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August 19, 2006: Edo Wonderland

Up early, because we had a two-hour drive ahead of us. Another hot day, rather smoggy, and we stopped at a convenience store so I could obtain some sunscreen. I went into the store and inquired whether they had any, had it pointed out to me, and made the transaction–all by myself, and without a word of English being uttered. And without any mistakes in payment. I even properly returned a bow from the cashier.

Continuing our drive, we passed a gargantuan rugby stadium, apparently the chief facility of its kind in the whole country. We also passed a scaled-down replica (about 30 feet high) of Mount Rushmore, of all things. [It was part of a “Western Village” theme park that closed the following year. Reportedly, all the fixtures, including Mount Rushmore, are still there, albeit in a state of decay.]

Our destination was Edo Wonderland, a living history center depicting the peaceful and prosperous Edo Period (1603-1867) whose trappings immediately come to mind when most Westerners think of traditional Japan.

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The center is like an entire village, with historical exhibits, costumed characters roaming the streets, and above all, numerous theatrical performances.

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We headed for the first show almost as soon as we arrived at the park, and at the door we were handed a plastic bag to put our shoes in, as the audience would be seated on the floor. We also were handed a little sheet of white paper, and we were quite clueless as to what we should do with them.

At the beginning of the performance, one of the actors came out and gave instructions to the audience, including–we could make out–turning off cell phones. He also singled us out as the only gai-jin (foreigners) present, and told us “konnichi wa” (good day). And he took special care to point out to us in particular the purpose of the white sheets, which he even referred to in English as “cheap white paper”. It turns out that the audience members are supposed to wrap coins in these sheets and, at the conclusion of the performance, toss them onstage. What a great custom! We may want to borrow it for our own shows, eh?

The show itself was excellent, with outstanding performances all around. It was essentially a serious drama about a poor man–a cloth dyer by trade whose hands are stained blue–who saves up his money for 5 years in order to obtain an opportunity to meet a woman of higher social standing with whom he has fallen in love.

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There was also, however, a good deal of humor to clarify the plot a bit for those of us who had a hard time following the dialogue. (This included native speakers, since the actors spoke in a classical Japanese style analogous to Shakespearean English.)

After the performance, we went up to greet the cast, and I told them, “Watashitachi wa Amerika no haiyu desu. Anatatachi wa sugoi desu yo.” (We are American actors, and we think you’re excellent.) Actually, my Japanese was a bit more fragmented than that, but I obviously got the idea across, because they were very pleased and replied with, “Ah, arigato gozaimasu.” (The latter expression, by the way, is one that we hear repeatedly every day. Everywhere you go, people will bow and thank you profusely for every little thing you do. It’s enough to make an American wonder what they put in the water here to make everyone so chipper.)

We were unable to snap any photos of this performance, although we did have our friends take some for us, because we discovered that the batteries in our brand new handy-dandy camera were dead already. So afterward, we had to buy some more.

Then came more shows, a total of 5 in all, each lasting about half an hour. This was more theatre than we’d absorbed in one day in a long time.

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Each of the presentations offered a different style and theme, which we were able to discern readily enough even though the more subtle distinctions were lost on us. One of them was a Ninja show (right up Zephyr’s alley), with spectacular fight scenes.

And perhaps the most talented member of the cast–not only in combat skills but in acting–was the lone female. Unfortunately, her character was killed off halfway through the story, and she didn’t even return to join the guys for a curtain call amid a shower of papered coins. Instead, she ducked outside the theatre to resume her other role greeting the customers lining up for the next performance. At least she did pose for photos with the public–she’s on the far left in ours.

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Between shows, we managed to squeeze in lunch (skewered potatoes fried in batter, skewered mochi balls with sauce, and seasoned, roasted corn on the cob. All quite tasty, for 800 yen per person.)

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We strolled through an exhibit about warfare and jails through the ages; wormed our way through a rather well-done “haunted house” attraction (right up Zephyr’s alley); catch a couple of street performances including a jester-type fellow who contorted little bamboo mats into creative shapes;

We witnessed a rather curious ritual in which a group of bare-chested men paraded through the crowd while being splashed with water by bystanders;

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And we posed with some of the period characters. I got to cozy up to a colorful geisha.

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And Kimberly got a regal ride in a palanquin borne by a pair of muscular attendants.

They were actually there offering rides to kids, but they didn’t object when she climbed in.

The penultimate performance of the day was a farce about a folk hero called Toyamano Kinsan, a magistrate who strolls through the streets dispensing justice in disguise.

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But the real hero is another disguised character–a woman who runs a cafe by day and by night prowls around stealing money from the rich so she can give it to the poor–a Japanese Robin Hoodess. The action was somewhat easier to follow than in the other stories, being based in broad comedy.

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But the dialogue was all in Japanese except for one phrase. At one point, one of the characters exclaimed “Oh my god!”. Whereupon everyone in the theatre laughed, and turned to look at us.

At the conclusion of the last show–a flashy piece built around “water magic” with fountains gushing from unlikely locations–the park began closing, and we began making our way home.

We stopped at the Nikko shrine, built about 400 years ago–after sauntering into a hotel lobby to buy even more batteries (“denshi”) for our most cantankerous camera.

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A ceremony of some sort was in progress on the grounds (a contemporary ceremony–nothing with traditional costumes) but the facility itself was closed for the day. A shame, because it looked like a place one could spend an entire day exploring. “Shrine” in this instance doesn’t mean just a building, but a vast complex of buildings and structures, all architecturally, historically and aesthetically rich.

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There was no way we could have examined even the exteriors in the remaining daylight we had available–especially since, shortly after our arrival, a thunderstorm sent us scampering back to the car.