Story by Emma Demski

When my parents and I confirmed our trip to Japan the summer after my Freshman year of high school, we wanted to utilize the short period of time we were going to have there. We strove for the most authentic experience. I had a long-time obsession with Hello Kitty, so upon the discovery of an attraction centered around her, we promptly dedicated an afternoon to such a place. With a name like Sanrio Puroland, you could deduce some possible characteristics, such as including the famous Sanrio characters, most of all Hello Kitty. The “Puroland” part was confusing, but that’s what really sold us— because what could that possibly mean?

I had loved Hello Kitty for as long as I could remember. I wasn’t quite sure what drew me to her and all of the various other Sanrio characters, but I was utterly infatuated from the moment my human eyes locked eyes with their cartoon ones. I had all of the merchandise: shirts, skirts, bags, pillows, shoes, hair clips—all of it. My 6th birthday party was Hello Kitty themed and we played Pin the Bow on Hello Kitty. We also had a pinata, but it wasn’t in the shape of Hello Kitty, just a generic-looking one, because I would’ve cried at the sight of my dear Kitty being destroyed. I would’ve wanted to keep it unharmed in my room. I would always rent VHS tapes from the library that had all of the Sanrio characters recreating famous fairytales. I went as Hello Kitty on Halloween. I won a coloring contest at the Sanrio store at our local mall and I won a purse that came with some matching pens. She followed me my whole life. She affixed herself as a part of my identity, as a sidekick of sorts.

standing-in-front-of-sanrio-puroloand

As I stood in front of the intricate arch that was Sanrio Puroland as a 15-year-old, I still liked Hello Kitty. I still wore the occasional shirt, but my prime obsession was over. I was a little unsure, worried it might be a little babyish or just outright weird. My dad insisted and we planned to go. Nothing could’ve remotely prepared me for the experience that was Sanrio Puroland. There was the big sign out front, adorned with many Hello Kitty’s and friends, all pink and castle-like, and this was just on the outside.

Once we got in, we already had our tickets, so we went right past the woodsy looking ticket booths. There was, of course, the staple of every attraction right off the bat— screaming children. Whether or not they were screeching from excitement or the plagues of being a small child, it was unknown, but they allowed the place to be at least a little bit familiar, even though I felt very out of place. There was fantastical, twinkling music floating around us as if we just entered a giant music box. After we entered, we were instantly lost. It was all indoors, and the whole place was decorated from top to bottom in everything Sanrio. It was also kind of dim, in a warm, autumnal way, even though outside it was a scorching hot August afternoon. It took on the theme of being a cross between a woodland dream and a regal castle. It was a little confusing by the amount of nature imagery since Hello Kitty was originally designed to be a simple third-grader living in London, but she has changed a lot since her initial iteration in the 70s.

We soon found out that the world was one big circle. We examined our maps and found some direction. In the center, there was this large, plastic-y tree and there were various restaurants, shops, and other attractions around it. We wandered through every corridor and went in regardless. Most of the signs were 100% in Japanese, with sometimes little indication of what was inside. We wanted to completely immerse ourselves in the world that was Hello Kitty and all of her friends— so we did everything.

We then found ourselves in a narrated boat ride. Hollowed out logs that seated four bobbed in a shallow river. My dad got in the back with his infamous blue backpack that accompanied us on all of our trips. My mom and I got in the front. There was some sort of story happening, but since it was all in Japanese, we just had to guess the events as the log carried us from room to room, which each held slow-moving animatronics of the Sanrio characters. There were also a ton of characters I had never seen before. It set the tone for the rest of the day: we had no control over what we were going to experience. We thought that there might be some sort drop ahead like usual log rides, but it maintained its turtle-like pace for the entirety of the story.

There were gift shops the included every piece of memorabilia imaginable. Anything object that your mind could conjure up, there was a Hello Kitty version of it, or Keroppi, My Melody, Chococat, Badtz-Maru etc. The fluorescent lights were on full blast, all reflecting off of the shiny floors and white walls. The amount of merchandise was overwhelming. I ended up not buying anything that day, mostly due to the fact that I couldn’t decide what absolutely crucial for me to bring home. I struggled with wanting to buy absolutely everything because it was adorable and I genuinely loved it, but I was 15 and in high school. These things weren’t for me, right? They were for children. But there were other girls my age here that were buying fluffy pencil cases and knee socks. So, why couldn’t I? I felt at war with both the gray area of my age, but also the difference in cultural acceptability with the inner child. I wasn’t going to stay in Japan forever, even though I would have welcomed the idea. What would be okay for me to take back with me? I ended up settling for the pictures and memories. However, I did end up buying Hello Kitty chopsticks and sunglasses before leaving Japan entirely.

We found ourselves mimicking and following the other visitors, and shortly we found ourselves in this movie theatre of sorts. We were given 3D glasses and guided to sit in these hard-plastic seats and each had a bar in front of it for someone to brace themselves. In front of us was a large screen. Soon, the lights dimmed, and something began playing. It wasn’t Hello Kitty or any other Sanrio character. I later figured out the clip was from the popular anime, One Piece, after seeing a whole wall of memorabilia a few days later in a shop at Shibuya station. This ‘ride’ was consisted of watching a condensed episode of One Piece that was ever so slightly in 3D. I thought it was going to be 4D, or the seats were going to move since the characters lived what appeared to be an eventful and action-led life, but everything stayed stationary. Everyone around us loved it; they knew these characters, and apparently, the jokes were killer. We just, unfortunately, couldn’t get them for a variety of reasons. My parents and I looked at each other and laughed along, not at the content of the program, but to the sheer ridiculousness of it all: where were we? How was this related to Sanrio? We later found out that One Piece was one of the longest-running and most influential anime and manga series in Japan. It was a cultural touchstone like The Simpsons was to many Americans.

My parents have always been incredibly patient and the best sports when it came to things like this. They were on board from the moment we woke up that day. They didn’t have a deep-rooted love for Hello Kitty like I did. But they saw how much she meant to me from a young age, and they fostered an environment for me to truly and deeply love things. Watching them wander from exhibit to exhibit, excited to see what was next was what truly what got me through the strange chaos that was Puroland. And, also the mental image of my dad, who was 6′ 3″, proudly stand in Hello Kitty’s shower made it a truly unforgettable day.

Child Emma would have wanted this to be her home, teenager Emma was torn. I loved it and thought it was adorable, but I didn’t want it anymore, and that made me kind of sad. The journey through her house ended with a chance to meet Hello Kitty. There was a little bit of a line, but my parents and I agreed that we should just wait— we obviously needed a picture with her. Soon it was our time, and there she was, Hello Kitty herself in a gorgeous red and pink kimono. Once again, in one of those weird feverish moments, the three of us posed with her and we thanked her graciously with our little bit of known Japanese and bowed to her.

After the mid-day parade, we discovered on the map that Puroland also had a few theatres and the biggest show they were currently displaying was a Sanrio version of The Wizard of Oz, which just so happened to be my favorite movie as a child. Luckily, we knew the original story, so we were able to follow along, even with the language barrier. It followed the basic story but there were a few things that were off. There were all new songs, and the munchkins all wore green sparkled suits, and there were many jokes pointed towards “Americans” or “Westerners” and how fat they were. The crowd found it hilarious, and we chuckled along even though we knew that we were the butt of the joke, but we just brushed it off. The show then morphed into a variety show of sorts, where elaborately dressed Hello Kitties performed Broadway-level style numbers. With every second, this place unfolded into something new.

Next door, there was also this other room that featured “DJ Kitty”. Quick, picture what you think this might look like and entail…yes, you’re correct, it was 100% exactly what it sounded like. There was a Hello Kitty complete with headphones and a turntable, with a hoard of excited children bouncing along to whatever tunes she played. There were also specific dances projected on a giant screen behind her that was broken down step by step; all of the children followed suit. We didn’t stay long there since I was quite a bit older than the other kids that were dancing, and I didn’t really know how to react to such a thing. We hung out in the back with the other parents and just allowed our jaws to drop.

We happened to go in the middle of the week, but the place was packed. There were families everywhere, and even some groups of teenagers and young couples. Everyone seemed happy and so invested in the entire experience. As we took a quick break on some benches outside of another gift shop to eat some ice cream sandwiches in the shape of Hello Kitty’s head, we noticed some workers scurrying around and putting up ropes up. There was then an overhead announcement made in Japanese. We got up to investigate but found that we were now stuck in this back corner of Puroland, we had no way to exit. And, when we attempted to file into the next section, the workers just shook their heads.

Loud music came from the speakers and the lights turned out. Soon every single Sanrio character came flooding out of the giant tree in the middle. Both people in the giant, plush costumes but also regular people in a mixture of princess and fairy costumes. It was a parade— out of nowhere. Well, I guess not out of nowhere. Apparently, there were signs that announced the time of the daily parade, but once again, it wasn’t in English. There were elaborate floats and cars zooming around with more characters in all sorts of costumes. There were choreographed dances, skits, and circus performers. There appeared to be some bigger storyline going on, but the limited mobility of the performers didn’t help us decipher it. We couldn’t crack their charades. The parade in total lasted more than 45 minutes, complete with lasers and a full lightshow.

I wish I could go back and just allowed myself to enjoy it. After I finished my ice cream sandwich, I was over it. I just wanted to go do something normal— but that’s not the point of travel. I was experiencing Japan. This Hello Kitty world, which was just as Japanese as a Shinto Shrine. The two were just on opposite extremes of the spectrum of the culture. The Emma that proudly carried a sequin Hello Kitty wallet would have exploded with the knowledge of this place. Teenager Emma was trying to form her own identity, not one that was rooted in preexisting interests. It was okay, I didn’t blame her. But her pouting during such an elaborate parade that had at least fifty different people involved was quite lame.

I’m not here to say I didn’t have an enjoyable time at Sanrio Puroland; I did. It can be seen in my face in our family pictures. I loved it because it was so strange and kitschy and beautiful. It completely defied and lived up to my expectations all at once. I just felt conflicted about whether or not this was a place for me. I wore a green Hello Kitty shirt on the day we visited that was made for someone my age, it was actually a birthday present from one of my friends I received a few months prior. But I was just curious as to what level it was okay for someone like me to like a thing like Hello Kitty. What was allowed? At the confusing age of 15 where I was pressured by my peers to like certain things, but I also wanted to hold on tightly to my childhood, was it okay that I was having a good time? I became worried about what happened if my peers were to find out that I had been there. I was thousands of miles away, yet I still couldn’t help but feel self-conscious and a want to be ‘cool’. Dear reader, I was not and never will be the ‘cool kid’.

I was in this woodland fantasy all centered around animated characters, the most notable of which was a white cat. However, how was it so different from Disney World? Why did that feel more acceptable to me? It was a ludicrous situation, but one that I could never forget. 6-year-old Emma at her birthday party decorating a felt Hello Kitty pillow would have never imagined such a place like Sanrio Puroland. I doubt that she would have ever thought that she would ever travel to Japan. It was a far-off place that wasn’t tangible to her yet.

Nonetheless, this place existed and thrived off of the imaginations of Yuko Shimizu (creator of Hello Kitty) and Shintaro Tsuji (creator of Sanrio). In the moments that I allowed myself, I felt like I was that little kid again amazed at the world in front of me. Even my parents who didn’t grow up loving a white cat with no mouth, they too were in awe of that afternoon. Looking at those pictures was strange from a 22-year-old perspective because I recognized my face, it hasn’t changed much in these seven years. However, many of these small memories were so deep down and far away. They were unlocked when I saw them before my eyes. It felt like a different lifetime. I’ve learned so much about the world and Japanese culture since then. So, enjoy your experiences within the seconds and milliseconds that they exist. Think about them and live in them for your past, present, and future self. They’ll thank you later.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Emma Demski is a talented writer who enjoys covering the past and present. It was her absolute dream to be a writer in some capacity. Emma loves expressing her opinions in all sorts of fields. Whether they are lamenting on elements of her personal life or about the culture at large. You can follow Emma on Instagram, Twitter, or her website.