A new guest post by TheGaijinGhost just in time for the 40th-anniversary of the theatrical release of the original Star Wars film! Learn all about the different festivals and exhibits tied to the Star Wars universe in Japan.
It’s no secret that when George Lucas first began devising the Star Wars mythology, he drew heavily from Japanese influences like the films of Akira Kurosawa. The very word “Jedi” is roundly attributed to jidaigeki, a Japanese term used to denote “period dramas,” including those in the samurai movie sub-genre, which is home to several Kurosawa classics.
What better way to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars this year than by taking a look back at some of the fantastic promotional events staged in cities across Japan since the beginning of 2015 when the buildup to The Force Awakens started.
In many cases, these events have promoted local tourism as much as Star Wars. For any world travelers out there who also happen to be Star Wars geeks, this presents a neat niche opportunity to discover Japan, in a sense, while rediscovering one’s love of Star Wars.
Star Tours at Tokyo Disneyland
As we’re devoted to Tokyo Disney Resort, it is only natural to address Star Tours first. Tokyo Disneyland opened its version of Star Tours back in 1989. So this is one regional tie-in that has been around for a long time.
The original attraction was updated in 2013, to conform to the new “Adventures Continue” storyline. And in 2016, it was updated yet again, with a new potential pathway set on Jakku, the scavenger planet from The Force Awakens.
As this Japan Times article attests, Japanese Star Wars fans had been getting in the spirit even before that, however, with some of them making special runs on Tokyo Disneyland in December 2015, just to ride Star Tours before heading back into the city.
Strap yourselves in now, though, as your Starspeeder 1000 is about to break out of its hangar in Tokyo Disneyland and go flying around Japan on a different kind of Star Tour altogether.
Sapporo Snow Festival
Our first stopover is the city of Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture. This is the site of the famous Sapporo Snow Festival, a week-long annual event where sites around the city are overrun with snow and ice sculptures.
In 2015, and then again in 2017, Japanese Self-Defense Force troops built a large-scale snow sculpture of Star Wars characters for display on the main site in Odori Park.
The 2015 edition was dubbed “Snow Star Wars,” and indeed, Popular Mechanics likened it to a “snowy Star Wars Mount Rushmore.”
Here you can see pictures of the 2017 edition, called “White Star Wars,” which featured massive sculptures of Kylo Ren and the Droids BB-8, C-3PO, and R2-D2.
Who knows, the troops may yet carve another snow sculpture like this in 2019 to promote the completion of the new Star Wars trilogy. Even if they don’t, the Sapporo Snow Festival is still a winter wonderland, worth visiting any February.
For anyone who holds The Empire Strikes Back as their favorite Star Wars film, this is probably the best place in Japan to experience an environment like the ice planet of Hoth.
Aomori Nebuta Matsuri
Our next Starspeeder stop is the city of Aomori, which is located on the northern tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island. In 2015, a survey conducted by a major domestic travel agency showed Aomori as Japan’s top festival destination (according to The Japan Times).
It is the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (matsuri means “festival) that draws so many visitors to the city. During this annual summer event, colorful illuminated floats are carried through the streets of Aomori at night. Usually, the floats depict Japanese mythical figures.
In 2015, however, the modern myth of Star Wars got mixed up in the festival, with the creation of four floats: a Sith Nebuta, a Jedi Nebuta, a Droids Nebuta, and a Force Awakens Nebuta. These stunning, lantern-like floats put a Japanese twist on the familiar faces of characters like Luke Skywalker, who could be seen rocking a pair of kabuki eyes.
Later that year, the floats also made a daytime appearance at the Kawasaki Halloween Parade.
Aomori also made headlines in 2015 for growing a special rice paddy with a Star Wars design. And while the Star Wars Nebuta have since become one with the Force, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri continues to run each August, from the 2nd to the 7th.
Even if you cannot make it during the festival window, you can still see some of the traditional Japanese floats on display in the Nebuta Warasse, a museum dedicated to the festival. Every January, there is usually also a float on loan at the Furusato Matsuri (Hometown Festival) in Tokyo Dome.
Star Wars Visions
Speaking of Tokyo, our Starspeeder will be making another stopover there on its way west. Being Japan’s capital city affords Tokyo special status: it often acts as a homecoming place, or a point of origin, for certain touring events.
One such event, which got its start in Tokyo, was Star Wars Visions, an exhibition of movie costumes and Star Wars-inspired fine art. This exhibition has been touring Japan for the last two years. Currently, it is running in the city of Nagoya. Before that, it ran in the cities of Yokohama, Shizuoka, and Okayama.
Alas, photography is not allowed inside the gallery space at Star Wars Visions. But here you can see a few pictures of the entrance room in Tokyo City View, an observation deck in Mori Tower at the Roppongi Hills complex. Star Wars Visions actually served as the exhibition that reopened this venue after it underwent a period of renovation.
Meanwhile, at Nittele Tower (the headquarters of Nippon Television, in Shiodome) a far more camera-friendly, free-admission event has sprung up as the new December tradition for Star Wars-loving Tokyoites. In 2015 and 2016, Nittele Tower hosted its own Star Wars exhibition, with copious amounts of costumes and artwork, including BB-8 art and Stormtrooper helmet art.
The 2015 edition, entitled “Star Wars no Sekai” (or “The World of Star Wars”) even saw Aomori’s Nebuta floats make an appearance. And at the 2016 edition, entitled “Mo Hitotsu no Star Wars Ten” (or “Another Star Wars Exhibition”) there was a life-sized AT-AT Walker and Jedi Training Academy (just in case anyone was jealous of the ones at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida).
Ghibli fans, take note: Nittele Tower is also rather notable for its giant steampunk clock, designed by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki (“the Japanese Walt Disney.”). It’s under renovation until June 30, 2017.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Tokyo and Star Wars. But we are running short on time now. Our Starspeeder is running out of gas! So let’s shuttle off real quick to a couple of other locations.
Located 500km to the west of Tokyo, the city of Kyoto probably needs no introduction as a travel destination. In recent years, Japan’s ancient capital has been ranked as the world’s best city to visit and the world’s best city to live.
But even Kyoto was not safe from the First Order. In 2015, Stormtroopers did what they do best and stormed Kiyomizudera, one of Kyoto’s most famous temples, to debut a very special, Rinpa-style folding screen, in which two Star Wars characters, Kylo Ren and Rey, were depicted as the gods of thunder and wind.
From now until March 2020, the majestic main hall of Kiyomizudera will be undergoing extensive refurbishment. Sadly, it is currently covered up with scaffolding. However, Kyoto has many other beautiful old temples and shrines that would be well worth a visit.
Alas, our Starspeeder is starting to sputter out. We will make our crash-landing in the city of Tottori. It is only fitting that we should end here, as the Tottori Sand Dunes are probably the closest thing you will find, in Japan, to an environment like the desert planet of Tatooine. Here camels walk the beach while towering sand sculptures fill up the inside of the Tottori Sand Museum.
With any luck, Tottori will be getting in on the 40th-anniversary action this year, just as it got in on the action in 2015, with its own large-scale Star Wars sculpture—this one made of sand. That’s right: snow sculptures are not the only game in town.
Tottori rests on the western coast of Honshu, which means we have now traveled the length of Japan’s main island. And there is still so much more to say about Star Wars in Japan. We have not even mentioned the merchandise!
ANA Star Wars Planes
Just remember: if you would like to visit any of the cities spotlighted in this article, you can always book a flight with ANA, whose small fleet of Star Wars jets just expanded last month to include a new C-3PO plane.
The ANA Star Wars Project website even lists the codes for which exact flights are scheduled to be aboard their Star Wars jets. So, seriously, whether you live in Japan or would be coming in from abroad, book a flight now and start visiting these great cities!