Author Marie Kreft shares her adventure with her four-year-old son and his favourite television character Thomas the Tank Engine, at Fuji-Q Highland theme park in Japan.
‘Wow, look at those big mountains!’ Vincent pressed his nose and fingertips to the coach window. At four years old he was often fishing for ‘wows’. But the Japanese mountain range held my gaze too, with mist-swirled peaks rising from dense, dark woodland. I think this was Aokigahara, the Sea of Trees. Asian black bears inhabit its coniferous depths, perhaps yurei too: restless spirits.
‘They look so mysterious. We must be nearly there now,’ I told him. ‘Are you excited?’
‘Yeah! I hope we see Thomas and James and Percy and Gordon and Emily…’
Half listening to Vincent’s chatter, I watched my son become enchanted by the unfamiliar landscape and hoped today would be a ‘wow’ day. It felt big, leaving the rest of our family sixty miles away in Tokyo and travelling – just the two of us – to the foot of Mount Fuji. Vincent’s brother was only six months old and I missed him already. But I knew my husband and baby would be happy together, pramwheeling through the gleaming malls of Shinjuku. For Vincent and me, the fleeting nature of childhood and the now-or-never spirit of travel had presented us with a day that needed seizing.
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Since Vincent’s second birthday, our life had been split between reality and the fictional world of Thomas the Tank Engine. Railway tracks could be found in paving stones, the TV remote was called the Fat Controller, and wooden railway scenes sprung up daily across our living-room rug, populated by runaway cows and tumbling bridges.
Vincent was Thomas-crazy, his love deepened by our good fortune in living close to Thomas Land at Drayton Manor, a theme park in Staffordshire. Over the past two summers Vincent and I had spent many Fridays riding round and round in Lady’s Carousel then up and down in Harold the Helicopter. Aged two, Vincent had thought the engines were alive; as he grew wiser we’d invent stories about them coming alive. The piped sweetshop scent, the looped Thomas songs, the always-surprising whoosh of Cranky the Crane’s drop tower: these memories are now inextricably linked, for me, with the joy of Vincent’s early childhood.
But here was August again and, when its languorous days gave way to September, Vincent would start school. Already I’d seen signs that his passion for Thomas was dwindling, making way for Star Wars and superheroes. So when planning our trip to Tokyo, I put Fuji-Q Highland at the top of my wish list. The amusement park is home to the world’s only other Thomas Land, and I hoped a last hurrah with Thomas there would provide a happy ending to this sweet chapter in our lives.
The day was overcast – nearly dull enough to suppress the drama of Fuji-Q’s setting near Japan’s famous volcanic mountain. Looking out from the coach at the ascents and plummets of the fierce Fujiyama, once the world’s tallest rollercoaster, I wished I could view Mount Fuji from the ride’s 79-metre peak. The child-free me would have screamed to go faster. But travel was so different now I was a parent: fewer thrills and many more spills, I decided, watching Vincent drop a bag of trail mix over his legs. ‘This is Great Cran!’ he declared, retrieving an oversized dried cranberry from the crack between our seats. I giggled. We were the only people on the coach who were making any noise.
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We missed our stop, winding up lost in a hotel forecourt and wasting valuable Thomas time while I figured out how to get us back. Eventually joining the shuttle train bound for Fuji-Q, standing-room only, Vincent bounced around excitedly, occasionally forgetting to hold on. ‘Kawaii!’ young Tokyoites exclaimined at the sight of him. Cute. I wondered how I’d ended up in charge of a child, so trusting and entirely forgiving of my mistake, halfway across the planet.
Fuji-Q’s Thomas Land was laid out differently to its Drayton Manor counterpart yet felt strangely familiar – a theme-park British town transposed to east Asia. A dreamworld where you know instinctively where you are but not how to reach anything you need. Families milled around Mrs Kyndley’s Kitchen and Lady Topham Hatt’s Pavilion. Balloons and carousel music and the smell of katsu curry drifted through the air, which was cooler than in Tokyo but still more cloying than that of any English summer day. The humidity clumped my hair, left Vincent’s cheeks flushed.
We started out in a circus-styled maze, constructed from giant wooden crates. Inside it felt confining and the exact opposite of fun, with the only link to Thomas pressed into engine-shaped ink stamps that guests were encouraged to collect. Hot and lost, and fed up with being nudged by similarly hot, lost people, I cheered when Vincent asked whether we could try something else.
We borrowed pairs of Crocs-style shoes, rented two plastic sleds and spent a noisy half-hour hurtling down a pile of artificial snow, occasionally blasted by a ride attendant with a snow machine.
The only link to Thomas was in pictures on the colourful hoardings surrounding us, but Vincent didn’t notice. He shrieked with laughter, and I hushed my inner eco-worrier, she who frets about the environmental cost of maintaining snow in summer. We played until the ice numbed our toes.
Not wishing to miss out on rides, we grabbed food on the run: hot dogs and orange juice; Thomas-shaped pancakes; ice cream and snacks of delicious deep-fried ‘hurricane’ potatoes, twizzled around sticks. We climbed aboard Everybody Twist, a carousel featuring small versions of popular engines. We got Bill, or maybe Ben. The ride played a jangly Thomas theme as it whirled us around, and people sang along while clashing the tambourine that had been hooked over their train’s funnel. Vincent looked confused and mildly embarrassed as I joined in as best a cynical Brit can. Then he asked if we could go again.
Our day took a downward turn on Thomas and Percy’s Fun Ride: a story journey in miniature trains, narrated in Japanese via loudspeakers and featuring popular characters from the TV series. It was funny until the unexpected appearance of Diesel 10, a devious engine, flexing his dreaded hydraulic roof-top claw. I heard Vincent take a deep breath and felt his small, clammy hand grab my own. It got worse. As we rounded a bend, Vincent caught sight of a scene from which he’d always cowered: Henry the green mainline engine bricked into a tunnel.
‘MUMMY!’ he hissed, tightening his grip on my hand. ‘I never, ever want to go on this again.’
I understood: the Henry episode had upset me as a child too. But to my frustration Vincent was now spooked and refused to board anything else Thomas-related.
‘Look – those children are all younger than you and they’re not frightened,’ I told him, tugging his hand to lead him to a gentle train ride.
‘But the Troublesome Trucks have horrible faces,’ he said, digging his sandals into the platform. ‘I’m. Not. Going!’
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At times like this a mother-logue runs through my head: a combination of things my parents said to me, and annoying sayings all of my own. Occasionally I can silence it, but often it bursts out. ‘You don’t realise how lucky you are!’ I started to shout. Vincent had no idea what it meant for our family to be in Japan, to have this experience.
But of course he had no idea. Vincent was four. The world was still so achingly new to him. Steve and I had dragged him across it to fulfil our own neon dreams of Tokyo and prove to ourselves that children are no barrier to travel. And to set the tone for the childhood we longed to give our sons: adventure-filled and happy.
‘Come on, sweetheart.’ I coaxed Vincent into the Thomas Land theatre. Although the film was in Japanese and incomprehensible to my monoglot brain, I felt confident that it would follow a plot similar to many other Thomas stories: engine causes confusion and delay; engine is bumped, decommissioned or bricked up in a tunnel; engine learns its lesson and vows to be Really Useful next time.
Cooling down in the air-conditioned auditorium, I felt glad when Vincent snuggled into me, chuckling at Thomas’s capers watched through oversized 3D glasses. He was content again, and I vowed to be a Really Useful Mother for the rest of the day.
‘There’s time for one more ride,’ I told him. ‘What do you think we should choose?’
With a moment’s thought, Vincent requested a ‘blue rollercoaster’ he’d spotted from afar. The Great Fluffy Sky Adventure featured cute hamster characters but, as we wove past popcorn stands and sky bicycles to reach its entrance, I realised that this ride was going to be higher, faster and scarier than anything in Thomas Land. You couldn’t make this boy up, my husband Steve would say.
‘Are you sure?’
Vincent nodded with such vigour that his head looked in danger of falling off. The ride attendant, a teenage boy, stilled it gently by moving Vincent towards a vertical measuring chart and crowning him with a smooth wooden plank.
‘OK, tall enough,’ he said. ‘You can go.’
‘Yes!’ Vincent leapt into the queue, through which we would shuffle for almost two hours. I felt hungry, hot and footsore but Vincent’s energy was unending – his commentary about the park, the people and the ride earning coy smiles from young couples.
Our reward for queuing was two minutes spent hurtling through the air in a car shaped like a cloud flown by hamsters: Vincent in front, me behind. He yelled into the wind with such blissful abandon that I almost ignored the rushing sensation of the rollercoaster and simply watched him, his hair blown back, grin broad.
On the way back to our coach, Vincent was keen for my opinion.
‘Were you really, really scared, Mummy?’
‘Ooh, a little bit, yes. But I loved it too. How about you?’
‘Nope. I wasn’t scared at all. It was the best ride in the world!’
During a spell of quiet darkness between the dusky highway and Tokyo’s Friday-night lights, Vincent fell asleep in my arms. I put my hand in his damp and tousled hair. This was the best ride in the world, I thought: having children, helping them grow. I couldn’t wait to see Steve and, as I was still breastfeeding, ached to be back with baby Alexei. But I’d had the most precious day with my firstborn. Now I resolved to stop feeling sad about the Thomas pyjamas that were becoming too small; the once-beloved wooden engines that were increasingly losing out to lightsabres. Bring on the ‘wows’ of rollercoasters and mysterious mountains, I decided. Vincent’s toddlerhood was now in the past, but the biggest and best fun of his childhood stretched out like railway tracks ahead.
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