"Japan is all about the side trips."
--Marie, an Australian girl who taught English in Japan
"Welcome to my shop," said the ninja to his victims.
Me and a ninja doing an attack pose
Me with a samurai
"Meet ninjas and samurai!" the headline screamed from the guidebook, Kyoto's Greatest Travel Tips. I'd picked it up from a pile of books at my hostel. The book happened to fall open on that page, which described the Toei Kyoto Studio Park.
It was a guidebook aimed at children, but no matter. I didn't know the Toei Studio Park even existed before I came to Japan. But once I saw that headline, I was hooked!
When I travel, I try to have a balance of must-see places with other places that I'm personally interested in. Some destinations are so famous that you have to go. Kyoto is a requirement for any Japan itinerary. The Toei Studio isn't. Yet I always get more into travel when going to a place I feel like I've "discovered."
The Toei Studio is that curious phemonon: a tourist trap without tourists. Maybe it was because it was raining that day. More likely, it's because the studio isn't prominently listed in guidebooks. This is really strange. When I tell other other travelers about the studio, their reactions are like, "That sounds so cool! I'd have gone there if I'd known about it!"
I joke that the Toei Studio is a Japan-land. Every clichéd image of Japan is there: giant robots, Power Rangers, and sword-wielding warriors. I kept expecting Godzilla to stomp through and blast some buildings with his radioactive breath.
Super Sentai mecha
The Metal Heroes
2-story tall statue of Masked Rider, the world's ugliest superhero
Of course it's all totally fake, which is a nice lesson in how travel can shatter stereotypes. The only place in Japan that had all the iconic figures of Japan was a theme park.
My favorite section of the park was where they did a live studio demonstration of how a scene gets filmed. I have an avid interest in filmmaking, so it was fun to see the Japanese approach to shooting movies.
Director talking to a ninja
Although the presentation was entirely in Japanese, it was easy to see what was going on. A fight scene is like a dance, with careful movements and precision timing. Safety is the first priority. It's up to the actors' skill at performance to make it look dangerous.
The director choreographed the fight sequence, even taking up a stick against the ninja to show what he wanted. Then he had the actors run through the scene a few times until they had it down. At the end of the presentation, the audience got to watch the finished fight scene!
Director fighting with a ninja
Ninja fights samurai!
The studio park is meant for children, but I felt like an excited 10-year-old boy while wandering around the historical village set. Where could I become a samurai superstar?
That's when I saw the Costume Photo Corner. For a fee, I could wear a costume and get a professional photograph. The hardest part was choosing a costume! I was overwhelmed by the wide selection of traditional clothes I could wear. I rejected a lot of awesome suits. Mainly because I felt a Japanese guy would look cool in that, but I'd look like an idiot. After a lot of consideration, I chose a costume.
I never realized how complicated Japanese garments were. Two young Japanese women assisted me in wrapping and tying the layers of robes properly. I felt like an emperor being dressed by servant girls.
The photo assistants really micro-managed my pose as if I was a mannequin. They'd move my fists a millimeter in one direction or another. A girl tilted my head for the best angle toward the camera. At one point, I wondered if they'd pull at the corners of my mouth, to adjust my smile!
The actual photo-taking lasted less than 10 seconds. Then the girls were ripping the clothes off me. I didn't even get their names.
Meet the new samurai superstar!