I happen to have a two-year-old who is obsessed with Sesame Street. Given that we don’t get much American TV over here and we rarely watch Japanese TV (and yet she knows ALL the Anpanman characters, somehow), our kid-appropriate DVD collection consists mostly of various Sesame Street programs. (I’m a fan of old-school Sesame Street, but her favorite character is Abby. It’s a compromise.) One Sesame Street special you definitely want to get your hands on before you head to the Land of the Rising Sun is Big Bird in Japan. Yes, it was produced in the 1980s, and yes, the actors have the hair to prove it. But this is hands-down one of the best kid-friendly, TV-based introductions to Japan that I know.
In case you haven’t seen the film yet, Big Bird and his dog Barkley arrive in Japan as part of a bus tour. The guide promises they will see “everything in Tokyo there is to see …. but you only have five minutes!”. (My husband and I certainly appreciate some of the tongue-in-cheek humor, including the extremely punctual schedule of a Japanese tour group). Big Bird gets a bit too excited about seeing Tokyo – as oversized, 6-year-old avians have a tendency to do – and the bus ends up leaving them behind.
While they try to strike out on their own, it proves frustrating. Thankfully, a strange woman takes them under her wing (oops, unintentional pun there 🙂 ) and shepherds them from Tokyo to Hakone to Kyoto in the hopes of catching up with their tour group there. Along the way, they have all sorts of cultural encounters, from staying in a Japanese home (taking off shoes, bowing, sleeping on futons) to visiting a school. Their friend keeps popping in and out rather mysteriously, and you learn later in the film that she is actually a legendary figure known as the bamboo princess.
In Kyoto, Big Bird and Barkley set off to explore the city – despite being told not to go anywhere – and Barkley gets lost. Big Bird searches through a variety of locations before their mysterious princess/friend helps to track him down and get them to their plane on time.
We’ve been watching that movie at our house for about a year now, but it wasn’t until we booked our trip to Kyoto that we decided it might be a fun “teaching tool”. So before our departure, we watched it once or twice more and talked about the things that happened to Barkley and Big Bird in Kyoto. When we got to the city, we visited nearly all of the places shown in the movie over the course of our five days, and our daughter got a kick out of “standing where Big Bird stood” or seeing where “Barkley got scared by the oni (demons)”.
So where can you go in Kyoto to follow in the footsteps of a famous bird and his dog?
Tatsumi Bridge – This bridge in Gion is the subject of so many photos, you’ve probably seen it before. Every time I come to this side of the Gion neighborhood, there is either a bride having her picture taken here or girls in kimono posing for personal photos. This is where Kaguyahime (the mysterious friend) tells Big Bird and Barkley to wait for her … but they don’t. Instead they end up at …
Sanjusangendo Temple – This temple is located fairly off the beaten path and with the lack of photos allowed inside, it doesn’t draw the same crowds as others. Still, it houses an impressive collection of 1000 Kannon statues (the goddess of mercy, if I remember correctly) guarded by some fierce-looking gods (that my daughter thinks resemble oni, or demons.) Barkley gets so scared of the gods that he runs away from Big Bird and escapes into the city. You might be surprised (I was), but my toddler LOVED this temple. (“There’s an oni, Mama. Ooh, there’s an oni, Mama. Let’s go find more oni!) Astute viewers will actually notice that the “gate” Big Bird walks through to get to the temple is not at Sanjusangendo, but is one of the gates of the vermillion-hued Heian Shrine.
Sannenzaka – This is one of the two most famous streets in Kyoto’s Higashiyama neighborhood. It’s a beautifully-preserved cobbled alleyway lined with shops and cafes that leads up to Kiyomizu Temple. Big Bird walked up this street with a group of schoolkids calling out Barkley’s name. (I can only imagine what those schoolkids were thinking … ooh, a new city mascot??)
Heian Shrine Garden – This isn’t one of my favorite gardens in the city but it’s certainly not one to avoid. The garden here is much more well-known for its cherry blossoms, but when I went here again a second time just this past weekend, I was pleasantly surprised that there was some nice foliage as well. Near the end of the garden “circuit” is a moon-viewing pavilion that stretches across the pond. Big Bird comes here to meet the bamboo princess and apologize to her for not listening and for losing Barkley. Happily, she’s already tracked the dog down and he and Big Bird have a nice reunion.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest – Arashiyama is a suburb of Kyoto that sits out near the western mountains. It’s an excellent place to spend a day, owing to its fine temples, good restaurants, and the small but lovely stretch of bamboo forest out the back of Tenryu-ji Temple. In the movie, Kaguyahime prepares to return to the moon (apparently where she originally came from) and meets her party of retainers in a bamboo grove. I can’t tell for sure if it’s the same bamboo grove as in Arashiyama but given that they tried to highlight well-known locales in the movie, I imagine they used that one.
And there you have it! An exploration of Kyoto à la Sesame Street. If you have young kids, definitely give this movie a try. We got a lot of travel yardage out of our daughter by promising to go see one sight from the movie each day. She was much more inclined to do things we wanted to do the rest of the time if she knew she’d get to walk in Big Bird’s footsteps later on.