My flight last June was the first time I can remember being nervous on an airplane.
With all the traveling I do, flying has never been an issue. Then again, I’ve never flown a 14-hour flight before, let alone survived a 23-hour travel day. That said, I guess the flutter of butterflies in my stomach on takeoff makes sense.
But for a chance to see the other side of the world — a chance I never thought I’d have — I’d be willing to do it for a flight that’s twice as long.
This summer I worked for three months in Japan, and boy am I lucky to have done so with Disney on Ice. Figure skating is popular in Japan at the moment, as evidenced by the rise of elite Japanese competitors — including this year’s Olympic champion, Yuzuru Hanyu — and other ice shows that toured The country while we were there. More importantly, though, is Japan’s fascination with and celebration of what I call “cartoon culture.” Japanese people wear cute characters like Hello Kitty with alacrity.
The loudest part of “cartoon culture” for me was the enthusiasm for Disney. From Mickey Mouse to Elsa to Stitch, it seemed that Japanese people couldn’t get enough of Disney. It’s a dream situation for a Disney on Ice performer (and fellow Disney fan).
HERDS OF DISNERDS
Even though the respectfully quiet Japanese audiences were too polite for the whooping and cheering present in American audiences, by the time we finished every finale skaters were carrying dozens of flowers with us off the ice. Mickey, Minnie, and a few other princesses received more fan mail in Japan than Santa Claus has Christmas wish lists. By the middle of the tour we were performing more shows a week than most other Disney on Ice tours.
Yet if I thought the Disney love at our shows was overwhelming, it was nothing compared to what I saw at Tokyo Disney. Disneyland — the park with a recreation of Cinderella’s castle, familiar Disney rides, and character meet-and-greets — was like a competitive convention. I felt underdressed in a T-shirt and jeans while the other park guests wore full cosplay costumes, despite the rain. Easily more than half of the guests ranged from classic Snow Whites to obscure characters like the Muses from Hercules. And though I visited on a weekday, I was surprised at how few children and parents there were. Most of the guests seemed to be 15-30 years old. Even though the American Disney parks don’t allow their guests to wear costumes of Disney characters, I doubt I would see as many people my age unabashedly show their Disney pride in those parks as I did in Japan.
On the other hand, DisneySea seemed to have what I expected in a Disney park. The park itself is an original interpretation; instead of mainstays like Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, guests can navigate the Lost River Delta and a Mermaid Lagoon. Still, there were fewer costumes, more families, and certainly more non-Japanese tourists.
Of course, I spent my time off the ice doing more than just indulging in Disney magic. Powered by a diet of whatever rice and ramen I could successfully scoop up with chopsticks, I hit the tourism rounds in each of the cities we visited.
Of the four most influential cities in the world — New York City, London, Paris, and Tokyo — the Japanese capital was the only one I hadn’t seen in person, and so I was looking forward to that city the most. Excitement bubbled when our bus drove over a triple-decker highway into Tokyo. Buildings with several dozen floors dwarfed us. I felt the sheer number of people in this city right away.
Yet as much as I was invested in sightseeing around Tokyo, there was something left to be desired by the time I left. I watched the hundreds of people crossing at Shibuya while sipping a matcha tea latte from the elevated Starbucks, considering if its colloquial title as “the Times Square of Tokyo” fit. Without the flashy glitz of New York’s stores, street performers, and signs and news tickers, Shibuya was nothing more than a shoulder-to-shoulder huddle of people.
I appreciated the local temples, electronics district, and Harajuku neighborhoods, but none of it hit me with the same magic as New York or Paris. I blame the language barrier. Speaking English and French helped me through the other three major cities, but I was limited in what I could see in Tokyo.
A TEST OF SPIRITS
Fortunately, there is so much more to Japan than Tokyo. In every city, I tried local foods and sought famous tourism spots as much as I could on my days off. When I was done marveling at the enveloping Arashiyama bamboo groves in Kyoto, I played with snow monkeys in a nearby park. I hid from the hungry wild deer who chased us all over Miyajima and took pictures of the
floating shrine when they lost the scent of my green tea ice cream. And when I wanted to sit back and enjoy Japan from afar, I had a beautiful view of an active volcano from my hotel balcony in Kagoshima.
That’s where I should have stayed when I wanted to see Mount Fuji. Instead, I was dumb enough to climb it.
Now, in my defense, I thought I could handle a mountain. I hit the gym a few days a week and hike when I am home — plus, skating all those shows every week probably doesn’t hurt. Turns out that wasn’t enough.
A group of us took a bus approximately halfway up Mount Fuji, so half the work was done for us. Yet as soon as I stepped off the bus, my adrenaline ebbed and dizziness set in. Hampered by nausea and fatigue, I felt twice as heavy simply hiking the flat parts of the first mile. I told the rest of my group to continue without me; we were hiking overnight so we could reach the summit by sunrise, so I didn’t want to slow them down too much. By the time we hit each rest station, I barely caught up to them before they continued again, having had several more minutes to rest while patiently waiting for me.
The early morning air was swirling around me; headlights mockingly bounced far above me from other hikers. Determined to make the sunrise, I kept climbing. Most of the trail was so vertical I had to use my hands to pull myself up, which meant my view was mostly dull, gray rock. At each station, our group became more separated and I felt too sick to eat a few bites of a protein bar. The eight-hour trek up seemed to go on for days.
Between the last station and the summit, there was a 30-minute, single-file line to the top. Well, there were technically two single-file lines, each merging with each other as hikers tried to pass one another to the top. Several times I pulled over and finally let myself sit, trying to reorient myself while I felt like the mountain was swinging on a pendulum. Just when I was willing to fall asleep, I saw the smallest red sliver of sunrise peak out. The line started to pick up pace, and though I was drunk with altitude sickness and cold, I attempted to crawl one limb in front of the other to the top.
Just in the nick of time I finally reached the summit. Uncharacteristically I burst into tears at the sight of my closest friends, overwhelmed with relief that the hardest part was over. I snapped the requisite photos and was surprised to find that, somehow, I had beaten most of my group to the top.
With the sun fully lighting the morning sky, we started our way down. Not five minutes into the way back down I lost all sense of direction and my legs buckled under me. Woozy, sick, and underfed, I lay in the red dirt and watched the other hikers spinning rapidly in my vision. A French-speaking couple came to my aid. They handed me a pure oxygen inhaler, fed me sugar cubes, and wrapped me in a space heater blanket. When I finally found the humor in my friend’s jokes, which compared me to a burrito under my silver blanket, I felt well enough to continue. Several hours later, I finally saw the medical truck that had finally been sent up the mountain for me.
It was easily the most physically grueling thing I’ve done in my life and it tested my spirit. Though I am proud to say I climbed Mount Fuji — albeit with much less ease than my friends — I am in no rush to climb another mountain. Still, the view above the clouds was better than any I’ve ever seen on an airplane.
All of which reminds me of my initial unease to fly from New York to Japan. After enduring Fuji, I feel like I could take on the world. But Japan is run by the kindest, most polite culture I’ve ever seen. Adults revel in their youth by playing games in local arcades and one-upping each other with Disney fandom. The focus on technology is exciting, the attention to detail is prized, and and the humility should be a standard throughout the world.
So would I take another flight to Asia? You bet. In fact, I plan on leaving for China again in a week.