Lifestyle

The Moomins find a second home in Japan

by Danielle Demetriou

Contributing Writer

It’s a bucolic scene of pure Finnish harmony: an expanse of still water, hillsides of cartoon-perfect forest trees and clean-lined clusters of wooden huts. Not to forget the distinct white hippo-esque members of Finland’s most iconic family who happen to live here: the Moomins.

But this Finnish utopia is not in Scandinavia. Instead, it can be found almost 7,780 kilometers from Helsinki — more precisely on the shores of Lake Miyazawa in Hanno, Saitama Prefecture, just outside Tokyo.

MoominValley Park — the first official Moomin theme park outside Finland — opened its doors last month to the delight of countless Japanese diehard fans of the popular rotund fairy-tale characters, who first sprung to life in a children’s book published in 1945 by author and artist Tove Jansson.

Over the past seven decades, the Moomins have become among the world’s most recognizable and loved children’s characters — and nowhere more so than in Japan, with thousands having already rushed to visit the new attraction since its March 16 opening.

The Moomin cast of Emma
The Moomin cast of Emma’s Theatre in MoominValley Park pose for a photo. | COURTESY OF MOOMINVALLEY PARK

“The Moomins live in a delightful, unspoiled valley,” explains Arisa Kawasaki, MoominValley Park’s creative director. “They go on adventures, enjoy picnics and are happy to make friends and be kind and welcoming to anyone in need. They appeal to the Japanese sense of harmony and mutual cooperation and, above all, they are always lovable and cute.

“This attraction aims to capture the spirit of, and philosophy behind, the Moomin books and artwork of their creator Tove Jansson, and is designed to appeal to visitors of all ages.”

She adds: “Japan accounts for almost 50 percent of the global ‘Moomin market.’ Japan has more Moomin fans than any other country and the Moomins are among the most popular and familiar fictional characters in Japan for people of all ages. A theme park devoted to the Moomins was thus an obvious thing to undertake.”

The 7.3-hectare attraction forms part of Metsa Village, a development overlooking the lake that opened last November and is home to contemporary wooden buildings with upmarket restaurants and Nordic-inspired boutiques.

Our recent family visit, accompanied by two small but eagle-eyed critics in the form of my daughters aged 4 and 6, takes place on a brisk, sunny spring Sunday, a week after its grand opening — and even before the gates open at 10 a.m., there’s a long queue snaking around the lake’s fringes.

Once inside, we wander through the immaculately clean space, past wooden huts, toward our first stop: Little My’s Attraction. Here, after passing a small washing line, where a tiny red dress belonging to the cheeky character Little My prompts cries of excitement among the girls, we enter a small homely wooden room where we are treated to a lively Moomins animation. It’s the perfect Moomin mood warmer, particularly as the faces of audience members (my 6-year-old’s included) are surreptitiously captured on camera before reappearing as little characters on the large-screen cartoon.

The day unfolds at a relaxed pace, with further highlights including the Oshun Oxtra Theater, where we are sucked into a dramatically interactive story involving a Moomin boat adventure — complete with vivid projection mapping and even sprinkles of real water.

A favorite spot turns out to be the Moominhouse, a landmark, sky-blue round tower — its red-tiled and fairytale-perfect peaked roof rising above the forest trees. Here, in a small group of only seven visitors, a member of staff in an orange cape leads us through the home’s colorful basement kitchen, fitted with wooden dressers housing jars of forest jams, baskets of eggs and dried flowers. We follow a curved staircase up through the house, past a table laid out with pancakes and ginger cookies, and continue to explore the characters’ bedrooms at the top.

We also stop by Kokemus (Finnish for “experience”), a large three-story space with several floors featuring Moomin exhibitions — designed to delight both kids and nostalgists — cafes and boutiques selling themed gifts, from towels and toys to books and sweets. It is also home to a sleek white workshop space — all airy, minimalist Nordic lines with neatly laid craft tables and a wall of glass framing lake views — where the girls join a workshop to make special Moomin badges.

The main restaurant, Muumilaakso Ruokala, is also in Kokemus. Its photogenic menu of flower-scattered pasta, blue tarts and other treats is enticing, but unfortunately, it’s also exceptionally busy. So, to skip queuing — and to the kids’ unbridled joy — we opt for snacking at kiosks, finding hotdogs, popcorn and cotton candy. (Family tip: It’s a good idea to bring picnic food or stop by one of the restaurants in Metsa Village, near the entrance to the park, before or after your trip).

The Lonely Mountain outdoor park offers kids a chance to burn off extra energy.
The Lonely Mountain outdoor park offers kids a chance to burn off extra energy. | COURTESY OF MOOMINVALLEY PARK

Once re-fueled, we spend time exploring — and later trying to extract our children from — the Lonely Mountain area, an outdoor wooden adventure playground spanning the hillside above the lake, with a Hobgoblins’ zip line over the water for the truly adventurous.

Before we leave, we stop by the outdoor Emma’s Theatre and, seated on the floor, the children cheer as a cast of life-sized Moomin characters sing and dance Disney-style on stage.

The kids clearly enjoyed their day, bouncing happily through the activities and running a bit wild in nature — a good balance for any day trip. Best of all, though, is the Nordic design and natural setting, which make the experience far more pleasant than the many other hectic, neon-lit attractions available for kids — so the adults enjoyed it too.

MoominValley fun: The kids’ verdict

Kiko Blossom, aged 6: “I loved it. It was fun. I learned lots of interesting things about the Moomins that I didn’t know before. I knew Little My was small but I could see how tiny she really is from her little dresses. And I liked getting wet in the boat.”

May Bluebell, aged 4: “I love candy floss. I liked the little tiny bedroom in the blue house and making a badge was fun. But candy floss is my best.”

Entry to MoominValley Park is ¥1,500, ¥1,000 for children aged 4 to 6 and free for those aged 3 and under. Additional fees apply for some attractions. For more information, visit bit.ly/moominvalleypark.