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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Cinderella for a day

Anthony Faiola Washington Post

TOKYO — So what if they were not real glass slippers; they sparkled nonetheless with the bits of crystal that Reiko Handa, 59, applied to a pair of new pumps. Her hair, voluminous from extensions, soared in a regal bun as she dashed through the brisk Vienna night last winter. There, she recalled, handsome Austrian gentlemen escorted her up castle stairs to a lavish ball where Handa and a group of other Japanese women realized their childhood fantasies of being Cinderellas for a day.

In Japan, dreams of youth are being bought — often for between $4,000 and $10,000, and sometimes more — by thousands of women who use vacation time to step into the pages of a storybook. “Princess vacations,” as they are known, have become the hottest tickets in town for a host of would-be Cinderellas, from women in their twenties to senior citizens.

“How I danced that night!” beamed Handa, a caretaker for the elderly. She is making plans through a Japanese tour operator for a reprise in Britain this summer. “I left my real life behind and entered a dream world. I can’t wait to do it again.”

Fantasy chic has become an art in Japan, where theme parks bring foreign countries to life and “cosplay,” dressing up like the characters in Japanese animation and manga comics, has been a hit for years. In the name of fashion, young non-Christian couples sometimes hire local Westerners to preside over their weddings as faux priests.

But even so, the princess trips are raising eyebrows as escapist fads among Japanese women.

In the trendy Shibuya and Harajuku neighborhoods of Tokyo, for instance, teenagers and women in their 30s and 40s have embraced what they call the “Lolita fashion.” Dressing up as little dolls in frilly dresses and lacy baby caps, hundreds of such girls and women parade along the sidewalks of Tokyo clutching teddy bears and wearing enormous ribbons in their hair.

Other women have turned to “celebu” — or celebrity — lifestyles. What started as mimicking the fashion tastes of American personalities has turned into a cottage industry, including popular classes. In one class, called “How to Behave Like a Celebrity,” students spend hours studying how to walk, talk and gesture like a movie star.

Still other Japanese women are paying thousands of dollars to attend elaborate etiquette schools, mostly with the aim of jetting off on school-run trips offering the chance to briefly brush up against European high society. Such schools offer trips during which housewives and secretaries can sip champagne alongside royals in Monaco or wear wide-brimmed hats as they watch the ponies at the Prix de Diane Hermes outside Paris. Women often take the classes to boost their self-esteem.

“I breathed the same air as the high-class people of Europe,” said Yoshiko Mito, 36, a former flight attendant who has had free time since marrying a man whose job often takes him away from home for days at a time. “It gave me more confidence, being among those people and behaving correctly.”

Sociologists are offering a variety of explanations for the immersion of Japanese women in role-playing fantasies. The doll-like dress-up girls, according to analysts who have studied the trend, have been infected by pessimism following the protracted recession here. Although the economic tides in Japan are turning up, the change has yet to trickle down to many Japanese.

Women are also confronting changes in gender roles, as they increasingly put off traditional lives of marriage and childbirth in favor of careers in a society that is still dominated by men.

“Women are confronting a chauvinist society where it is hard to feel a sense of fulfillment in the workplace,” said Terue Ohashi, a sociologist at Reitaku University in Tokyo. “Therefore, they are finding ways to express their frustrations, by living a temporary dream or escaping reality. Think of it as catharsis.”

Surveys have shown that years of economic stress have created a gulf between Japanese men and women. Married men, who often lead lives separate from their families, are working longer hours and spending more time on business-related entertainment. Many are taking separate vacations, to play golf or to ski.

Enter the princess vacation concept, which both vendors and clients say is about finding fulfillment. Local tour operators began selling the idea about five years ago, as news stories emerged about women who were finding their inner princesses, buying tickets and hiring local dancing partners at the aristocratic balls of Vienna. The idea caught on, particularly among Japanese women who had taken classes in social dancing.

At home, the women receive help from the tour companies in selecting dresses, jewelry, shoes and hair accessories — most often tiaras. Once in Austria, they get tips on how to move majestically, delicately grasping the arms of their Austrian escorts, mostly dance instructors hired by the tour organizations. Austrian aristocrats do attend the balls, and tour operators say they have generally welcomed their new Japanese guests, enjoying the extra ticket sales but typically limiting tour groups to 30 attendees per ball.

Among Japan’s would-be princesses, Makiko Horio is the queen. After seeing a Vienna ball on TV in 1994, the 30ish former banker (a real princess never reveals her true age, she says) bought an airline ticket, a layered dress and some costume jewelry and attended the first of her 50 Austrian balls. Her life as a clerk in a foreign bank, she said, paled by comparison. “I wanted to be a princess,” said Horio, who goes by the professional name Makiko Krone because it sounds more European. “And I am not the only one. And there, under the chandeliers and with the gorgeous dresses, you can feel like one.”

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