Visiting the Little Prince at Hakone

by Tony Skevington

HAKONE, Kanagawa Pref. — Breathtaking mountain scenery, a walk through a French village, Provencal cooking and a meeting with the doppelganger of a world-famous author — sounds like a nice day trip. Especially when you can do it all without leaving Kanto.

The Musee de Saint-Exupery et du Petit Prince in Hakone re-creates the life of the author and pioneer aviator in the atmosphere of a French village.

“The Little Prince,” by the French author and pioneer aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is one of the most popular children’s stories in the world. However, the Musee de Saint-Exupery et du Petit Prince tells the story not only of the Little Prince but also of the glamorous and heroic life of its author.

About 20 minutes along the winding mountain road from Hakone is Sengokuhara, where the museum is situated. The site is laid out to resemble a village in Provence (where the author was born) of the late 19th century. The winding streets and little squares are named after characters and events in “The Little Prince,” such as Tippler’s Road and Lamplighter’s Square. On the walls of the buildings are replicas of 1930s posters advertising the airmail system that linked France with its worldwide colonial empire.

The central attraction of the complex is a museum, most of which is dedicated to the life of Saint-Exupery. The building is modeled on the chateau in which the young aristocrat grew up; the reconstructed rooms are very evocative of the different stages of the author’s life. His childhood bedroom has been re-created and includes some of his old toys and his first attempts at writing.

As an aviator, Saint-Exupery spent the 1920s and ’30s opening up new air routes to French possessions around the world, for which he was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1931 (the medal is displayed here). There are many photographs of Saint-Exupery in the places he visited and lived in during these adventurous years.

The re-creation of his office in Morocco, where he wrote his first novel, conjures up the heat and dust of the desert and leads on to a casbahlike street. At the end of the 1920s he was stationed in Buenos Aires, and it was there that he wrote his most critically acclaimed work, “Vol du Nuit (Night Flight).” Again, his office in Buenos Aires is faithfully re-created, including a rather large corner bar, which must have made for convivial business meetings.

It was while in exile in New York after the fall of France in 1940 that he wrote and drew the illustrations for “The Little Prince.” Many of the original illustrations are on display in the replica of his New York living room.

The final part of the upper floor of the museum is taken up with the last year of his life and his disappearance on a combat mission over the Mediterranean in 1944.

The ground floor of the museum is given over to large reproductions of the main characters in “The Little Prince,” including the rose which the Little Prince loved. This part of the exhibition may be a little too kitschy for some, but it seemed to enthrall and delight the children and teenage girls the day I visited.

After visiting the main exhibition one can proceed along cobbled streets to the small cinema, which has an Art Nouveau foyer and a space-age auditorium. The film shown is an animated version of “The Little Prince” and lasts about 20 minutes. Sitting on comfortable stools one can follow the story (in Japanese) and see the faithful copies of Saint-Exupery’s illustrations.

And after all this culture, time for something to eat. However, as I made my way to the restaurant I was stopped dead in my tracks by the appearance of a man in an old flying suit and goggles, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Saint-Exupery. The very friendly Monsieur Thoma (a genuine Frenchman) is employed to walk around the village and mingle with the visitors, and of course, to have his picture taken 1,000 times a day.

The restaurant is large and yet has an intimate atmosphere. The waiters, being Japanese, are nowhere near as arrogant as their counterparts in France, and the service was excellent. The food however, was definitely comme ci, comme ca. The dishes from Provence, such as stuffed vegetables, salad nicoise and fried fish, were excellent, but the pasta dishes were rather tasteless. I suppose it’s a case of, when in France eat as the French do.

I would not recommend this site for families with very young children, as there is nothing of real interest for them. However, for those with older children, and especially those who have read “The Little Prince,” it is a very enjoyable way to spend a morning or afternoon.