Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Hobbiton Movie Set, or a Little Bit of Middle-Earth in New Zealand

I'm genuinely ashamed that Justin and I scheduled our New Zealand trip around skiing, as opposed to around Lord of the Rings. What sort of a nerd lets something like that slip? Fortunately, higher nerd powers were watching out for us, and on our drive from the Auckland airport to Rotorua, we decided randomly to pull off for lunch in the town of Matamata - where this sign greeted us:

Note Justin has the Precious, which looks oddly like his wedding ring
And this guy:

That alone was fun and exciting. But then Justin happened to notice another sign: Hobbiton Movie Set Tours.

Hobbiton? Really go to Hobbiton? The Hobbiton, of the Shire, the symbolic heart of the books which my father read aloud to us kids when I was in sixth grade? Hobbiton, of the films, which were the defining post-midterms celebration of my college career? Hobbiton, where they eat seven meals a day, where beer does not come in pints, and where the plural of Proudfoot is Proudfeet? There is no font large enough to write YES.

We didn't know how much would be left, since typically movie sets are dismantled after filming - many of the other New Zealand sites consist of things like "This is where Edoras used to stand." But we were hopeful, and we had an afternoon to spare. And we are soooo glad we did, because if you've ever wanted to go to Middle-Earth (and who hasn't???), going to Hobbiton is the next best thing.

It's pretty damn bucolic.
The set for Hobbiton was discovered by a film crew touring New Zealand by helicopter, looking for a large tree next to a large lake for the filming of the party scene. They identified the Alexander family sheep farm. When they came to ask for permission to tour the site, they legendarily were only admitted because the rugby match the patriarch was watching was at halftime; otherwise, he wouldn't have gotten up to answer the door. And the rest was history.
Pictured: History.
According to the tour guide, after they finished filming the first three Lord of the Rings movies, a large storm interrupted the takedown of the Hobbiton set. It lasted for three days, after which the crew gave up and decided to come back later. The owner of the property took advantage of the interim to enter negotiations with the film studio over keeping the set as a tourist attraction. They eventually reached an agreement which, if I recall correctly, precludes the use of many phrases on site merchandise and also prohibits the staff from dressing up as hobbits. (Visitors, however, may dress however they please - and you better believe if I lived in New Zealand I'd have gone back in full costume. #YOLO.)

What can you still see in Hobbiton?

There are half-size hobbit holes, built so Gandalf could stand in front of them and look tall.

Everything is so freaking adorable!

There are also full-scale hobbit holes, so the actors playing hobbits will look tiny when the shots are interspersed with the Gandalf shots.

Welcome to the neighborhood!
Come on in!
Mi hobbit hole es su hobbit hole.
A lot of people want to know what's inside the hobbit holes. Sadly, nothing beyond window dressing. The holes are exteriors only, not the wonderfully charming and quirky homes shown in the film via editing. That wouldn't be practical anyway, as underground construction is seriously difficult to light, and hobbits are notoriously leery of electricity.

The Alexander farm site managed to give me the exact right feeling of the Shire. The mild air, the perfect blue sky, the faint gold in the light... it was just how I'd imagined the Shire. Sheltered and gentle, comfortable and cozy, and bursting with plant life. The only difference is that we went in the winter, so the trees weren't as full and the plants weren't as lush, and of course we weren't as warm. I wish I could go back in summer for a perfect Bilbo's Birthday Party feel.

Speaking of Bilbo's Birthday, how about some famous Shire landmarks from the party scene at the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring?

The double-arched bridge
The tree with the overhanging branch, where Gandalf shot off the firework for the little hobbit children
The Party Tree! (It's a bit sparse, but it was winter)

And which way to Bilbo's house, Bag End, at 1 Bagshot Row? First, head towards Hobbiton.

Although the Green Dragon is also a tempting destination.

As you come into town, you'll be able to see the house in the distance. It's the one with the big tree on top.

Follow signs for Bagshot Row.

Arrive at Bilbo's house! *Ding* Thank you, Middle-Earth GPS!

Bilbo's house.
He wasn't home. We should have called ahead.

We're like hobbit paparazzi
No wonder the poor fellow emigrated to the Grey Havens.
The tree above Bilbo's house is another interesting story. The tree itself is, I believe, natural, but from the nearby town of Matamata. Being moved like that is understandably traumatic to the tree, especially since I think it might have been cut apart, and hence the leaves on the tree now are entirely synthetic. Not just the leaves on the tree, but the leaves on the ground, as well. I answered some trivia questions correctly and got to keep some leaves. Yes, that's right. THE SHIRE IS COMING HOME.

This is the same look Gollum has as he falls into the lava.
I've saved my personal best for last. Bilbo's house was awesome. Oak leaves, which are now framed in my bedroom as well as gifted to my siblings and dad, are sweet as heck. But for me, nothing, absolutely nothing, beat walking up the hill to a pale yellow house with a round red door.

The tour guide, "Does anybody know which hobbit lived here?" I looked for a second, and then all of a sudden my jaw dropped, and I said, in a mild and ladylike manner, "Oh my GOD, that's SAM'S HOUSE."

Just kidding. I screeched it like a Nazgul who just felt Frodo put on the Ring. Because I love no fictional character from any fictional universe the way I love Samwise Gamgee. If I ever have a son, his name will be Sam, and I don't even care if you tell him why.

One random turn for lunch, and it resulted in one of the best travel experiences of our lives. We are the luckiest travelers in Midde-Earth!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Whale Sharks! Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa

In the midst of the madness of a new school year, Nana and I are reaching back to catch up on some stuff from the spring and early summer.

Nana and I both have a thing for aquariums, and I especially have a thing for whale sharks. They're huge, slow, graceful, and dumb enough that they don't suffer from being stuck in a giant tank.

In Taiwan, we visited Kenting's National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium largely because it's one of the few places in the world where you can see a whale shark in captivity. In Okinawa, we rented a car for a scenic drive to the Churaumi Aquarium, a sprawling complex tucked away on a remote peninsula in the north-western part of the island.

Totally worth it, for three reasons:

  • Giant manta rays.
  • A catwalk where you can look down on the big tank from above.
In retrospect, I guess that's five reasons. Oh, well.

Count 'em. Three!

Me, standing directly under a %@$& whale shark.
The catwalk above the tank was especially fun. The manta rays make great noises when they break the surface of the water, and you can't quite tell how enormous they are until they're passing directly underneath you.

Also, a giant cartoon topiary whale shark. Because this is still Japan.
Thar she doesn't blow (because she's a fish and has gills)!