Astute readers may have noticed that I go by the name Kitty-chan, which is the way the Japanese refer to Hello Kitty. And yes, there’s a story here. In addition to being a Disney fan, I’m a bit of a Sanrio geek as well, which has also had some impact on my family travel agenda.
In June of 2002, my extended family and I spent two weeks in Japan, splitting our time between Tokyo and Kyoto. The trip was amazing, truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We visited temples, rode the bullet train, found the Toho Studios’ Godzilla statue, visited the truly amazing Arashyama Monkey Park, and visited plenty of other places both on and off the well-beaten tourist path. (Note: images below are all thumbnails — click on them for larger image.)
My son, then five, in the Ginza
But the attraction that spurred my interest in visiting this beautiful and varied country in the first place? Sanrio Puroland, a five-story indoor theme park dedicated to Hello Kitty and her friends. I’d seen a commercial for the park at the end of a Hello Kitty video my brother-in-law had brought back from Tokyo for me, and I was hooked.
Sanrio Puroland is located in Tama City, about 30 minutes outside Tokyo. You can take the subway there, if you don’t mind traveling through a good number of stations where the signs are written only in Japanese and Chinese characters. Luckily, I had a Japanese friend in Tokyo who gave me excellent directions, and my then-five-year-old son and I found our way there with little difficulty (the rest of the family decided to spend the day in Tokyo rather than visiting Hello Kitty’s homeland . . . gee, I can’t imagine why!).
I didn’t see any signs for Sanrio Puroland when we exited the train, so we just started walking and hoped we’d see the place. I will never forget the moment we turned the corner and saw the building, coming over the horizon looking like a sickly-sweet birthday cake.
We stumbled around for a bit looking for the entrance, and when we finally found it, we were greeted warmly but not without confusion by the cashier, as I fumbled my way through basic Japanese to buy tickets. I understood her confusion once we entered the theme park: it was populated almost entirely by Japanese women and their very young children. My son, even at 5 years old, towered above the others, and of course we were both quite obviously gaijin. But no matter, I was entranced, and part of the appeal for me was to have a thoroughly non-American theme park experience (I was saving Tokyo Disneyland for later in the trip).
Once we’d recovered from the initial shock and excitement, we grabbed a bite to eat (no easy feat, given my lack of significant Japanese language skills), and then hit the arcade to play a few games. I was glad to see that my favorite Sanrio character, Badtz-Maru, was well-represented.
We then moved along to the feature attraction, the Sanrio character boat ride. Oh. My. God. Every Sanrio character you can think of, and then some.
Pom Pom Purin! (Surrounded by the pleasantly strong aroma of baking cake, no less!)
But was the day over? Oh no no no. It was time for the afternoon parade! Now, being an indoor theme park, Puroland can darken the room at 2PM and hve a “nighttime” parade. The costumes were stylish, the choreography strangely stunning. We sat on the floor, surrounded by people who no doubt wondered what on earth these gaijin were doing here, and watched enrapt as Hello Kitty and her various dancing friends came through.
And alas, as the parade ended, so did our energy; jet lag was taking its toll, as was the contact culture shock and excitement of visiting Japan. So, it was time to head back to the subway. But not without a hug goodbye for a new friend.
Now, you might think that our little adventure at Sanrio Puroland would have quenched my thirst for all things Sanrio. You, dear reader, would be wrong. I haven’t been back to Japan since that trip, but when I do return, I’ve got a new destination in mind. Sanrio Harmonyland is located in Oita prefecture, in the southern part of the country where many Japanese vacation. There’s footage of Harmonyland in that same commercial that got me hooked on Puroland in the first place. Since Japan is such a beautiful and welcoming place to visit, how can I resist?