When my friend Kevin passed through my home state of South Dakota on a cross-country road trip a few years back, I did the decent thing as a host and took him to see Mount Rushmore. Why pass the ninth or tenth wonder of the world and not at least stop by? Still, it’s one of those things I can only bring myself to visit when a guest is involved; I’ll bet the people of Pisa avoid their cockeyed tower like the plague.
Since the vast majority of Americans have no idea which state holds the huge busts of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln — or even who that fourth guy up there is, anyway — it’s my patriotic duty to set the record straight. (Teddy Roosevelt is the one everyone forgets.)
Kevin has been living in Tokyo, Japan, for three of the four years since that trip, and I finally visited him this winter. I followed him eagerly to the sites around Tokyo he chose, but made one request: that we visit Imaichi, sister city of Rapid City, S.D. Imaichi is home to a one-third-scale replica of Mount Rushmore, and to the Western Village theme park.
As we surfed the park’s Web site, Kevin and I prepared ourselves to mock this over-the-top spectacle. We honed our "Howdy, pardner," as Kevin sounded out the phonetic katakana characters for Restaurant Chuck Wagon and Cowpie Café, which turned out to be the Cowboy Café. We figured Western Village would epitomize Japan’s awkward karaoke imitations of American pop culture, like the Japanese heavy metal band that calls itself "Loudness."
But as we carried our Confederate-dollar-bill tickets through the fort-style gate, my chuckle faded. After downtown Tokyo, which is like Times Square to the nth power, Western Village was disappointingly modest and disappointingly familiar. It was like driving across hundreds of miles of farmland in South Dakota reading signs for the alluring, enchanting, world-famous Wall Drug, as mentioned in Time, The Wall Street Journal … only to arrive at, well, Wall Drug.
Just an hour and a half north of Tokyo, Imaichi appeared worlds away: quiet, subtle and middle class. The theme park itself was a bit shabby; or as Kevin put it, returning from the restroom with a crinkled nose, "Despite their claim to being a Western Village, they don’t really have Western toilets."
Western Village is a destination in an area without many destinations. It’s a good place to take the kids over the New Year holiday. They’ll see Japanese actors portray a shootout scene (using a bit more kicking than American actors, Chuck Norris excepted). They can see a talking John Wayne robot and even a real gaijin — a foreigner — sauntering around in a Wyatt Earp getup. And across a creek dubbed the "Rio Grande," there’s a Mexican mission-style building and some shrubs pruned into the shape of a mariachi band.
As much as I had anticipated ridiculing the park for all the things it got wrong, I had to shrug and accept these folks’ amusement. We laughed at the Model T full of human-sized teddy bears, but the laughter felt forced. Sure, it’s funny to see a John Wayne robot talking in Japanese, but not as funny as it sounds like it would be.
And then there was Mount Rushmore, looming four or five stories high and facing away from the rest of Western Village. Made of fiberglass, it was more weathered and darker than its granite ancestor in South Dakota. Inexplicably, a dozen life-sized fiberglass dalmatians, German shepherds and collies sat around the base of the "mountain."
The Black Hills and western South Dakota are covered with attractions every bit as kitschy and bizarre as Western Village. We’ve got Reptile Gardens, Bear Country U.S.A., 1880 Town and, of course, Wall Drug. These 1950s-era theme parks, in their various states of disrepair, entertain those of us from the Imaichis of the United States who are not rich enough or brave enough to see the metropolises of other continents. But the real mountain, faced or defaced by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, eclipses any karaoke version here or in the Land of the Rising Sun.
An old man on the train back to Tokyo bought us beers just for being American; maybe he was on to something. He held our hands warmly, but only knew enough English to say, "I love American."
I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Josh Garrett-Davis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a South Dakotan temporarily displaced to Brooklyn, New York.