Moominvalley Park opened in Japan in March 2019 and has already seen extraordinary success.
Robert Hirst, long-time chairman of FinTech Global Inc., presently Senior Advisor to FGI, and executive chairman of Moomin Monogatari K.K., spoke to blooloop about the creation of Moominvalley Park in Hanno township, Saitama, and how it contrives to capture the spirit of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.
A veteran British financier who helped pioneer yen-dollar swaps at the height of Japan’s bubble economy, Hirst landed in Japan in 1984 having left a job at the World Bank in Washington, to head derivatives sales at Citibank NA. In 1987, he became head of Asian operations for AIG Financial Products Corp. He joined FinTech’s board in 2005 and was named chairman two years later.
The beginnings of Moominvalley Park
In 2013, Hirst met with a Finnish investment banking contact who introduced the concept of the Moomin theme park.
“FinTech Global is a Japanese boutique investment bank, listed on the Tokyo stock exchange,” he says. “It’s not huge, by investment bank standards, but it has been involved in all sorts of things. It was set up by the current CEO, and at the time we started all this, I was the chairman. I have retired from that role, having exceeded retirement age. I’m still the chairman of the theme park.”
The company focuses on structured finance often, but not exclusively, related to property.
“We tend to deal with smaller transactions that the likes of Goldman Sachs would not find interesting,” says Hirst. “ I have worked in Hong Kong, and used to work for the World Bank, once upon a time, in Washington, but I’ve been in Japan on-and-off for quite a long time.”
It was in around 2000 that he was introduced to FinTech.
“I was introduced to the then chairman, with whom I became very good friends. He asked me if I could become an advisor, and then I was put on the board. It was a very Japanese company; there was just me as the sort of token foreigner. But then he, at a young age and rather tragically, died. I was asked then to take his role as the chairman.”
Robert Hirst and Finland
Throughout his banking days, from the start, Hirst had always had good associations with Finland:
“I had made a lot of connections and friends there from the work I had been involved in. There was one group that had split itself off from one of the major banks. It had a guy stationed in Tokyo whom I came to know. We gave him space in our offices.”
“One day, in 2011 or 12, he said, ‘There is this interesting opportunity. Would you, if you’ve got time, come with me to meet the Finnish ambassador? The opportunity is that there was a group that had a right to do a research study on a Moomin theme park in Japan. They’re a Finnish group. They don’t really know anything about Japan, what to do or whom to talk to.’
“I thought it sounded rather a hoot, so off I went with him to meet the ambassador, and over coffee, he explained, ‘These people have got this agreement, but they really don’t know what they’re doing. The Moomins are a Finnish cultural icon, and we can’t afford this to be screwed up. What do you think?’
The Moomins in Japan
Hirst’s chief executive officer, of an age to have grown up with the Moomins TV series, convinced him of Japanese people’s love for the cartoon.
“He was,” Hirst says: “A sort of closet Moomin fan.”
The project was set in motion.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” he says. “Before we really got going, it transpired the Finnish group that we had teamed up with didn’t really have a lot to offer. We ended up buying them out, and then getting down to it.”
Moomins are big business. Gross global sales from products and licensing came to more than 500 million euros ($558 million) last year, with almost 40 percent from Japan. A Moomin exhibition in Tokyo in 2014 sold about $3 million in merchandise.
Hirst says: “Other places are catching up slowly: Thailand, Taiwan, and Korea, but Japan is still the place for Moomins. Even the Finnish embassy here all have Moomin characters on their name-cards.”
Finding the perfect location for Moominvalley Park
Hirst works closely with Sophia Jansson, niece of Moomin creator Tove Jansson, and custodian of the Moomin image.
“I get on well with Sophia,” he says: “We make sure she’s happy with everything.”
The team spent a considerable amount of time trying to identify the ideal location for a Moomin-themed park:
“When we announced that we were doing this, we got calls from everywhere, saying, ‘We’ve got the perfect place for Moomins. Moomins belong here.’ One suggestion was the northern part of Hokkaido, for instance, which they claimed looked just like Finland.”
The place they settled on wasn’t the first choice, says Hirst:
“We looked, early on, at a place much closer into Tokyo, next to a very large park that had, once upon a time, been an airport. It would have been easier to access, a short walk from the mainline station, but it would have been a very different park.
“Sophia wasn’t against that, but she wasn’t bowled over. It turned out to be just too complicated and expensive. I was not the one pushing that one; far from it; I thought it was too urban. So we returned to one of the places that had approached us early on, and that was Hanno.”
A history with the Moomins
Around 30 years ago, the then-mayor of the city of Hanno wrote to Tove Jansson, asking to create a children’s park in her honour. She agreed.
“They have all the letters that were written in glass cases,” adds Hirst.
Accordingly, a small park was created next to the township gymnasium and baseball field:
“It’s very quirky. The buildings are not Moomin-esque at all; they’re more like Gaudi doing a weekend retreat; lots of wrought iron, and stuff like that. It is pleasant but too small for a theme park. In their mind, though, the Hanno township was the natural place for the Moomins because they had this history with Tove Jansson.”
It transpired the Hanno group owned another piece of land, the site of a former zoo, in addition to the small park.
“Our president wasn’t keen, but we had a team now studying all this, so I said, ‘well, let’s go look at it anyway.’ So we all went, and everybody said, ‘It’s fantastic: this is just what we need!’”
The ideal site
The proposed site was, though ideally situated, in poor condition:
“The zoo had disappeared 40 odd years ago. There had also been a funfair there at one point, and a fishing club had been using the lake, so there were all these plastic paddling ponds full of fish fry, and rotting boats on the side. It was a real mess,” says Hirst
“Up where the car park was, they had go-kart racing. It was pretty messed up, but it was all surrounded by a top-class golf course; about 18 hectares of land around a lake, with mature trees, which are quite unusual for Japan. The walk goes all the way to where the Moomin park begins. There are old horse chestnut trees, which you don’t see very often here. With a bit of imagination, you could see how this might work.”
The lake itself belongs to the Japan Agricultural Board.
“It is actually a dam,” he says. “But it looks like a natural lake, and has been there for 70-odd years. There are cherry trees, maples, a real mixed woodland area. So that’s quite nice. There was a trail going all the way around it, where schools used to do cross-country running. People would take their dogs walking, and have picnics there, and you don’t see any buildings around it. So we started it off.”
Close to nature
Siting the park outside Tokyo meant a few adjustments.
“To go there, you have to make a bit of an effort. It’s not in the middle of Tokyo, says Hirst. “On the other hand, when you get there, you’ve got all sorts of things you can do. You’re back to nature; the air is clear, you can see the sky and the stars. It’s much more appropriate for Moomins than anywhere else.
We had to negotiate. The land was owned by the railway company. Luckily, they were in some kind of reorganisation, and the land was purposeless to their needs. So we got a really good deal.”
There was no infrastructure in place, and there was a great deal of work to be done:
“We had to do a lot of earthmoving and landscaping, and to get rid of all the crap that the fishing and go-carting people had left behind.”
They took comfort from the fact that part of the land that was acquired included a day-spa with natural hot water:
“They are now our tenants on a long-term lease. At the time, the spa was getting over 300,000 visitors a year, which was reassuring, from our perspective.”
Planning Moominvalley Park
The next stage was planning:
“We spent a lot of time with Sophia and her husband to work out what was appropriate, what we could do and couldn’t do, and its form.”
One problem of the site that quickly became clear was that, since it is surrounded by a golf course, there is only one way in and out.
“The road in is the road out. I knew nothing about theme parks, but I know now that you really need a service road to bring in all your supplies, but we didn’t have that. But this is Japan, so you can get people organised so that stuff comes in late at night, or early in the morning, on the same route.”
The Moomins and Finland
“Sophia always corrects them,” he says: “She explains the Moomins don’t live in Finland. They live in fantasy land. But since the Japanese continue to associate the Moomins with Finland anyway, it was better to capitalise on that impression.
“When you come to this site, you don’t see the lake from the main road. At the main road is the car parking area and the place for the buses. We have a shuttle bus system from the station. So those are the logistics. And then you go down a tree-lined avenue, with chestnut trees. At the moment it’s full of blue hydrangeas.
“As you continue down this tunnel of trees, you see the lake. At the moment, the route is very pretty because there is a display of multicoloured umbrellas across from the trees; it’s been the rainy season. You get to an area that we have called Metsä, which means Forest in Finnish.
“Metsä Village has restaurants and shops selling Nordic and Scandinavian knick-knacks and lifestyle products, and various areas to sit and relax.”
An area for locals
Metsä Village, also operated by Moomin Monogatari, FinTech Global’s subsidiary, is free to enter, and developed with the local people in mind:
“There are events; there is a workshop where you can make wooden things. Hanno is very much forest; it was one of the main areas for supplying Edo-Tokyo with building wood. It has that in common with Finland. You can even make your own canoe to sail on the lake. There are things to bounce around with on the trees, and so on.”
“The public area is the prelude to the Moomins. You walk along the side of the lake to get to the entrance to the Moominvalley Park. When it’s finished, it will be a nice walk through the trees, with all sorts of things to distract you as you walk.”
At the entrance of the theme park itself, there is a restaurant and a shop. Then you continue to the area where the Moominhouse is.
“We spent a phenomenal amount of time working on that for all sorts of reasons. People have to be able to enter it, and it needs to look as if it’s made of wood. In fact, because there are all sorts of earthquake and fire issues in Japan, it’s actually ferro-concrete, with wood cladding on. It had to be a certain size in order for us not to have a fire escape at the back.
“Sophia and I had been to see the site, and I had said, ‘This is where I think we should have the house.’ She agreed with me. The reason for it being there is that there are two Sequoia trees, which are very large; a little bit taller than the Moomin House. Without them, it would seem top-heavy.
Why the sequoias were planted just there, decades ago, I don’t know, but they make it a perfect spot. They give it the right dimensions.”
Explaining the Moomin philosophy
There is, he comments, a Moomin park in Finland:
“It’s for very young children. The Moominhouse there looks like a converted gas holder – short and fat. I was trying to avoid that, and I think we’re OK. We’ve filled ours with of all sorts of quasi-antique furniture, sourced in Europe, and based on what was drawn in the books.”
There is also a theatre and a 3-storey museum and gallery, showcasing reproductions of Tove Jansson’s artwork.
“One of the things we found was that while almost 98% of women of various age groups know about the Moomins, not all have read the books or are familiar with the Moomin philosophy. One of the efforts, therefore, is to explain that they are more than just cute toys. There is a philosophy.
“The books are interesting in that they operate at two levels. They are interesting for adults as well as for children. That is the sort of thing we go through. We explore her life, how she came to be what she is, how she went about her work. It’s not just the Moomins; there are examples of her other work.”
Entering the world of the Moomins
In the Moominhouse at Moominvalley Park, you enter the world of Moomins and learn about them as you’re going around in a very user-friendly way. There are theatres and a 4D cinema:
“Moominpapa is reading the stories about the adventures he had in his youth. It’s somewhat interactive; you get splashed if you sit in the wrong seat.”
“We found some very good people to work with. A company called NOMURA KOUGEI did a lot of the design work; all the stuff in the museum is their design, and we worked very closely with them on the Moominhouse.”
We are trying to strike a balance between having people educated, and enjoying themselves
“Sony Music Entertainment, a division of Sony, were the people who did all the music, of course, and also the plays.”
Actors in costume put on stage shows of the plays based on chapters from the books:
“And, again, in part to educate people in a nice way, we have competitions, where people walk around, connecting the dots to learn: why did Moomintroll do this? Well, if you go to this particular place, you might find out. It’s like a treasure hunt and is quite popular. We are trying to strike a balance between having people educated, and enjoying themselves.”
The Moomin ethos
The Moomin ethos permeates the outdoor active play areas at Moominvalley Park. There are treehouses, and a zipline across the lake to ‘The Lonely Mountains’, where explorers can look for the Hobgoblin and the King’s Ruby.
A leaflet can be collected at each location in the park, explaining the background of the relevant story – who the Hobgoblin was, for instance, as a reference guide. When all of them are collected and laid out, they make a map of the whole park.
“I suppose as we go along we’ll make it more digital,” says Hirst.
There is a restaurant selling excellent food, and a big shop for products unique to the theme park, including the Moomin coffee mug that can only be obtained there:
“The Japanese love shopping when they go to these places,” Hirst says.
The Nordic aesthetic, he contends, with its simplicity and clean lines, appeals to people in Japan.
“This park is geared towards families. We’re very different from places like Disney, where you’re not allowed to bring your own food. We’re not so picky. If people want to bring their own food, well, so be it – but we have some quite interesting food restaurants that are not outrageously priced.
Dogs at Moominvalley Park
People can also bring their dogs to Moominvalley Park, which is unusual in the theme park world.
“Last year, we had the Japan Golden Retriever society, which had an event. We had 600 golden retrievers here.”
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He explains how the park’s welcoming stance on dogs came about:
“Before we arrived, when the area was no longer a zoo or a funfair, just a place for people to park and have a walk, they would bring their dogs. In Japan, lots of people have dogs. Many dress their dogs up. Lots of places don’t allow dogs, or if they do, they have to be on a lead, and it’s all a bit limiting, especially since the Japanese are remarkably tidy with their dogs.
“When we were designing the park and working out what we could do, we sent out questionnaires and got people to give us feedback. One of the constant points being made was, ‘It would be nice if we could take our dog.’”
Pets are allowed
Moomin Monogatari opened Metsä Village, the free-to-enter area where people can sit by the lake or visit the boutique shops, before Moominvalley Park, in November 2018:
“We said pets were allowed, though not inside the shops, and there are limitations in the restaurants. Having had five months or so of that, we thought, why not extend the principle to the theme park as well? It has played out very well, and you see some extremely well-dressed dogs.”
The decision to make it free to enter was based on the fact that, previously, locals had been able to walk all the way around the lake. He explains:
“If we had made the whole thing Moomins, and made people pay to access this bit, we would never appeal to the local population. We would always come across as ‘these bastards from Tokyo who ruined our walking area’.
“In fact, we’ve made it much nicer. There are now Finnish sauna chairs, like the deck chairs in Hyde Park, dotted around the place in the summer; nobody charges you to sit on them.”
Since opening, Moominvalley Park has proved very successful, exceeding expectations in terms of visitor numbers:
“Until the coronavirus messed things up, we were getting tour buses every day, sometimes as many as a thousand people, often groups on a tour of the Saitama prefecture. There are many older women who must have had their children sitting on their knees when the Moomin TV series started in Japan, back in the late 1960s. Then there are those who grew up with the Moomins and are now bringing their own children.
It’s a wide appeal. We have the whole gamut
“Again, this is all pre-COVID-19; on weekdays in term-time, there would be older couples, sometimes with adults, sometimes on their own. Unfortunately, the tour groups are on hold at the moment because of the virus. They will presumably at some point come back.
“It’s a wide appeal. We have the whole gamut, really.”
Moominvalley Park and COVID-19
“We’re not back at the numbers we had before the lockdown, yet, because people are still being somewhat cautious. But we are doing better than a lot of places at the moment. We have all sorts of safety strategies in place. We have thermal imaging things to take people’s temperatures as they come in. And we’ve got all the sprays for hands, we ask people to wear masks.”
“Some of the interactive exhibits in the museum have had to be modified; we don’t have as many people in the restaurants as we did.”
The park is, Hirst stresses, a work in progress:
“We’re not finished. We will continue to think of new things. But I think it has worked out quite well. It’s hard to know because of COVID-19; it has thrown us off a bit because we don’t know what the impact will be long-term, but it’s different from other places. I would like to think it’s more refined than most theme parks, and I think the people who work there enjoy it.”
Pleasing the locals
He concludes with a story:
“Right at the beginning, I was visiting the Moominvalley Park site with someone from Finland when the building work was just starting. The whole place had been closed off to the public because trucks were coming in and out. There was all sorts of excavation and construction going on, and the road was being properly surfaced.
“And this old Japanese guy was there with a very unhappy looking dog. I thought, well, how did he get there? He wasn’t part of the workforce and he wasn’t wearing a helmet or anything. So, he came up to us and spoke.”
“He said, ‘Are either of you two from Finland?’ It was said in a tone of voice which suggested ‘no’ was the safest answer. I said ‘No.’ But my companion said, ‘Yes: I’m from Finland.’
“Then the old guy said, ‘Well, let me tell you, we don’t need your Moomins. We don’t need anything else here. This is nice as it was. We had the zoo. It left. We had the fair. We had this, that and the other. They all fail, these places.’
“He went through a whole tirade, ending with, ‘And you’ll fail, too!’ He stormed off with his miserable dog. I still have no idea how he got in.
“Anyway, I noticed him the best part of a year later, with his dog, walking through Metsä Village. Both he and his dog looked very happy.”