Visiting Ours

Trends & Culture - June 9th, 2000
tokyoweekender_James Bailey

by James Bailey

Build it, and they will come. However, they may not always buy a ticket of admission.

Take, for example, Gluck Kingdom. Located in Obihiro City on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four major islands, this theme park was built to resemble a medieval German castle and to offer visi­tors re-created settings of well-beloved fairy tales by the Broth­ers Grimm. And grim indeed became this tourist attraction’s bottom line: according to a ver­nacular weekly, not long after Gluck Kingdom’s 1989 opening, daily attendance was averaging an unhappily-ever-after 13 per­sons.

Rare is the community that does not succumb to the temp­tation to draw attention to it­self by building a brand spank­ing new whatever. Not untypically, the whatever ini­tially inspires fevered opposi­tion, but later becomes a well­beloved landmark that draws in hordes of rubberneckers.

Such has been the fate of, to cite two examples, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Space Needle in Seattle. Both were the target of vocal nay-sayers while under construction, and both are now well-loved land­marks.

The transformation process does, however, take time, as witness the Statue of Liberty. No, not the one that holds its lamp above the city of New York; the one that rises above the little town of Momoishimachi in—how’s this for a fortuitous coincidence?— the big apple-producing prefec­ture of Aomori.

Because both Momo­ishimachi and New York are located at 40′ 40″ north latitude, city fathers in the former loca­tion decided to go for numeri­cal uniformity and make their Statue of Liberty one-fourth the size of the one in the latter. At­tendance here, sad to say, has also been fractional.

When Gamagorishi in Aichi Prefecture decided to spell out its name in a 17.6 meter-long, four meter-high, ¥84 million il­luminated sign above an el­ementary school, it hoped to at­tract the attention of passengers on board passing bullet trains. Which is exactly what hap­pened, until the bullet trains in­creased their speed levels and the sign became a neon-lit blur.

Speed was also a problem for Kabayama-mura in Yamanashi Prefecture. An at­tempt to put itself on the map with Japan’s longest roller slide come to naught when it was discovered that the slide’s incline was not steep enough to enable users to descend its 42.1 meters with anything ap­proaching fun-inducing rapid­ity. Adding insult to injury, not long after its 1990 open­ing, a rival community built a slide more than seven times as long and drew enthusiastic crowds.

Meanwhile, a rapid descent proved disastrous to Kuroishi in Aomori Prefecture. As a means of promot­ing a hot springs bath that features a display of kokeshi, or traditional wooden dolls, the town or­dered up a solid gold kokeshi for ¥100 million and a solid silver one for ¥90 million.

After displaying the dolls for five years, during which time the price for gold and silver would presumably appreciate, Kuroishi intended to sell them off at a profit to help pay for various civic improvements, but discovered to its chagrin that the prices for these precious metals had plummeted.

Twenty-seven kilograms of pure gold were used in the making of the two dolphin-like fish that grace the roof of a castle in Sunamatacho in Gifu Prefecture. Claims that the castle is a faithful recreation of one built by 16th-century Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and there­fore an historical site well worth visiting, are challenged by ex­perts who point out that the original was a crude, stone structure with no golden dol­phin-like fish anywhere near it.

All of the above is not to say that once it’s built, they will never come. Although a 152-hecatre recreation of medieval Dutch life might not seem, at first blush, a surefire attention grabber, Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki Prefecture is visited by about 4.2 million people annually, a figure more than twice as large as the combined popu­lations of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. The attraction has continued to stun attendees not only with its at­tention to detail, but also with what one observer calls its “pio­neering ecological town plan­ning.”

If there’s a lesson that the communities of Momoishimachi, Gamagoroishi, Kabayama-mura, Kuroishi and Sunamatacho can take from Huis Ten Bosch, it is this: with just the right idea and a little bit of luck, you can build it, and not get in Dutch.