The world contains an amazing diversity of cultures, and one of the more interesting is Japan. Japanese culture is both ancient and unique. Separated from the Asian mainland by 125 miles of sea – with the easternmost parts as many as 500 miles from Asia – the Japanese islands are characterized by inhospitable terrain of great beauty. For long periods in their history the Japanese lived in self-imposed isolation. For example, contact with the United States didn’t come until Commodore Matthew C. Perry signed a historic treaty on March 31, 1854 after two visits and months of negotiation.
The challenge for the Japan Pavilion in World Showcase in Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park near Orlando, FL is to duplicate that culture. There is a serenity to Japanese design, which combines with the principles of balance, harmony, simplicity, formality and delicacy. The application of all these principles should be evident at the pavilion’s entrance as they tie all the elements together and connect visitors to the surroundings.
Start with the Torii Gate. Vermillion in color, it’s actually located in the lagoon and symbolizes good luck and purification. Originally envisioned as rooster perches to welcome each new day, torii can be found throughout Japan; Disney Imagineers (designers) drew their inspiration from a torii that serves as the entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine on Japan’s Inland Sea.
To the left of the entrance is a distinctive square five-story pagoda. Designed from a pagoda at the 8th-century Horyuji Temple in Nara, Japan, each story represents one of the five elements of the Buddhist universe. These are, in ascending order, Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Heaven. (This distinctive design can inspire further study on Buddhism.)
Also in evidence is the Yakitori House. It represents the tea house at the Katsura Imperial Villa, which was commissioned by the ruler Hideyoshi and reportedly designed by an architect who refused to take the job until three conditions were met: no limit on the cost, no limit on time, and no interference until his work was finished. (If only we could be that fortunate!)
The back of the pavilion is designed as a fortress, with inspiration taken from the 17th-century castle Shirasagi-jo (White Egret Castle), which overlooks the city of Hemeji and was used by regional rulers during Japan’s feudal era. (Yes, Japan did have a feudal era, which would be a great topic for further study at home, particularly by comparing it to European feudalism.) This structure was to have been the home of “Meet The World”, an Audio-Animatronic (Disney’s mechanical figures) attraction about the history of Japan. This attraction did appear in Tokyo Disneyland from 1983 until 2002, but unfortunately never made it to Epcot.
Inside, the cultural education continues with three restaurants and shopping sponsored by the Mitsukoshi Department Store. Traditional Japanese cuisine is served in two Mitsukoshi restaurants: Tokyo Dining (presently offering sushi, seafood, batter-fried entrees) and Teppan Edo, which features the showy communal ritual of Teppan-yaki-style cooking at an iron griddle with patrons sitting on three sides. The third is the Yakitori House, currently with beef and chick dishes, noodles, and sushi rolls.
The entertainment is also authentic. At the time of this writing, the pavilion was presenting an exhibit at the Bijutsu-kan gallery entitled “Visions of Beauty: World Heritage Sites of Japan,” with the work of photographer Kazuyoshi Miyoshi, plus Japanese taiko drummers performing several times a day.
The design principles enumerated earlier should be obvious in the landscaping, too. There’s a formal garden with a stream which flows over a waterfall, then winds its way under several footbridges and ends in a koi-fish pond. The landscaping includes rock gardens, floral arrangements, lanterns and pathways. Featured plants include bamboo, Japanese maples, evergreen and monkey puzzle trees. (As you walk through the garden, which emotions do you feel?)
One final thought: Japan is not the only Asian pavilion in World Showcase; right across the lagoon is China. One suggestion would be to tour China next and see what comparisons can be drawn, especially with regard to architecture and landscaping. Since China is a much larger country with greater geographical and ethnic diversity, is it even appropriate to compare the two?
The official Disney website for this pavilion is: Disneyworld.disney.go.com/parks/epcot/attractions/japan-pavilion/
For more on Commodore Matthew Perry’s visits to Japan, visit: www.history.navy.mil/branches/teach/ends/opening.htm
Epcot Guide Map, The Walt Disney Company, 2010.
The Imagineers, “The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot at World”, New York: Disney Editions, 2006.
“Rise of the Shoguns”, TimeFrame AD 1200-1300: The Mongol Conquests, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1989, pp. 34-35.
Smith, Dave, “Disney A to Z, The Official Encyclopedia Third Edition”, New York: Disney Editions, 2006.
“Walt Disney‘s Epcot Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow”, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1982.