Here’s a dhow in the middle of the water, and it’s full of stuff – cargo, utensils, equipment – and the fact that it has this stuff in it deepens the mystery.  You want to go see it, but you can’t.

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Exquisite rockwork.  Bubbling water.  The water doesn’t have to foam and bubble.  But it does, because this is Disney.

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At DisneySea, they’ve recognized that food is an important part of the experience, and for many people, maybe the primary part of the experience.  Why other theme parks haven’t yet adopted this philosophy is beyond comprehension.

At DisneySea, you get multiple popcorn flavors spread out in different areas of the park.  It is a game to either find/taste them all, or find the one you want.  Here’s blueberry popcorn.

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Here’s milk chocolate popcorn.

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Here’s the line for the caramel popcorn.

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You have a food court that has a line of more than 30 minutes to enter:

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Operationally, it excels.  Every cast member has been impeccably trained.  On the kids’ rides, the cast members wave to you the entire time you’re riding.  Bonus points if you can catch them not smiling.

I can’t tell how much of this part is cultural; i.e., would you get the same frenzy and crowds in say, Orlando?  But in DisneySea, there are queues everywhere.  When I mean everywhere, I mean – at food kiosks.

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To take pictures next to a themed stall.

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And ride-equivalent wait times to take pictures with the characters.  Some of this is undoubtedly Instagram culture, which is worldwide, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not sure you would get a neat, impromptu lines like the above at Disney World.

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Then you get the Easter Eggs and minute details that are completely extraneous, but are the differentiator between a Disney park, and everyone else.

Plaque reads: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships, 1623-1912”.  This is taken from the Gloucester’s Fisherman’s Memorial; the original has the dates 1623-1923, but I will bet that the difference of the latter year has some meaning to it and is not an error.

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There are theme parks developed for a fraction of a Disney park.  You can have great theming, good hardware (roller coasters) that rival the best in the world, you can have rockwork and incredible landscapes, but there’ll always be something missing.

That something is internal consistency, but internal consistency wrought with a level of attention to details that would confound a rocket scientist.

Part of this internal consistency that most theme parks ignore is music.  Music in a Disney or Universal park is central to the experience.  Hidden speakers take you on a cinematic journey and evoke emotions appropriate to that land.  The audio quality is superb and makes it seem like you’re in a theater the whole way.  The transitions between the lands are seamless.

Instead, in most parks, what do you get?  Non-immersive, dim audio, sometimes tinny, and lots of areas that are just completely silent.  Soundtracks that are nonexistent, and instead, playing pop music unrelated to the park.

Here are some speakers hidden in a bamboo grove.

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And some others disguised into a building facade, all designed to create that seamless experience.

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Paying attention to the parts unseen, indeed.

If you decide to do something, to do it all the way, and to completely commit to the conceit that you’ve set up. 

This is DisneySea’s major accomplishment.  This is something worth considering and learning from.