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Zam! We’re in Japan. No warning! No Sesame Street! We’re on a bus, and we’re in Japan! In the first few minutes of Big Bird in Japan, there is one clear message, and that message is: Visiting Japan is not for the weak!

The first thing we hear in this special is the brisk, clipped voice of the tour guide: “Attention, tourists! When we arrive in Tokyo, there will be a five minute rest stop. You must be back on the bus in exactly five minutes so we can maintain our exciting schedule. This morning, we will visit one temple, one shrine and one palace. After a twenty minute box lunch, we will take the harbor tour by boat, then the city tour by bus, and we will end the afternoon at 1700 with a genuine Japanese tea ceremony.”

In other words: This ain’t China, bitch! Maybe in China they waste the afternoon dressing up like ducks and doing tai chi street theater, but Japan is not messing around!

Big Bird and Barkley get off their tour bus, and ask the fascist tour guide if the whole trip is going to be this “organized.” Smiling like a serpent, the tour guide merrily lists off all the tourist sites they’re going to devour over the next few days. Big Bird has other things on his mind: “But aren’t we going to meet any Japanese people?” The tour guide flashes her voracious grin. “Of course! The hotels have several Japanese employees, who speak English very well!”

Unsatisfied, the bird spends his five minutes hitting the streets of Tokyo for a little local color. He consults his guidebook, which says: “Of particular interest in Japan are the charming little houses delicately constructed of paper and wood.” Looking around at the skyscrapers of the modern city, he shakes his head — “Paper and wood?” — and chucks the book over his shoulder into a trash can. The audience cheers. Big Bird is sticking it to the man!

Loose on the streets of Tokyo, he tries striking up friendly conversations with passersby. Everybody greets him by saying “Ohayo,” and he says it back. After greeting a few different people, he remarks to Barkley, “Well, there certainly seem to be an unusual number of people here from Ohio.” Then he remembers about the tour bus, and they run back to the corner just in time to see the bus pull away without them. They’re stranded in Tokyo!

“NOW what are we gonna do?” Big Bird rants at Barkley. “We can’t speak Japanese! We don’t know anybody here! I don’t hardly have any money! Do you have any money? Aw, of COURSE not! You’re a DOG!”

And that’s the cool thing about Big Bird in Japan. The trip through China was slow and dreamy, getting by on a gentle charm. The Japan show isn’t nearly as soothing, but it makes up for it with more comedy and dramatic action. We’re only five minutes in at this point, and it’s obvious that this is going to be a fun trip.

Getting hungry, Big Bird and Barkley stumble upon a restaurant and try to order lunch. Naturally, Big Bird makes every mistake possible. He doesn’t realize that the fake food in the glass case is just for display, and he insists on trying to eat it. He doesn’t know how to eat with chopsticks. He doesn’t understand the money, so he just hands over everything he has to the maitre’d. Obviously, Big Bird will starve to death within minutes.

He ends up wandering through a park, where he sings a song about being lost and lonely. “Why did I come to this faraway place?” he sings. “I’m homesick, homesick… If I ever get well, I’ll never leave home again.” Any minute now, Big Bird is going to look up at the sky, shake his fist and scream: “I HATE JAPANNNNNNNN!”

Luckily, a friendly woman wearing a lime green suit and a string of pearls sits down next to him. “Do you know the Japanese word for homesick?” she says. “The way you say homesick in Japanese is… homesick!” Well, damn! It turns out all those people were speaking English after all! What do you know. Big Bird spills his story, and she’s shocked: “What kind of a tour would abandon a bird and a dog in a strange country?” A cheap-ass knockoff Japanese tour, that’s what!

journaljapan05Big Bird remembers that his tour group is flying home from Kyoto on the 15th, and the woman offers to take them there — then they can meet up with the group, and get their plane tickets back. Kyoto is 300 miles away, but they can take her friend’s car. This teaches us two important lessons about Japan. First, it turns out there’s actual geography in Japan, so score one for Japan. We’ve also learned that in Japan, people who dress like Republicans are helpful.

Now, we don’t actually find out this woman’s name for most of the show — so for convenience, let’s call her Marcie.

Turns out that Marcie is also leaving Japan on the 15th, so this is kind of her farewell tour through the country. After driving on the highway all day, she drops Big Bird and Barkley off to spend the night with some friends, and then takes off on a mysterious errand of her own.

The friends only speak Japanese, so once again Big Bird has to figure out Japanese customs as he goes along. He gets into a bowing contest with the grandparents, and apparently wins by resting his big feathery head on the floor. They leave him in a bedroom with a futon on the floor covered in space age foil; he doesn’t know how to sleep on it, and frankly neither would I. But that’s better than what Barkley gets, which is a bowl on the floor filled with cold rice and two whole cooked fish. Barkley sniffs at the bowl, which is clearly not food that dogs eat, and then whines as he sleeps on a hard wooden step. What a swell evening this is turning out to be!

Luckily, Marcie comes back in the morning to rescue them from the horror that is a typical Japanese household. The two little girls in the family sing a song for Big Bird teaching him some Japanese words. Apparently, now they can speak English. Why they kept him in the dark all last night I don’t know. Big Bird learns to count to three, and to say good morning, please and goodbye. “Now we have an examination!” the girls cry. It’s cram school! Big Bird remembers all the words, and the family applauds. Now he’s qualified to get a job in a stifling office! I hope he’s had a good breakfast, it’s a 19-hour work day.

After another drive and a nice view of Mt Fuji, Marcie drops him off for another night with more friends. All day, there’s been hints that something strange is going on with Marcie — she looks sad a lot, and she can’t explain why she has to leave Japan on the 15th. Some of this show is a little fanciful, but this is a good lesson about international travel: The people that you meet, no matter how helpful they are, will probably have some kind of a shady secret.

That night, Marcie sneaks out into the forest and sings a sad song to the moon. At least, I think it’s a sad song. She looks sad while she’s singing it. The words, to be honest, are a bit tough to make out. “Moon, moon, higher than a kite that’s broken its string. Moon, moon, sailing like a sheep, overhead she sings.” That’s the best I got on that one. Marcie is mostly easy to understand when she speaks, but they put some reverb on the song, and it’s basically impenetrable. I hope they weren’t expecting that to fill in a plot point or anything.

Anyway, on with the show. The next morning, it’s time for the standard kids-in-school sequence. Big Bird is set upon and captured by a gaggle of girls in orange shorts, who drag him off to school. He arrives in time to see their origami lesson; everyone is making swans and pandas. After that, it’s time for the class to see a play about the Bamboo Princess. This seems like a pretty frivolous curriculum for Japanese kids. When do they learn about solid state engineering?

Anyway, the play about the Bamboo Princess is yet another excuse for kids to dress up in fruity costumes and flit about. Turns out Japanese kids are total theater queens, just like in China. Dancing in rows is the universal language; apparently every culture goes through some kind of long Electric Slide phase.

The legend of the Bamboo Princess is kind of melancholy and plot-free, so I won’t spend much time on it. For some reason, it doesn’t star five color-coded sword-wielding teenagers, so I for one was a little let down. Where are the monsters? Where are the throwing stars and speed lines? Nowhere to be found. Just our luck; we show up today to hear the one story in all of Japan that doesn’t involve collectible trading cards.

Next up, we’ve got a nice bit where we ride on the speed train, and then a kind of trippy sequence where they visit a temple, and Barkley is terrorized by the ferocious statues of the scary Japanese gods. You’ve gotta give the Japanese credit for coming up with cool gods; they’re solid in that department.

Finally, we end up on a bridge under the full moon. “This is the Moon Viewing Bridge,” Marcie says, and then she claps her hands over the water. “The fish gather when you do that.” That’s two completely unlikely statements in a row, so I don’t know what to make of what comes next. It turns out — guess what — that Marcie is actually the Bamboo Princess, and tonight she has to return to the Palace of the Moon or some such. Big Bird sings a song about Japan, promising that he’ll come back someday, but I’ll bet he says that to all the Asian countries.

On the plane ride home, Big Bird reflects on their trip, boasting to Barkley: “I’ll bet we did more and saw more and learned more than if we’d never got lost at all!” So there’s your travel lesson, kids: Run away from your tour group, as fast as your legs can carry you! The tour guide means you ill! Fall in with anonymous locals, and uncover their secret agendas! Spend the night crashing in strangers’ beds! That’s your key to a satisfying travel experience.

Anyway, that’s the end of the trip, which means it’s time to check the scores and find out which country is better: China or Japan. Let’s tally it up.

Population: Chinese people are laid back and groovy. They’re usually found just hanging out on the street in crowds, listening to stories, shopping at the market. If they’re feeling particularly active, they might go out and find a group to dance with. Back in the day, they used to build pretty monuments, but now they’re just full-time chillaxin’.

Japanese people, on the other hand, have no time for your whining. As far as they’re concerned, you will eat a bowl of cold rice and fish heads, and you will like it, young man. Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about, is the basic attitude of Japan. Advantage: China.

Geography: Japan has one. Advantage: Japan.

Education: In school, Chinese kids learn how to write — which is a good thing, since their written language looks fiendishly complicated. Japanese kids learn how to fold paper into amusing shapes. Advantage: China.

Mythology: Chinese legends are pretty demanding. They like it when you come to visit, but they set up complicated puzzles that you have to solve before you’re allowed to find them. Japanese legends are a lot more hands-on. If you’re having some trouble in Japan, a mythological figure will just come up to you in the park and offer you a ride. Japanese myths are kind of like the Microsoft Word paper clip: “It looks like you’re travelling to Kyoto. Would you like help?” Advantage: Japan.

Fine Dining: In Japan, the food is made of plaster. China has no food at all. Advantage: Draw.

It’s a close call, and Big Bird doesn’t seem that interested in breaking the tie. Maybe we can never truly know which country is better; that’s just one of the many mysteries of the Far East, like how come you can bring a dog on a plane.

The important thing, really, is that Big Bird got some face time with the gods of two different countries, and now he’s friends with both the Phoenix and the Bamboo Princess. He’s got some strong networking skills, and I have to imagine that’ll come in useful at some point. Next it’s off to Canada to meet the Magic Woodchuck, and next month he’s booked in Indonesia, where he’s going to find the Silver Komodo Dragon. It’s all part of his mythological world tour, and everyone’s invited.

For a minute there, I was wondering, what magical creature do people meet when they visit the United States?

And then I realized, of course: They meet Big Bird, the Peacebringer. What else could it be? He may not be a thousand years old, and he may not live on the moon, but I think he stands up pretty well with all those other legends. The Phoenix is cool and all, but I like our Bird best. It’s nice to go and visit other places, but you can’t beat the hometown favorite.

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