The Far East yearns for the Wild West

 

When my friend Kevin passed through 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 by 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 even what state holds the huge busts of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — or even who that fourth guy up there is, anyway — it’s a 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 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 the 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 — 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 robot John Wayne 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 darkened than its granite ancestor in South Dakota. Inexplicably, a dozen life-sized fiberglass Dalmations, German shepards 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 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....