Far East Finds a Home in Florida:
The Japan Pavilion

by Deb Wills, ALL EARS® Editor

Feature Article

This article appeared in the January 15, 2002, Issue #121 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

They say the sun never sets on the Disney empire. I'd love to see that for myself, by traveling halfway round the world to Japan, where Tokyo DisneySea and Disneyland Tokyo beckon. But traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun takes more money and time than I have right now. I may not ever get there.

It's a good thing I can experience a small taste of this faraway land's art and culture by visiting the Japan Pavilion in Walt Disney World's Epcot!

The bright red torii gate, an unmistakable landmark, welcomes visitors to the pavilion, which is nestled between the United States and Morocco in World Showcase. In designing the pavilion, Disney and consultants from Mitsukoshi (the sponsoring Japanese company) created representative samplings of traditional Japanese structures.

As your eyes move away from the lagoon, you see the blue-roofed five-story Goju-no-to pagoda, inspired by a shrine built at Nara in 700 A.D. Each of the levels of the 85-foot tall pagoda represents an element, earth, water, fire, wind and sky. Buddhists, which make up a large percentage of the Japanese population, believe all things are created from these elements.

To the right of the courtyard stands the Shishinden, inspired by the ceremonial and coronation hall found on the Imperial Palace grounds in Kyoto. The original Shishinden was built in 794 and is said to be one of the first true styles of Japanese architecture.

On the east side of the courtyard, the massive wood and stone Nijo entry castle with its huge sculptures of mounted samurai warriors beckons guests. Passing through it, visitors cross a wide bridge spanning a moat to the Shirasagigi, or White Egret Castle, with its curved stone walls, white plaster structures and blue tile roofs. Its style dates back to the mid-1300s.

Gardening is a precise art in Japan and is well represented in the pavilion. Every object and its placement in the garden has a special meaning. Rocks are an essential element for Japanese gardens, yet boulders are not plentiful in Florida -- so they were shipped in from North Carolina and Georgia! Likewise, many of the plants in the gardens are not native to Japan -- Florida's climate is just too different! But the Disney gardeners did their best to approximate a Japanese garden, by blending activity, symbolism, and a reverence for nature with intense maintenance and a few Japanese native plants.

For a real example of the thought that goes into Japanese gardening, pay a visit to this pavilion during Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival, noting the incredible floral wall. One year the wall displayed the Japanese flag, another year it was deep purple irises. Be sure to check out the musical clacker garden as well (a favorite with kids)! Across the way at the bright red torii gate they usually display a wide variety of dwarf plants pruned and presented by the Florida Bonsai Society.

A TASTE OF THE EAST

Feeling curious about the cuisine of Japan? The pavilion features several spots to satisfy a hearty appetite, or a light one, as well as to slake your thirst. Consider:

TEPPANYAKI has five rooms, with chefs flashing their knives with a flourish to demonstrate unusual tableside cooking. Lobster, shrimp, scallops and beef are chopped and sautéed with fresh vegetables. Beautiful lacquered screens and traditional decorated alcoves -- tokonoma -- set a mood for each room. This is a fun place for lunch or dinner for the whole family. Children enjoy watching the chefs and the food is very good. I recommend lunch, as the exact same food is served, just in lunch portions and, more importantly, at lunch prices!

MATSU-NO-MA LOUNGE offers a fantastic view of Future World across World Showcase Lagoon. While you savor the view and the solitude, enjoy a beverage, perhaps an ice cold Kirin on a hot summer's day? Or maybe some sake to warm you on a cool evening. Feeling bold enough to sample sushi? Order a variety of the freshly prepared little snacks of fish, rice, vegetables and seaweed or sashimi (raw fish), Japanese pickled vegetables and tempura.

TEMPURA KIKU's horseshoe-shaped bar features tempura -- batter-dipped, deep-fried seafood, shellfish, chicken, beef and fresh vegetables, which has its origins in Portuguese cuisine.

YAKITORI HOUSE, situated in a rustic, thatch-roofed building, is a scaled-down version of the Shoken-tei in the Kyoto Imperial Villa gardens. A counter service restaurant, Yakitori House serves up beef and chicken dishes and Udon noodles. On a nice day, take your goodies and sit outside at the tables near the Japanese festive lights.

TOURING TIPS

The Samurai Warriors: Walking straight to the back of the pavilion area, you will cross a bridge that leads into the Castle. Just before the bridge, stop and look on both sides of you -- there are two Samurai warriors on horses!

Diamond Warriors: A special exhibit, Traditions and Japanese Baseball, opened in the Bijutsu-kan Gallery in October 2001. Spanning more than 100 years, the exhibit contains autographed baseballs, murals, memorabilia and much more. Highlights include a 1964 handmade bat used by Sadaharu Oh and a 1950 Yomiuri Giants uniform from the first American to play professional baseball in Japan after WWII. The exhibit will remain until March 2003.

Spend some time in the beautiful hill garden, where you will find rocks, flowers, lanterns, pebbles, water, footpaths and rustic bridges. Koi fish make a home in the pond in the garden.

Matsuriza, the Japanese drums, can be heard halfway around World Showcase. You can also purchase CDs, videos and cassettes of the Taiko Drummers at Mitsukoshi Department Store.

The Mitsukoshi is an attraction in itself, filled with dolls, fine porcelain, kimonos, Japanese handcrafts, jewelry, snacks and much more. Be sure to check out the clothes for the Ninja in your family. For a unique souvenir, choose a live oyster and get a pearl ($12.97 plus tax). You can even have your pearl placed in a beautiful setting on the spot! Japanese Art Cards make a nice, inexpensive souvenir at only $2.50 each. Oh, and don't forget the samurai swords on display!

Visiting during December? As part of Epcot's Holidays from Around the World, storytellers perform in each country throughout World Showcase. In Japan, the Daruma Seller (a humble Daruma doll vendor) makes appearances throughout the afternoon, telling of holiday customs in her country.

INTERESTING NOTE:

While doing the research for this article, I was reading the Japan section in Walt Disney's Epcot Center, Creating the New World of Tomorrow, text by Richard R. Beard, published in 1982 by Harry N. Abrams. It's 200-plus pages filled with photographs and drawings, and discusses each of the attractions in Epcot Center. I highly recommend it for your Disney library if you already don't own a copy. But, I digress...

The Japan pavilion was originally slated to have an attraction called "Meet the World." The following is directly from the book cited above:

"Japan's pavilion show, when it is ready, will afford an unparalleled overview of Japanese history. Entitled Meet the World, it will also be the feature attraction of Tokyo Disneyland scheduled to open in 1983... Audiences in Tokyo and Florida alike will be fascinated by the Disney way of showing them history in a manner they've never before experienced. It's a manner nobody has experienced, combining as it does Audio-Animatronics figures, live-action film and animated film. Inside the castle, the audience is seated in a rotating carousel theatre, which will revolve in front of four stages, each presenting a chapter of the story of Japan... Stage I will trace the volcanic origin of the islands; stage II, Japan's first emissaries to a foreign country; Imperial China, stage III, presents Japan in self-imposed isolation. Stage IV is about the caring people, sophisticated yet traditional, whose influence now extends far beyond the shores of their islands."

Photos of the Japan pavilion can be found at: http://allears.net/tp/ep/ep.htm

Menus for the restaurants can be found at: http://allears.net/menu/menus.htm

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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.