Theme Park Heaven in Japan - My Family Travels

Theme parks are popping up everywhere in Japan. Here’s a first look at some of the more popular ones.

Hollywood’s Turning Japanese – Or should I say Japan is turning Hollywood?

With the fascination Japan has for American movies and their heroes, Hollywood has been under-represented in Japan’s own entertainment stronghold: the theme park. Or so we thought, before our April 2001 visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.

You see, theme parks were a recurring theme in our two-week family tour of Japan, both to bribe our son to stay focused on the country’s magnificent temples, religious arts and handcrafts, and because the world’s most advanced electronic amusements are found in Japan.

We wanted this trip to be fun.

Kitty’s a Hit

When we planned an afternoon at Tokyo’s Sanrio Puroland theme park, it was with visions of the Buddhist notion of life in a blissful “pureland”and how that might be translated into a theme park. Little did we suspect that it was the home (or should I say litter box?) of the Japanese icon “Hello Kitty.”

If Felix is the only Hollywood cat you know, here’s a major movie feline that beats his Box Office any day. And what a delightful surprise she and her theme park turned out to be. Big Kittys, little Kittys, pink and blue Kittys, all of Kitty’s animated pals, lots of stuffed Kitty costumes, teeny weeny rides through Kittyland, cute climbing areas in a big treehouse, live shows with lively young girls cooing, and an incredible gift shop with Kitty wallets priced higher than at Louis Vuitton.

Sanrio Puroland or “Kittyland” as it’s popularly known, makes preschoolers and their adult caregivers stars for a day. And it’s more clean-cut than Hollywood Boulevard. Kittyland can be easily reached within 90 minutes of central Tokyo on the Keio train line, and is a few minutes’ walk from the train station.

Kyoto’s Movie Village

Combine my family’s interest in theme parks and movies and you’ll know why Kyoto’s TOEI Kyoto Studio Park (formerly the Eigamura Studio Village) was a must. The website of the Japan National Tourist Organization promised Samurai warriors and a classic backlot where we could watch productions in action. The movie studio theme park, owned by Toei, has both, with lanes, shophouses, bridges and scenic areas dating primarily from Kyoto’s Golden Age, the A.D. 1200-1500s of the Muromachi era. As cameras roll on Kimono-clad Samurai and beautiful young Geisha starring in soap operas, visitors can admire how these TV series achieve rich production values with such a small crew. We stayed awhile at the Museum of Japanese Cinema to watch clips from many great epics, but preferred the more experiential activities at the park.

In the bustling costume shop, visitors of all ages can try on various wigs and good guy/bad guy/princess gear and pay to have their photograph made with any number of classic Japanese backgrounds. We survived several bloody, smoke-filled “haunted” stages lined with corpses — which the faint of heart should not visit. We shrieked with the schoolgirls through a well choreographed Ninja stunt show whose evil host went out of his way to make us feel welcome in English.

On one sound stage, a young director (we assumed the man in the beret was the director) coached two Samurai on their roles: they would meet at a water well center stage, fight over something serious, then the victor would escape. It happened according to plan, as we watched one scene being videotaped and overlaid with a much more dramatic “stormy sky” background.

On another stage in the new digital PADIOS building, we donned costumes and climbed into a boat as a director coached us on how to interact with science fiction special effects. It was a free demonstration of “movie magic,” but of course we bought several copies of the finished three-minute video in which we successfully fended off invaders from Outer Space. To our delight, our son adored this place as much as his parents.

In a country as familiar yet exotic as Japan, Western travelers with children are often comforted by things akin to ‘home.’ With this in mind, we had scheduled a visit to the new Universal Japan theme park to follow five days of temple-touring in Kyoto.

Osaka’s Universal Japan

Universal Japan is similar to the “Ride the Movies” parks our family has already visited in Los Angeles and Orlando. But its Japanese-ness is in the details, and looking for them and discussing them together is what made a day there so well spent. Because the park had opened just two weeks before our visit, our family— and the thousands of Japanese visitors— easily forgave the technical glitches. The long waits, the charming but unable-to-help staff, the fire alarm which sounded in the middle of the hilarious “Wild, Wild West Stunt Show”… We later discovered that to keep guests waiting, albeit a very Hollywood thing to do, was very un-Japanese.

Despite the technical problems, we enjoyed many of the 18 live and filmed shows, and revisited America’s most popular movie rides such as E.T., Back to the Future and Jurassic Park‘s “The Lost World.” Movie plot-based rides were introduced by costumed Japanese who helped the audience understand what was about to take place. In the very popular live shows, American stunt players worked side by side with Asians, who were incorporating Ninja moves and Jackie Chan humor into acts which received a quiet, polite applause. At the Terminator 2-3D show, a hysterical Japanese hostess introduced waiting spectators to the Cyberdyne Company, then led us to a theater to sit on seats that would later move. It was very exciting, and interestingly enough, the non-stop action and gunfire in Japan was witnessed by the tiniest of toddlers on Mom’s knee. The Japanese appetite for things scary is much more intense than many visitors to this formal culture imagine.

Many other special-for-Japan attractions, such as the Steven Spielberg-narrated “Hollywood Magic” show composed of film clips and live actors, and the evening, waterfront “Universal Magic” song ‘n dance ‘n fireworks extravaganza are so well staged, they transcend all languages.

Parents of little ones should allow time for the pint-sized roller coaster at Snoopy’s Soundstage and the hands-on, learning activities at Snoopy Playland (Snoopy is huge in Japan!) Those attractions in particular, when added to parent-friendly rental strollers, wheelchairs, spotless nursery areas for diaper changing and/or nursing in each bathroom, fresh fruit stands, ubiquitous benches and drinking fountains, really put this theme park at the leading edge when it comes to family amenities. Bravo Universal! There are even reasonably priced souvenirs: our favorite were the graceful earwax cleaners capped with a metallic Terminator 2 skull and the dinosaur-shaped bean paste sweets from Lost World.


Although no one admits to it, Hollywood’s influence on Tokyo’s newest gameland is obvious to any film buff. Just visit Palettetown, the futuristic city built at RFK as part of the “Bladerunner” style development sprouting on landfill in Tokyo Harbor: It’s chrome and glass and lit by lasers, with a Megaweb Toyota showroom at its core. Free of charge, visitors can “drive” electric cars (certain ones are earmarked for families with built-in car seats for toddlers) or try their skills at various virtual reality car races and off-track SUV evaluation tracks.

For a fee, there are a variety of other arcade amusements and several small snack stands. Across the way is Venus Fort, supposedly a “Women’s Theme Park” but really a lavishly decorated, ruffled and pastel mall selling clothing and beauty products to the types of women CharlizeTheron and Michelle Pfeiffer usually play.

NeoGeo World, the country’s largest games arcade, was thankfully closed at our visit, but we found 3D virtual reality speedways and outer space journeys waiting to devour our Yen. Despite them, Palettetown (the city where Ash of Pokemon fame comes from) is one of the city’s best values for visiting families, because the elevated monorail train that goes there is a sightseer’s delight, and the many global fast food restaurants provide cheap eats welcomed by homesick palates.

Palettetown is about 45 minutes by private rail from any other Tokyo neighborhood, but getting there is half the fun. Can’t say that about too many movies, can you?

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