The Japanese call their country, Nippon, which means “source of the sun.” It refers to the fact that Japan lies to the east of China, and to the ancient Chinese, it appeared that the sun rose from Japan.
The sun symbol has been incorporated into the Japanese flag for thousands of years. The red disk is named Hinomaru. The white background expresses honesty and purity.
Japan and China are the only two Asian countries represented in World Showcase. Although they are geographically close to one another, they are worlds apart in appearance. Whereas the buildings in the China Pavilion are painted in bright reds and other vivid colors, the Japanese counterparts are subdued and subtle. The gardens of China have a natural, weathered look while the grounds in Japan have a manicured, well-ordered appearance. Although these countries share many of the same historical roots and customs, they are really quite different.
Most Japanese do not identify with or practice one single religion, but rather incorporate and apply aspects of various faiths into their individual beliefs in a fashion known as Shinbutsu. In most cases, the Japanese combine elements of Shintoism and Buddhism. This is why at the Japan Pavilion you will see representations of both Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples.
The Japan Pavilion has two icons, the first being the massive torii gate which welcomes guests to her shores. This gate is fashioned after the one found off the coast of Itsukushima Island in southern Japan. (Epcot first picture, Itsukushima Island second)
Torii gates are associated with the Shinto religion and are commonly found at the entrance to Shinto shrines. However, some Buddhist temples also incorporate the torii gate into their designs. Torii gates symbolically mark the transition from the “profane” to the “sacred.” It is believed that walking or sailing beneath a torii gate purifies the individual and makes him or her worthy to enter sanctified ground.
Torii gates are traditionally made of stone or wood, with the latter being painted vermilion. The origins of the torii gate are unknown but there are several different theories on the subject. One suggests that they were originally built as perches for roosters to welcome the sun goddess, Amaterasu.
Notice the barnacles at the base of the torii gate in the Japan Pavilion. This is a realistic representation of the gate it was modeled after as it sits in the salty waters of Japan’s Inland Sea. But the Imagineers included this detail for a second reason. It denotes age and helps guests believe this symbol of purity has been here for many centuries.
The second Japan Pavilion icon is goju-no-to, or five-story pagoda. Although pagodas are associated with several religions, they are most commonly linked with Buddhism.
The modern pagoda is an evolution of the ancient Nepal stupa which was used to house religious relics. As pagoda’s spread across Asia, their design was altered to fit the needs of the people and their beliefs. The Japan Pavilion icon was inspired by the eighth-century pagoda found at Horyuji Temple in Nara. (Epcot first picture, Nara second)
During the planning stages of the Japan Pavilion, the Imagineers were incorporating elements from a number of different pagodas. When their Japanese advisor saw their drawings, he explained that they had used many Chinese components and their designs did not accurately represent the pagodas found in Japan. Compared to Chinese pagodas, Japanese structures use muted color, less ornamentation, and their roofs have simple lines. Below is a typical Chinese pagoda. Compared to the picture above, it’s easy to see the differences.
The five tiers of the pagoda represent, in ascending order, the elements from which Buddhist believe all things in the universe are created: earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. On the roof is a sōrin (finial). A sōrin is divided into several sections, each having symbolic meaning. At the Japan Pavilion we find nine rings which act as wind chimes and topped with a water-flame. Being in Florida, this sōrin contains one additional element, a lightning rod.
One of the biggest attractions at the Japan Pavilion is Matsuriza, a group of Japanese taiko drummers which perform five days a week at the base of the pagoda. Taiko means drum in Japanese. According to legend, taiko drumming was started by Ame no Uzume, the goddess of the dawn, mirth, and revelry (in the Shinto faith).
As the story goes, one day the sun goddess Amaterasu, became frustrated and fearful of her younger brother Susano'o, the god of storms. To escape his wrath, Amaterasu hid in a cave, plunging the world into darkness.
Realizing that the world needed light, Ame no Uzume took action and overturned a tub near the cave’s entrance and began to dance upon it. The other deities found this comical and laughed loudly.
Amaterasu, hidden in the cave, heard the laughter and was curious. When she peered out to see the merriment, she saw her brilliant reflection in a mirror which had been placed near the cave’s entrance by Ame no Uzume. The brightness of her reflection drew her out of hiding and another deity closed the cave behind her. Thus, light was restored to the earth forever. Below is a representation of Ame no Uzume dancing on a drum.
The Matsuriza group performs several times a day and their routine varies from set to set. See the Times Guide for times.
To the left of the pagoda on the World Showcase promenade is Kabuki Café. This quick-service spot sells soft drinks, Japanese beer, sake, plum wine, green tea, edamame, and most importantly, kakigōri. Kakigōri is shaved iced topped with a flavored syrup and condensed milk. Although similar to a snow cone, the ice used on kakigōri is smoother in consistency and more akin to fresh fallen snow. This is a summer treat in Japan and sold virtually everywhere.
To the right of the pagoda is a typical Japanese garden, a cultural aspect that dates back centuries. Originally transported to Japan from China, the Japanese garden has evolved over time and taken on a distinctive look of its own. While Buddhist gardens were designed for meditation and contemplation, gardens of the nobility were intended for recreation and aesthetic pleasure. As gardens grow and mature, they are constantly sculpted to maintain and enhance the overall experience. In Japan, gardening is considered a high art form.
A typical Japanese garden contains a number of elements in its design. These include water, rocks & sand, bridges, architecture, lanterns, fences, trees & flowers, and fish. All of these can be found in the Japan Pavilion garden.
Water – Japanese consider water to be a life source and thus is abundant at the Japan Pavilion.
Rocks & Sand – Rocks in Japan represent the enduring nature of the Earth. Most of the larger stones found at the Japan Pavilion were imported from North Carolina and Georgia since boulders are scarce in Florida.
Bridges -- Bridges symbolize transition, the passing from one segment of your life to another. In other words, "We have made it this far. Do we want to turn back? Do we wish to continue on the same path? Or change direction?"
Architecture -- “Traditional” Japanese architecture has been characterized by wooden structures, elevated slightly off the ground, with tiled or thatched roofs. Inside, sliding wooden doors were used in place of walls, allowing for the customization of space depending on the need.
Lanterns -- Stone lanterns were introduced by tea masters to guide guests through their gardens to the tea ceremonies held in the evening.
Fences – Fences are often used in Japanese Gardens to compartmentalize. It’s not uncommon for several types of landscaping to be displayed in one area. A fence can add beauty and helps divide one section of the garden from another.
Trees & Flowers – Evergreen trees are symbols of eternal life and are plentiful at the Japan Pavilion. Because of the climatic difference between Japan and Florida, only a few trees native to Japan can be found at the Japan Pavilion. Some of these include the Sago Palm, the Japanese Maple, and the Monkey-puzzle tree. Azaleas, native to several continents, including Asia, can also be found here. In Japan, a number of cities celebrate the azalea with festivals and events
Fish -- Koi are simply domesticated carp that are used to decorate ponds and water gardens. They were first bread by the Japanese in the 1820’s for their distinctive color. They were virtually unknown to the outside world until 1914 when they were exhibited at an exhibition in Tokyo. Interest was immediate and the hobby of keeping koi spread worldwide.
Atop a nearby hill is Katsura Grill (Formerly Yakitori House). This structure was designed to resemble a tea house that might be found in the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. (Epcot first picture, Katsura second)
The Katsura Imperial Villa is considered one of Japan's most important cultural treasures, yet it is probably less known to foreign tourists than other sights in the country. Tour companies often overlook the wonderful gardens and architecture found here in favor of the nearby Kyoto Imperial Palace.
In Japan, a tea house, which is usually near a garden, is traditionally used for performing the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony is a very special event in Japanese culture and considered an art form. Participating in a tea ceremony is deemed more of an experience than an event. The presenter of the ceremony may take days to make sure everything is prepared and presented perfectly. This includes the tea, the food, and the exact placement of the utensils to be used. The actual presentation is a carefully choreographed ritual that has evolved over the centuries. The invited guests will give themselves totally to the “here and now” and savor every moment.
Although Katsura Grill was designed to resemble a tea house, its actual use is a little more pedestrian. Here it is used to serve hungry tourist semi-authentic Japanese fare.
The inside of the restaurant is bright and cheery and offers beautiful views of the surrounding gardens.
The menu has a number of selections within three categories, Sushi, Udon, and Teriyaki. Several additional offerings, like Chicken Cutlet Curry and Miso Soup, are also presented. To see the complete menu, click here.
Outdoor seating is also available in a lovely garden setting. Overhead, Japanese lanterns swing in the breeze and a nearby waterfall creates a charming backdrop in which to enjoy your meal.
Another detail of the Katsura Imperial Villa has been captured for the Disney replica, a fence. At the Imperial Villa, a bamboo fence surrounds much of the property. At Katsura Grill, a similar fence separates “onstage” from “backstage.” (Epcot first picture, Imperial Villa second)
At the back of the Japan Pavilion is a castle. This imposing fortress was modeled after Himeji Castle, one of the best preserved fortresses of early Japan. The structure is also known as Shirasagijo or “White Egret Castle” due to its brilliant white color. Like its European counterparts, Japanese townsfolk built their homes and businesses near the base of Himeji Castle and in times of peril, found refuge within their mighty walls. The first picture is of Himeji Castle, the second two were taken at the Japan Pavilion. When looking at the original and the duplicate, it’s easy to see the similarities.
Japanese castles were constructed primarily of stone and wood and almost always were built atop a mound or hill. This gave the structure an imposing presence and provided for better views of the surrounding land. Their sloping rock walls helped strengthen the structure and protect it from earthquakes, an ever present concern in Japan. Unlike their European counterparts, Japanese castle walls were never built around the town but were restricted to the building itself. In larger castles like Himeji, a secondary moat was constructed between the primary structure and out-buildings which would house lower-ranking samurai. This can all be seen at the Japan Pavilion. The statues of the samurai soldiers are positioned in the outer portion of the castle and guest must cross the moat to reach the principal fortress.
Today, the Japan Pavilion castle houses a Kidcot station, a museum, and a portion of the Mitsukoshi Department store, but that wasn’t the original idea for this structure. Early plans called for the castle to be an entryway into an attraction to be titled “The Winds of Change” and later changed to “Meet the World.” Consideration was so positive that the show building to house the attraction was built behind the shopping area we now enjoy.
“Meet the World” was a four-act show in the spirit of “Carousel of Progress.” However, the arrangement of the stages and seating area would be reversed. For “Meet the World,” the audience would sit in the middle of the building on a rotating turntable and face outwards toward stationary stages. This is just the opposite of “Carousel of Progress” which has the audience sitting on the outside looking in. Although the seating area would be smaller for “Meet the World,” the stages would be larger with this reversed arrangement, adding more flexibility for the presentations.
“Meet the World” would also incorporate a feature CoP did not have, a movie screen on the back wall of each theater. This would be a presentation akin to “The American Adventure” where both movies and AudioAnimatronics figures would be employed simultaneously.
“Meet the World” was also being developed for Tokyo Disneyland where it was an opening day attraction in Tomorrowland. It ran from April 15, 1983 to June 30, 2002.
“Meet the World” presented a history of Japan in four acts. Act One opened in current day Japan with two children from Yokohama discussing their country’s past. They would soon be joined by a magical, talking crane that would transport them back in time and allow them to see for themselves the colorful history of their nation. As the audience rotated through the various acts, the island nation’s volcanic beginnings were discussed along with early trading with other nations, isolationism, the reopening of the country, and their promising future. The catchy tune that was sung between acts was written by the Sherman Brothers. You can hear a portion of this melody at the end of the video I made about the Japan Pavilion.
This show sounds pretty cool, right? So how come this attraction never materialized at the Japan Pavilion even after the show building was constructed? Yet it did make it to Tokyo Disneyland.
Although there were a number of reasons for its omission at Epcot, one of the primary concerns was the way Japan’s role prior to and during World War II were addressed – or should I say, not addressed. This entire period in Japanese history was summed up with three sentences:
Little Girl: It’s awfully dark.
Crane: Yes, it was dark. But that’s all over now.
Disney executives were fearful that the glossing over of this negative time in Japan’s history would offend some guests, especially those who fought in WWII.
Other attractions have been considered for the Japan Pavilion. One was for a roller coaster to race through Mount Fuji in the same manner as the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland. Another idea would be a walk-through version of "Circle-Vision". Here, guests would board a Shinkansen (bullet train) that would be surrounded by movie screens and take guests on a train trip around Japan. But alas, these have not come to pass. I’m sure if you could find a sponsor, the Imagineers would be more than happy to dust off the plans and breathe new life into these ideas.
That’s it for Part One. Check back tomorrow for Part Two.
The previous post in this blog was Your Name in Thai at Animal Kingdom.
The next post in this blog is Epcot's Japan Pavilion - Part Two.