Category Archives: The Bubble

Spike: No man but a blockhead

[This is the last ever Spike ramble, so slip on your stoutest trekking boots, decant a wee dram of aqua vitae into your hip-flask, and join me across a few rickety stiles and muddy, forgotten fields.]

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Samuel Johnson, Friday, 5 April 1776, from The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell

Many moons ago, long before the accident, I went for a drive.
The goal was to dip a metaphorical toe in the Pacific, somewhere in mid-Fukushima, then head over the spine of Honshu on backroads into Niigata and dip another metaphorical toe (or even the same one) in the Sea of Japan. No particular reason, just to blow away a few cobwebs—drive ni iku, the Japanese say, to go for a drive, and it often appears in the rankings of favorite leisure-time activities, at least among men of a certain age.
I never made it to the Sea of Japan. In the depopulating wilds of south-central Fukushima, tantalizing signs advertising a local attraction began to appear with Burma Shave regularity at the side of the road, the last of which was this, directing the driver to turn right up what turned out to be a 6km semi-private road to the top of a hill. “Pax per linguam” reads the Cod Latin motto on the faux coat of arms, “peace through language”. It seems unlikely.

Britain that way

British Hills, British Hills? Where had I heard of British Hills before? In some magazine or newspaper account, years previously? It sounded like a golf club, out at the end of the Metropolitan Line, in Pinner or Rickmansworth perhaps, where the members spend more time at the 19th than at the first eighteen, where chaps (and chapesses—we must move with the times!) with surnames like Bloomstein, though no longer blackballed, are greeted by the barman with a froideur not shown to those with surnames like Brown.  
A couple of hours later I was driving down the private road, face smirk-split from port to starboard, a reaction that only kitsch of the very toppest notch can evoke. The audacity! The execution! The sheer bloody extravagance of the place!
Some years later, not long after the accident, I returned, this time to stay the night.

Drogo

Willie

Racing green

Just like Scotland 

Tenpole Tudor

Part English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) educational institute, part luxury resort hotel, British Hills sprawls over some sixty acres (all “facts” about British Hills, even those on its own website, are quite possibly apocryphal) atop a seemingly randomly chosen hill in the village of Ten’ei, centered around a recreation of a manor house, reminiscent of the late domestic architecture of Edward Lutyens, such as what is now the Abbey House Hotel, built for the Vickers shipbuilding family, and above all Castle Drogo, completed in 1930 and widely dubbed “the last castle built in England”. According to Oxford Brookes University anthropologist and Japanologist Joy Hendry, in The Orient Strikes Back: A Global View of Cultural Display, British Hills was the dream of the mother of the chairman of the Sano Educational Foundation, which runs three not especially prestigious seats of learning, the Kanda Institute of Foreign Languages (est. 1957), a two-year vocational school, Kanda University of International Studies (est. 1987), and Kanda Gaigo Career College, an language and communication course provider (est. 1996). British Hills was completed in 1994, making it yet another fruit of a hazy reverie one late Bubble afternoon, rendered flesh in brick and stone, and without a doubt the most delicious tale surrounding its creation is that it caused such an artificial spike in demand for English oak as to retard the erection of that other temple of chintz, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on London’s Bankside, by a couple of years. The most frequently cited figure for the cost of construction is GBP60mn, a cool inflation-adjusted GBP100mn (USD150mn). Rumours swirl about financial difficulties in the first few years of operation, with salvation reportedly coming in the events of 9/11, which caused the more timid traveller to shun the complexities of authenticity and seek refuge in the safety of the fake.

British Hills, my spies inform me, is staffed—aside from the Japanese, who do most of the real work—by ten EFL teachers and a dozen or so twentysomethings on working holiday visas, mostly from the UK, Canada, and Australia, although not from the US, either because of visa issues or, one blogger reports, because of the “slovenliness of their accent”. So much for pax per linguam. These twentysomethings are largely present for decorative purposes and their blogs reveal they are not unaware of this. “My receptionist duties mainly involve being British” writes one; as she was British, and not, say, Azerbaijani, this should not have been beyond her capabilities. Writes another: “I can fold a mean napkin as well as bow a lot & look white which is a large part of my job description.”

The reactions of Japanese visitors to British Hills, so far as it is possible to determine from websites such as tripadvisor.com, are beguilingly innocent and free of irony: “a precious facility where you can enjoy a little study abroad in Japan” (国内でプチ留学できる貴重な施設); “everything’s exactly as it would be in England—an English village that makes you wonder whether you’re really in Japan” (すべてがイギリスそのもの!日本にいるの?と思わせるイギリス村); “it’s the UK even though it’s in Japan…step inside and everything’s English language, the feeling of a foreign country without a passport” (日本なのに英国・・・一歩入ったらすべて英語、パスポートなしの外国気分). Whether this trio has been to Britain, I know not, but I’d hazard they’ve never been to Scunthorpe, say, or Workington or Grimsby.

I particularly relish this reaction, written in English by a Japanese man: “A Caucasian receptionist accepted my check-in. … Unlike the people you may see in the countries other than Japan, she behaved in a manner as polite and gentle as Japanese clerks would do.” Then there’s this delightful attempt to render the world of British Hills in the Basic English of eccentric polymath C. K. Ogden (“what the world needs most is about 1,000 more dead languages”)—850 words and just 18 “operators” (“verbs” to you and me):
Hills are small mountains.
British Hills in fact
are not hills or mountains.
They are a sort of hotel
on a mountain,
with a special purpose.
Nearly everything in
this hotel
is British or English.
The building and the
14 houses
are copies of old ones in
Britain.
Most of the workers are able to give talks in English
though some have Australian sounds.
Streets are clean with no automatic soft-drink machines.

Reception from above

Back to school

After much pedantic talk at reception about under which accommodation package I might, having turned up unbidden and unannounced, be allowed to stay, I’m ushered to a room in a “house”—really an aggregation of suites—called Turner, replete with unguents and nostalgically aspirational plumbing from Ross-on-Wye.

Bath from Ross

Aspirational plumbing

Soon it’s time for drinks and dinner in The Falstaff pub, which stands next to “Ye Shoppe” (whatever happened to the “Olde”?); Greene King IPA, Abbot Ale, and Old Speckled Hen are on tap, and I daresay there’s no finer selection of amber nectar to be found on any other Fukushima hilltop.

Drink up

Roast beef of old England

There’s a pear-bottle of Sarson’s on the table—for the fish ’n’ chips, I suppose—but there’s really, really no need for more vinegar, as both the duck entrée and the beef roast are slathered in aceto balsamico, just as they would be at many a mediocre gastropub on the home islands; rap and R&B, turned down just low enough not to grate, fill the tea-color corners, with Frankie J crooning to all who’ll listen that “I can tell you sweet things that would make you smile”; there’s no smoking allowed inside the pub—natch—so I huddle, shivering, around an outdoor ashtray; many Japanese guests are clad in Pottercloaks (what accommodation package are they on?) and there’s endless Pottercrap on the telly. The British Hills experience was turning out to be terrifically, horrifically true to modern life on Airstrip One: all we needed now to complete the picture was ubiquitous CCTV and a pack of hoodies having a brawl in its collective blind-spot.

Amateur oil

Major General Piggott and company

The ambassador's lecture hall

Sir Rutherford and successors

One possible reason British Hills has survived, if not thrived, is that it is formidably well-connected, both on the British and Japanese sides. In descending order, the quartet of photos above show (a much younger) QEII, consort, and mother, together with the Shōwa Emperor and Empress Kōjun; a wall’s worth of yeoman worthies with ties, in foul times and fair, to Japan, starting with Major General Francis Piggott (1910-1996), British military attaché to Tokyo in the mid-1930s and in World War II organizer, under Orde Wingate, of the Burmese chindit partisans; The British Ambassador’s Lecture Hall; and a portrait, in the lecture hall, of Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British consul-general in Japan.

On the Japanese side, at least at the time of my visit, there was the intriguingly named André Yuki Kawada (1936-2012), so baptized at birth by a French Catholic priest, who was recruited in 1993 from Mitsubishi Corp. to become Director General of British Hills, was eventually to ascend to Honorary Director General, and who just so happened to be the great-grandson of Koichiro Kawada—who, together with the more celebrated Yataro Iwasaki, founded the mighty Mitsubishi zaibatsu. André Kawada was educated at Gakushuin, the bluest blooded of all Japan’s blue-blood schools, where he was a dormitory chum of His Imperial Highness The Prince Hitachi, still fourth in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, and interviewed his senpai elder, novelist Yukio Mishima, for the school magazine. Now those are quite some connections—and they explain, I later realized, why the high-speed, touch-free hand-dryer in my bathroom was made by Mitsubishi.

But all this, though intriguing enough, was a distraction, for I had returned to British Hills for one reason alone: the library.

Library conference table

Seat of learning

Annals and a lamp

Bookended

British Hills calls it the replica of a London gentleman’s club, but it strikes me, given its location in the manor house, more like a simulacrum of a gentleman’s private library, of the sort that could, at its apogee, have been found in maybe no more than a couple of thousand castles, manors, and rectories across the British Isles. Whoever had assembled this collection—and I can picture in the mind’s inscape the dry-as-dust mouth of an antiquarian book-dealer on the Charing Cross Road begin to salivate one morning in 1992 as Mr. Kato and Mr. Sato from Japan step across the threshold and describe their requirements—had done a commendable job: the clock had stopped, never to go again, in the middle of the third decade of the twentieth century.

Anyone for Punch

Old Japan hands

One stack of shelves groans under nothing but bound volumes of Punch magazine, 1901-1925. How many legions of unfunny cartoons are contained therein? On my previous visit, a pile of 1960s children’s books on space exploration and popular science had spoiled the artifice, but these had been banished, and there was little left to ruin the illusion, although on close inspection of a shelf-full of Ye Olde Japanne travelogues—Three Rolling Stones in Japan by Gilbert Watson (1904) and The Other Side of the Lantern: An Account of a Commonplace Tour Round the World by Sir Frederick Treves (1905), for instance—The Deer Cry Pavilion by Pat Barr, which I can date no further back than 1968, is but a fawn among hoary stags.

Multivolume editions of exactly the novelists and poets you would expect to find in the library of a conservative but catholic (or even, perhaps, Conservative and Catholic) reader of 1925—Galsworthy and Hardy, Tennyson and Browning and Kipling, Jerome K. Jerome and Arnold Bennett, and of course The Chesterbelloc—are all present and correct.

Whyte who

But what was this shelf, full of novels with curious titles—Tilbury Nogo, M or N, Black but Comely, and Market Harborough (surely nobody could have penned a novel set in that dullest of East England towns)? And who was their author, George John Whyte Melville? I was convinced—wrongly, as it turned out—that I had never heard of him before. This—English literature—was supposed to be my specialist subject, the one over which I had sweated (well, gently perspired) for my undergraduate degree, and yet here was a shelf-worth of a Victorian novelist who had tumbled into such an abyss of obscurity that his very name rang no bell of recognition. Dispirited and dejected, not so much with my unpardonable ignorance but more with the fickleness of fama, I resolved—not for the first time—to bin Spike. What is the point, I asked myself but couldn’t answer, of writing anything that will be forgotten if not within an hour, then at the outside, within a day? Luckily, my wise friend Dr. T was on hand to counsel: “As for futility, of course what you are doing is futile. Futility is to the human condition as wetness is to water. So what? You enjoy doing it. I and many other of your fans enjoy reading it. Long live Spike!” Enheartened, I vowed to ramble on.

So who the blazes was G. J. Whyte Melville? Well, he was a novelist of the sporting field—no, wait, where did I get that from? Why, from Wikipedia, of course. The six-hundred-odd word entry on Whyte Melville has just two footnotes and no cautionary hypertext warning the reader of the fallibility of the writer, for these are the wildest shores of the Wikiempire, where the writ of the Wikilaw does not run and the Wikipolice do not patrol.

And where, I wondered, did the Wikiwriters (let’s assume a collective for the sake of convenience) obtain the knowledge to pen their essaylet on Whyte Melville? From a deep and abiding familiarity with the works? No, not at all, as it turned out—chunks are purloined from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and to a lesser extent perhaps from the Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900.

1) Wikipedia: Most of his heroes and heroines: Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honourable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be hunters.
Britannica: He was the laureate of fox-hunting; all his most popular and distinctive heroes and heroines, Digby Grand, Tilbury Nogo, the Honorable Crasher, Mr Sawyer, Kate Coventry, Mrs Lascelles, are or would be mighty hunters.
2) Wikipedia: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry but this was the only break in his literary career.
By a strange accident, Whyte-Melville lost his life whilst hunting 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over a ploughed field in the Vale of White Horse.
Britannica: When the Crimean War broke out Whyte-Melville went out as a volunteer major of Turkish irregular cavalry; but this was the only break in his literary career from the time that he began to write novels till his death.
By a strange accident, he lost his life in the hunting-field on the 5th of December 1878, the hero of many a stiff ride meeting his fate in galloping quietly over an ordinary ploughed field in the Vale of the White Horse.
3) Wikipedia: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
Britannica: Several of these novels are historical, The Gladiators being perhaps the most famous of them.
4) Wikipedia: Some characters reappear in different novels: such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow.
Britannica: It is on his portraiture of contemporary sporting society that his reputation as a novelist must rest; and, though now and then a character reappears, such as the supercilious studgroom, the dark and wary steeple-chaser, or the fascinating sporting widow, his variety in the invention of incidents is amazing.

To appropriate from texts long in the public domain is no crime, and were the footnotes adequate, this entry would conceivably not even infringe on Wikipedia’s editorial standards, but were it to be handed in as homework it would merit 0/10, and the authority of the authors has been shot to pieces, pieces smaller than those into which starburst the clay pigeons at which Whyte Melville characters occasionally take pot-shot.

I should have realized from first encounter with the subliterate misuse of colons in examples (1) and (4) above that the Whyte Melville Wikipage was suspect, but I suspect my senses were lulled by ignorance of the subject and, more importantly, by the often spurious authority that Wikipedia has come to command in its dozen (count ’em) years of existence.

“A novelist of the sporting field” has become an Internet micro-meme, used exclusively with reference to Whyte Melville, often by booksellers ignorant of the author whose works they have picked up, perhaps at some house clearance auction. But is “a novelist of the sporting field” a fair characterization of Whyte Melville? Not from the two novels of his I’ve now read, and not, if we take references to foxes as a proxy for the sporting field, from the seven works of his I’ve skimmed at Project Gutenberg: The Interpreter: A Tale of the War has two fox references, General Bounce, or The Lady and The Locusts 13 (six about a horse called The Fox), M or N: Similia similibus curantur one, Contraband, or A Losing Hazard one, Kate Coventry: An Autobiography 14, and Katerfelto: A Tale of Exmoor, four—contrast those with the 63 fox references in the autobiographical Riding Recollections, which really is about the sporting field.

One reason that ignorant booksellers turn to Wikipedia anything other than the deepest of dives into the trenches of the Internet will turn up next to nothing about Whyte Melville—but surely these bibliophiles (and if they’re not bibliophiles, they’re in the wrong trade) have reference works, old-school ones printed with ink on paper, which they could consult for a potted biography?

Companion

Whyte Melville entry

I delved into the recesses of my library to dredge up my 1985 fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by novelist Margaret Drabble (cruelly nicknamed Margery Drivel by me in my youth for the dullness of her fictions) and “a team of distinguished contributors” over five what must have been laborious years, only to discover that in a previous life—in January 1987, to judge from the neat pencil marks in which I had dated readings of surrounding entries—I had read the Whyte Melville entry and officiously corrected in red biro the typo that misrecorded his birth as 1721 rather than 1821. One up to Wikipedia, I suppose. For the record, here’s the entry in full:

WHYTE-MELVILLE, George John (1721-78 [sic]), born in Fife, educated at Eton, joined the 93rd Highlanders, then the Coldstream Guards, and served in the Crimean war. He then returned to England and devoted his time to field sports on which he was an authority. Most of his literary works were novels, sometimes historical, and hunting figures largely in many of them. His first, Digby Grand, was published in 1853; Galsworthy, at Oxford, fell under the spell of the ‘Bright Things’ in Whyte-Melville’s novels and Digby Grand was Jolyon’s (in The Forstye Saga) first idol. He achieved fame with Holmby House (1859), a historical romance describing the Civil War. Market Harborough (1861) and The Gladiators (1863), also very popular, were followed by several others. In 1869 he published his Songs and Verse, and Riding Recollections (1879) was a notable book on horsemanship. He was killed in a hunting accident.

Not inspired, certainly—the antepenultimate sentence is especially damp—and I wonder if the author knew beforehand of the Galsworthy connection or unearthed it from the only academic paper I can find on Whyte Melville, Whyte-Melville and Galsworthy’s “Bright Beings”, by James C. Freeman, in the September 1950 edition of Nineteenth-Century Fiction, which quotes the young Jolyon Forsyte reminiscing about his time at Cambridge in “the golden sixties when the world was simple, dandies glamourous, Democracy not born, and the books of Whyte-Melville coming thick and fast”. There were short-cuts to the assumption of the mantle of authority even before the Internet bulldozed the neighbourhood to make it nothing but a lattice of short-cuts. Another one up to Wikipedia? 

********************

Wikipedia: An unsocratic dialogue, January 2013

If you are settling in the wilds, ten reference shelves are the minimum.
Early Reading and Desert Island Books, Patrick Leigh Fermor

Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind, a place we can all go to think and learn.
Excerpt from the latest Wikipedia fundraising message

Spike: Reddit is a disgrace to humanity but Wikipedia is a little gem—don’t forget that Tim Minchin invokes it in Storm:
Does the idea that one afternoon
On Wiki-fucking-pedia might enlighten you
Frighten you? 
It brightened my life today with two great quotations, the first from Hilaire Belloc, on being asked why he wrote so much: 
“Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar.”
 And the second, which you probably know, from Lord Rutherford:
“All science is either physics or stamp-collecting.”
You come closest to Luddism when you claim that “we did have…encyclopedias written by experts”. What we really had was the Britannica, which had long been prostituted to Chicago and the ranks of the door-to-door brush salesmen. (And I didn’t get that from Wikipedia.) That’s not to say Wikipedia’s perfect—it’s failed me when I needed it for things as varied as chemical vapor deposition to the politics of Graham Greene—but it’s free, whereas the Britannica in the old days must have cost a month’s salary or more, it doesn’t take up any space, and plenty of research has suggested it is not much more inaccurate than the Britannica was. Whether this is a giant leap is another question.

Dr. T: Though I idolise Tim Minchin every bit as much as you do, I’m not sure that a Wikipedia endorsement from him is enough to shake my nagging suspicion that it is doing for all of human culture what David Attenborough did for biology—dumbing it down to the point that any fool can ‘comprehend’ it. The problem with this is that you then create a huge number of people who think they understand, say, evolution, because they’ve got the box set of Life on Earth
Wikipedia hasn’t, surely, made anyone cleverer or even better informed; it has just given a lot of people the illusion that they are suddenly clever and well informed, which is dangerous, isn’t it? Like anything easily attained—and I do realise that this sounds or perhaps just is incredibly pompous—knowledge looked up on Wikipedia is too cheap to have much value. In the end, to the extent that it has any value at all, it relies on the expertise of the real experts and, if we’re not careful, we’ll disincentivise everyone from becoming an expert, which can still only be done the old-fashioned way. Try an experiment that I have had fun with and look up the Wikipedia entry on the ten subjects on which you believe you are personally best informed. Even the entries on evolution and natural selection are obviously written by what a former boss referred to as “your basic C-student”. By the time you get down to subjects that I really know more than most people about, the entries are barely one step above a trip through the square window on Play School. Anyway, judge your entries on their merits, then come back and tell me, if you still believe it to be true, that Wikipedia is a force for good not evil. What would Christopher Hitchens have said?
Spike: You dare attack Saint David of Attenborough? Next you’ll be having a go at that lovely Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu woman, just like Christopher Hitchens (and yes, I did have to go to Wikipedia for her Albanian name, and very efficient it was, too).
Sorry if it may come as a revelation but not everyone on this pale blue dot is as smart as you—surely there is room for a harmless old duffer like Lord Attenborough of Richmond to instill a wonder for nature in the unwashed? You can be very Calvinist in your opprobrium.
Does Wikipedia necessarily dumb down everything? Walk me through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument here, which we were discussing before. Or perhaps you’d like to try your chances with the Kerr-Newman metric? These are not isolated examples of forbiddingly tricky Wikipages—there are thousands upon thousands more out there. Perhaps we should be arguing that Wikipedia hasn’t been dumbed down enough?
Do you think that people, generally, have the illusion that they are suddenly clever because they can access Wikipedia? Is there any evidence for that? Maybe the possession of a fifty volume Britannica fifty years ago made the people who bought it made them feel special, knowledgeable even, because they’d forked over so much money for it and it had pride of place in the sitting room, but do most casual users of Wikipedia feel that way today? Isn’t the absence of that illusion precisely part of the beauty of its being free?
Here’s how I used Wikipedia today—1) for work, I wanted to confirm that the trading house Mitsui & Co. was founded in 1876—it seemed a little late to me—confirmed; 2) for work, but mostly out of curiosity, I wanted to know if the Japanese for “sprawling prewar business combine”, zaibatsu, shared the same Chinese characters as the Korean Hanja (the Chinese form of Korean, as opposed to Hangul) for chaebol, i.e., Samsung—it does; 3) for pleasure, I wanted to know the classical Greek term of rhetoric for an intentional stutter in oratory—for instance, “thousands—no, tens of thousands—of our fellow citizens…” This was trickier; I thought for a while I had it nailed with epanorthosis—but then, maybe not. Wikipedia’s rhetoric pages need attention. But would the Britannica have been better in any way? And can’t we tell when we’re being let down?
We (well, I, which I admit is a narrower class of humanity) peck at Wikipedia for tidbits—noone, other than a desperate teenager, is going to take it as the sum of knowledge. And encyclopedists are supposed to be your basic C-grade student, encyclopedias are supposed to be for plodders or people outside their fields; it’s not for nothing that one of Wikipedia’s warnings is “This article may contain original research”—noone wants that kind of filth in an encyclopedia! Here’s a mirror-image challenge to yours—go and pick ten subjects about which you know next to zero, search them at Wikipedia, and come away telling me you didn’t learn something, however trivial. That’s what encyclopedias are for.
As for subjects that “I really know more than most people about”, well I concede that Japan pages are dire. Here’s one about a place dear to both of our hearts:
“Most of Monbetsu’s economy is dedicated to fishing for cold-water species such as crab.”
All together now, panto style—“Oh no it’s not!”
But, but, but… Would the Britannica have done any better?  
If I concede to you on one point—and I do—it’s that I often catch journos in the act of pulling “facts” off Wikipedia. I recall writing to a friend, in a context I’ve sadly forgotten, “That is mere Wikiknowledge!” A neologism that noone else (Google says, so it must be true) seems to have coined in a pejorative sense. But this is far from a generalized sense of complacency about knowledge, although it does caution for a heightened sensitivity to laziness. And as we know, journalists are basically only one rung up the evolutionary ladder from high-school students.
Dr T: Well, speaking as one iconoclast to another, yes, Saint David of Attenborough has certainly created several generation of wildlife program fans but I’m unconvinced that he has created many natural historians. We tend to find St. D after we’ve caught the bug, not the other way round. I think that St. D is exactly analogous to Jamie Oliver. St. J has not caused more people to start cooking or to raise their culinary game above Spaghetti Bolognese but he has forced Waitrose to raise its game in the ready meals department. For this, I am thankful. But seriously, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to object to misinformation being dispensed by the BBC, do you? In fact, he says, warming to his theme, isn’t your duty to be scrupulously accurate with the facts proportional to your ability to influence public opinion?
Well, I can’t walk you through the maths behind the Bayesian derivation of the Doomsday argument, which is precisely my point. I understand the principle behind Bayesian statistics, which is that you would be wise to take account of what you already know to be true, when estimating the probability that something about which you are uncertain is also true. For example, if you know that chimpanzees and humans are more closely related than humans and jellyfish, you will get a more robust hypothesis about the relationship among chimpanzees, humans and jellyfish when you plug the DNA into a molecular phylogeny program than if you pretended not to know the likely outcome. It’s a way of incorporating existing knowledge into statistical predictions. The Wikipedia entry on the Doomsday argument taught me nothing intelligible that I didn’t already know and the maths assumes far more understanding than I possess. In other words, it fails on every count. It doesn’t add to the understanding of a reasonably well-educated layman (with regard to Bayesian statistics) and it is intelligible only to people who have access to the original research. As an encyclopaedia entry it’s a waste of energy and someone’s time.
Of course Britannica would have done better! You or I could go onto Wikipedia now and amend any article on the basis of our prejudices not our knowledge of the pertinent subject. I’m not arguing that Britannica was an infallible source of knowledge, just that Wikipedia is more fallible and, further, that you have no way of knowing, as a user, whether a Wikipedia claim is true or false. If you want to figure that out, you have to go to the original research. 
I’m not claiming that Wikipedia is useless or devoid of interesting content. Just that you must judge it by its entries on stuff you know about, not stuff you don’t. Of course, if I look up something I know nothing about, say Japanese ceramics, I will read facts about them of which I was previously unaware. But how will I judge the veracity of these facts? One way would be to look at Wikipedia entries on subjects that I do know something about and estimate the percentage that seem to be on the ball (say, being generous, 30%) and apply that percentage to the stuff that I can’t independently verify.  
My fear is that, as Wikipedia and knowledge become synonymous in popular understanding, we will lose the ability to discriminate between truth and plausibility. 
Spike: I think your comment about the ease of amending Wikiarticles reveals that you don’t really understand how Wikipedia works. It’s like a war, there are fiercely contested hot zones, and areas where truces have held for aeons (in Internet time). You go and try an interpolate a comment at the George W. Bush page that says, “In 2010, ex-President Bush was convicted in a Texas court of sodomy and sentenced to three months in prison” and let me know how long it lasts. Or even if you get through the vetting process to be allowed to insert that comment.
Dr. T: It’s true that I have never attempted to write anything on Wikipedia. I think you are missing my point, however, or perhaps I am making it badly. Fans of Wikipedia or other open source technologies, like Linux or Firefox, seem to believe in the “wisdom of crowds”. It’s an open question whether crowds are any wiser than individuals—I’d vote not, but what do I know. Nicholas Carr’s point is that Wikipedia isn’t written by the crowd, it’s written by a cabal, so you get the worst of all worlds. You don’t benefit from the marginal improvements that could be made by the crowd, if the self-appointed censors didn’t forbid it, and it isn’t written by experts. What you get is articles written by people who have nothing better to do than write Wikipedia articles and police its frontiers.
Spike: Now that is a much more forceful criticism than any other you’ve presented me with. I sense Wikipedia’s actually written by a mix of a crowd and a cabal—crowd at the edges, perhaps, cabal at the center. The cabal needs the crowd because of its own epistemological shortcomings. You could easily enough stand the argument on its head, though, in the absence of really hard evidence, and say that you get the best of both worlds. I know, though, that I could greatly improve thousands of Wikipedia articles, but can’t be bothered (did you know that apathetics inhabit the outer perimeter of Dante’s Inferno, just before the vats start boiling?)  
You got me reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget. He has some beguiling one-liners:
“Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity.”
And in what way is that different from a traditional encyclopedia? But actually at Wikipedia, because it’s a constant work in progress, you endlessly encounter those superscripted notes {citation needed} or the magisterial headers “This article has multiple issues”, which are a constant reminder that we are dealing with very human, very fought-over texts. I don’t think Lanier is a careful enough reader when it comes to this.

Postscript: An article in the Free Exchange column of the March 9th edition of The Economist, which surveys a trio of studies that attempt to quantify the “consumer surplus” generated by the wonders of the Internet (although as one study was commissioned by a web-advertising industry group and another partly funded by Google, their integrity must be open to at least a smidgeon of doubt, on the principle that you don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut), handsomely illustrates one of Dr. T’s points. It begins thus (bolding mine):

When her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 1992, Judy Mollica spent hours in a nearby medical library in south Florida, combing through journals for information about her child’s condition. Upon seeing an unfamiliar term she would stop and hunt down its meaning elsewhere in the library. It was, she says, like “walking in the dark”. Her daughter recovered but in 2005 was diagnosed with a different form of cancer. This time, Ms Mollica was able to stay by her side. She could read articles online, instantly look up medical and scientific terms on Wikipedia, and then follow footnotes to new sources. She could converse with her daughter’s specialists like a fellow doctor. Wikipedia, she says, not only saved her time but gave her a greater sense of control. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Much as I am glad that Ms Mollica gained a greater illusion of authority, that is all it is—an illusion. Seven to ten rigorous years of medical training will allow you to converse with specialists like a fellow doctor; one afternoon on Wiki-fucking-pedia might just, if you’re in luck, begin to disabuse you of your belief in homeopathy and other footnotes in the history of piffle but it won’t award you—it beggars belief that anyone has to point this out—a doctorate in medicine.

********************

Digby

Inside Digby

The moment that my edition of Digby Grand: An Autobiography, printed in London by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1890, crossed my threshold, having winged its way from Selkirk in Scotland, not so very far from where Whyte Melville was born, it became, at 123 years old (older, just, than any documented human has ever lived), by far the oldest object in my possession, the family heirlooms, such as they were, having been liberated by an avaricious relative as my elderly parents struggled to squeeze the quart of their accumulated lives into the pint of their final home. The corporeal book, with its faint mustiness, imprimatur of age, and archaic typeface, offers manifold pleasures and opportunities for speculation that no e-reader will ever match: was, for instance, Katherine M. Hope, whose name appears on the front paste-down, the same Katherine M. Hope who appears in the 1881 Scottish census as born in 1879 and resident in Clackmannanshire? What would she, an impressionable eleven if the book’s first reader, have made of the dissolute youth of Digby Grand? There’s a palpable thrill, too, as the first pages fall open, that one is about to be inducted into a secret camaraderie: how many people alive and under fifty have read Digby Grand? A hundred?

Manifold, too, are the pleasures within: while there is much hunting, not a little shooting and even some fishing, a great deal of slaughter of the beasts of the field, of “flying covey and dodging coney”, and fulsome tribute paid to “a capital horse, with as crack a pack of hounds as England could produce”, Digby Grand is not, primarily, a “novel of the sporting field” but a Bildungsroman, in which our eponymous hero bids to negotiate the hazards of polite society, in the shape of characters with near-Dickensian names, Mrs. Man-trap, Captain Lavish, Lord Growler, Sir Harlequin Hauteboy, and Dr. Driveller, and its tapestry of temptations, from “enormous consumption of provender and wassail”, “oceans of claret”, “bumper after bumper of Bordeaux”, and “jorums of mull” (this is not a novel likely to appear on the recommended reading list of the British Medical Association) to card games from whist to lansquenet and écarté, on which the stakes wagered are staggering, a dissipate world (“it was usually twilight before I found myself dressed for the morning”) in which it is not always easy to distinguish between “a deuced ticklish fellow” and “a devilish good fellow”, one where Beau Brummel is the dandy’s model, and one in which Digby lives so far beyond his means that he laments that “I found my personal income was about sufficient to fund me in gloves, blacking, and cigars.”

The mood darkens: debts mount, creditors pursue, Digby flees; captured, he becomes “a prisoner of the law” and is reduced to penury. A friend dies by his own hand, driven to insanity by the gaming-table and Play, “firstly the seductive pastime, then the invincible habit, lastly the despotic infatuation, from which there is no escape.” Penniless, with “the charm of youth dispelled”, Digby learns of the death of his estranged father, as improvident as the son, and that of the ancestral home, Haverley Hall, and its contents, “everything must be sold”. Rescued by the Victorian deus ex machina of a chance encounter with an old friend, Digby becomes a respectable wine-merchant: “the days of coxcombry are gone by, the sun of dandyism is set.” Finally, about to marry, Digby—or is it Whyte Melville?—issues a stinging repudiation of Epicureanism: “How many a noble intellect and gallant spirit is at this moment wasting his energies on the most unworthy and unsatisfactory of all employments, the pursuit of pleasure!”

In this, Whyte Melville is in deep dialogue with Horace, whom he has translated three years’ before, or at least the Epicurean side of Horace, the one most familiar to the modern ear through the marble epigrams of “carpe diem” and “nunc est bibendum”, but perhaps nowhere more charmingly expressed than in Ode I.IX, Vides et Ulta, often known as the Soracte Ode, a carmina so knotty and dense an entire book of exegesis has been devoted to it, addressed to what may have been Horace’s catamite, Thaliarchus (“master of festivities”), and marking, according to translator David West, the latter’s passage from boyhood and the love of Horace to manhood and the love of girls.

You see Soracte standing white and deep
with snow, the woods in trouble, hardly able
to carry their burden, and the rivers
halted by sharp ice.

Thaw out the cold. Pile up the logs
on the hearth and be more generous, Thaliarchus,
as you draw the four-year-old Sabine
from its two-eared cask.

Leave everything else to the gods. As soon as
they still the winds battling it out
on the boiling sea, the cypresses stop waving
and the old ash trees.

Don’t ask what will happen tomorrow.
Whatever day Fortune gives you, enter it
as profit, and don’t look down on love
and dancing while you’re still a lad,

while the gloomy grey keeps away from the green.
Now is the time for the Campus and the squares
and soft sighs at the time arranged
as darkness falls.

Now is the time for the lovely laugh from the secret corner
giving away the girl in her hiding-place,
and for the token snatched from her arm
or finger feebly resisting.

World War One—indeed, one poem, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est—went a long way to killing off Horace in Britian; the war claimed Whyte Melville, too, his uncomplicated paeans to Merry England, his scant acknowledgement of “the lower orders”, and his superannuated vocabulary—Digby Grand must surely be one of the last unironic outings in literature for the Chaucerian “yclept”, as in “one of those solemn outings yclept a county ball”, a ball where the revellers are no mere revellers but “votaries of Terpsichore”. (Why are lexicographers so assiduous in tracking down first usages but not last ones?) Whyte Melville was reprinted twice, once in the 1930s and again in the 1980s, but not by mainstream publishers, and that, in the era of the e-reader, where everything is free (or nearly free) but nothing has value, will be that.

Digby Grand is not without its faults—Whyte Melville has but tepid hands for metaphor, and the jabs at sententious profundity (“What a mercurial thing is youth!”, “Fortune…seldom fails to assist those who assist themselves”) are those of a cheerful bantamweight—but the overarching difficulty for the modern reader (at least one with sufficient reserves of respect to deeply understand that the past truly is a foreign country and they do indeed do things differently there) is that Digby Grand, despite being genre fiction (dread words!), is a demanding read.

(In this context I savour the sole review for any of Whyte Melville’s “802” works at amazon.com:
“The premis is a good one but this book is written like Homer’s Illid. It is simply impossible to read as written. The prose is something out of the second century and try as I might I could only get through 4 chapters. I finally had to put it away as I simply could not keep any intertest. Frankly, it was painful to read a single page and enjoy it. I suggest before you put down any money you read a page or two. The entire book is just like those few pages and if that type of prose keeps your interest…….well your attention span is much more patent than mine.”)

It’s true, you need a patent attention span. Here’s a sentence that caught my eye, but “the entire book is just like” this. Digby—don’t ask why—is sailing down the Saint Lawrence River in Canada with one of his early ladye-loves, Zoë de Grand-Martigny (Digby, and I suspect Whyte Melville too, is possessed of a severe case of Francophilia):

As we steamed along that broad unruffled surface, glistening like burnished gold in the setting sun, and studded with islands of every size and shape, from the undulating mass, whose rocks and woods stretching away into the distance, made us fancy we were coasting on the real bank of the river, down to the tiny islet, reflecting on its wavering mirror the single fir-tree for whose solitary growth alone it could find room; as we glided through this region of enchantment, and paced the deck by our two selves in the drowsy air of the summer evening, no wonder that Zoë and I both felt the influence of the hour, and that in tones lowering more and more as we trenched further upon the dangerous ground of sentiment and romance, we breathed forth whispers that had far better have been left unsaid, and gave way to feelings that should rise again like ghosts of the past to embitter with their shadowy mockery the uncared-for ‘days to come.’

What thwarts the modern reader here is not the vocabulary—only “trenched” gives any pause, and is easily replaced by “impinged” or “broached”—nor even the sheer length of the sentence, which weighs in at 167 words, but the syntax, the thirteen commas, single semi-colon, and above all the hundred words’ worth of multiple embedded subordinate and sub-subordinate clauses before the predicate, which, notwithstanding the disputations of the grammarians, I take to be “felt the influence of the hour” and which appears close to two-thirds of the way to the finishing line, pushed back toward the end of the sentence in a typically Latinate manner. Dickens, Whyte Melville’s contemporary, largely bereft of a formal, let alone classical, education, is in this respect much more palatable to the modern reader.

This predicate push, I am reminded from a recent column by George Will, whose politics I do not share but whose prose, bookish yet well tailored, sardonic and lapidary—a favourite word of his—I do admire, can be used to great comedic effect, as in the opening sentence of Leave it to Psmith (1923) by P. G. Wodehouse, a fellow Old Alleynian.

At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.

Compare, if you care (and I think you should), those two instances of syntactic complexity, both from popular and not explicitly literary fiction, one 90 years old and one 160, with the opening sentences of the top 10 paid fiction best-sellers at the amazon.com Kindle store, which as of this writing were these:

1)    There were two things in life that scared the ever-loving crap out of me.
2)    Being left at the altar is not for sissies.
3)    The hell of it was that it couldn’t have been a better day for flying.
4)    It’s not every day I get a naked girl answering the door I knock on.
5)    There was a knock on the door then just the small shuffle of feet.
6)    On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group.
7)    As Kate wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair.
8)    When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
9)    “I told you she would be beautiful,” Decebel held the baby girl in his arms and stared down at her with more adoration than Jen had ever seen in anyone’s eyes.
10) It was done.

We have been reduced to an impoverished world of syntactic flatness, of polder-like tedium. That’s not to say great literature cannot be wrung out of this staccato simplicity—see Hemingway, or Raymond Carver—but if we exist solely in a plantation monoculture of uniform cedar-prose, then we remorselessly rob ourselves of the neurological dexterity required to engage with almost everything written more than a generation ago. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

Now that the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen, authors will adapt once more. They will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as “groupiness”, where people read mainly “for the sake of belonging” rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favour of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.

The faintest vestiges of Whyte Melville linger in Britain: there is a public house, The Whyte Melville, in Boughton, Northants, located in a former residence of his, a memorial fountain in St Andrews, Fife, named after him (he captained The Royal & Ancient Golf Club in 1851), and a lawn bowls club in Moulton, Northants, which bears his name. One of his poems, The Good Grey Mare (“I have lived my life – I am nearly done – / I have played the game all round; / But I freely admit that the best of my fun / I owe it to horse and hound”) was the 1884 inspiration for name of the equestrian magazine, Horse & Hound, still, astonishingly, in print and which bears, I believe, Whyte Melville’s lines on its masthead to this day.

After much sleuthing, I track down a reference to Whyte Melville in Forty Years On (1968), the debut drama of Alan Bennett, Beloved National Institution (subcategories: northern, English, working-class, gay; see also Russell Harty) and at 78, one of the stately homos of old England. I read the play first as a teen—was it this reference that sent me scurrying to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, all those years ago? Set in a second-rate boarding school, Forty Years On is a state-of-Albion treatise, deeply suspicious of a modern world in which “country is park and shore is marina, spare time is leisure and more, year by year” yet also ill-at-ease with the brutalities and injustices of the past, and at its climax a schoolboy reads from a lectern an abridged Whyte Melville poem, titled (according to Bennett) Lines Written in Dejection, a poem of remarkable and unwavering melancholy—or shot through with the maudlin sentimentality characteristic of the age, according to your fancy.

A child in the nursery crying,
A boy in the cricket field – out,
A youth for a fantasy sighing,
A man with a fit of the gout.
Some sense of experience wasted,
Of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted,
And of pain that did him no good.
The sum of a life expended,
A pearl in the pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended,
And what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow,
The journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow
And a lie carved deep into stone.

In the play, the poem serves perhaps as both a threnody for the failures of the retiring headmaster and an elegy for the passing of an age. Entranced, I try to track down the complete poem, scouring Whyte Melville’s two collections of poetry, Songs and Verses (1869) and Hunting Poems, but draw a blank. More detective work uncovers full versions of the poem, in varying states of corruption, across a rag-tag assortment of long vanished North American newspapers: The Geneva Gazette of January 19, 1877, the Brooklyn Daily Union-Argus of March 27, 1877, The Waterloo Advertiser from Canada of April 30, 1880, The Day, “a Republican evening newspaper” from New London, Connecticut, of November 5, 1891, The Plattsburg Sentinel of November 6, 1891, and finally, the poem having hiked its way west, The Salt Lake Herald of February 19, 1894. In most instances it is titled The Story of a Life, and in all but one, where the author is given, confoundingly, as “Temple Bar”, it is unattributed. Here is a tidied up, composite version, although not, I suspect, one completely ridden of corruption:

A child in the nursery crying—a boy in the cricket field, “out!”
A youth for a fantasy sighing—a man with a fit of the gout,
A heart dried up and narrowed—a task repeated in vain,
A field plowed deep and harrowed, but bare and barren of grain.
Some sense of experience wasted, of counsel misunderstood,
Of pleasure, bitter when tasted, and pain that did him no good,
Some sparks of sentiment perished—some flashes of genius lost,
A torrent of false love cherished—a ripple of true love crossed,
Some feeble breasting of trouble to glide again with the stream,
In principle void as a bubble—in purpose vague as a dream,
A future hope half-hearted, for dim is the future now—
That the triple crown has parted, and death is damp on the brow,
And a debt is to pay by the debtor—a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse,
A feeling he should have been better, a doubt if he could have been worse,
While the ghostly finger traces its ghostly message of doom,
And a troop of ghostly faces pass on in a darkened room,
With ghostly shapes to beckon and ghostly voices to call,
And the grim recorder to reckon, and add the total of all,
The sum of a life expended—a pearl in a pig trough cast,
A comedy played and ended—and what has it come to at last?
The dead man, propped on a pillow—the journey taken alone,
The tomb with an urn and a willow, and a lie carved deep in the stone.

One final slender thread connects the living—us—with Whyte Melville. The last poem in Songs and Verses, Goodbye!, is a bleak autumnal serenade.  

Falling leaf and fading tree,
Lines of white in a sullen sea,
Shadows rising on you and me;
The swallows are making them ready to fly,
Wheeling out on a windy sky.
Goodbye Summer! Goodbye, Goodbye!
Hush! A voice from the far away!
“Listen and learn,” it seems to say,
“All the to-morrows shall be as today.”
The cord is frayed—the cruse is dry,
The link must break, and the lamp must die—
Goodbye Hope! Goodbye, Goodbye!
What are we waiting for? Oh! my heart!
Kiss me straight on the brows! And part!
Again! Again!—my heart! my heart!
What are we waiting for, you and I?
A pleading look—a stifled cry.
Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

This was later crafted into a song by the Italian-British composer Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) and later—much later—sung by Canada-born Hollywood starlet Deanna Durbin in the 1946 film, Because of Him. Two years later, disenchanted with the machinations of the movie industry, Durbin upped sticks with her husband to the life of a near-recluse in a farmhouse outside Paris, from which she has only given one interview these past six-plus decades and where she remains, a nonagenarian pushing 92, an emissary from an utterly other world.

********************

Otsukaresama. As I mentioned at the outset, this is the last ever Spike ramble. I’m bored, to be honest, with Japan, the Japan of Abenomics and AKB47, of The Idolmaster and super-deformed anime, of bullying and territorial tantrums and constitutional revisionism. It’s not all—not at all—Japan’s fault: my interest waxes and wanes in multiyear cycles and right now I’m waning gibbous, bored of writing Japan this, Japan that, Japan the other, bored more than anything with seeing everything through the narrowing and distorting prism of a nation-state. In most of the ponderables I’ve been mulling over the last year, from, say, “What caused the last five mass extinctions of life on Earth and will knowing the answers shed any light on the coming, sixth one?” and “Would it be possible to construct a sociobiological approach to literary criticism?” to “What, if any, are the artistic implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics?”, the word Japan does not figure; nor does it figure more than tangentially in any putative answers.

More than that, however, I’m disillusioned with much of the Internet, while fully cognizant that little of Spike could have been written without it. I’m tired of the Internet’s stalkers and spammers, the rule of its lynch mobs and witch hunters, the whinnying of its millions of saloon-bar donkey-bores, betraying their unthinking ignorance with every bray, and the incivility it engenders, even in mild-mannered me; tired of the degradation of art to “content”, monetized or not; tired of the ten thousand tech bloggers panting to live-blog the release of the latest phablet (a word which, if you haven’t already encountered it, is coming very soon to your lexicon, like it or not); tired of the grin given me by Jeff Bezos, who, having donned cassock and surplice, is about to administer, gleefully, the last rites to the book on its deathbed, tired of his “fulfilment center” warehouses, tired, so tired already of his Kindle I bought to research this piece, loathing everything about it from the fatuity embodied in its Paperwhite name (paper, at least the paper books are printed on, is not white, it’s ivory to cream) to its assassination of the integrity of the page to the way it froze a fortnight out of the box; tired of the relentless destruction (156,000 US Postal Service jobs gone in the last five years) and the absence of meaningful creation; tired by the erasure of the past, by the all-pervasive decontextualization, and by the way so much is written, stripped down, in C. K. Ogden’s Basic English; tired by the 250 milliseconds, less time than the 400 milliseconds it takes to blink, that will dissuade people from visiting a website if has a quicker loading peer; and tired by the way the Internet panders tirelessly to our false new twin idols of convenience and cheapness. I’m tired of mindless technophiles and technosnobs, such as this writer in the January 26th Economist, and their laughable visions of progress:

The iTV, which may be controlled by via gestures and voice commands as well as via iPads and iPhones, could be a digital hub for the home. It would let people check whether their washing machine has finished its cycle while they gossip on Facebook and watch their favourite soap.

But above all, I’m tired by the Orwellian undertones the telescreens of the Internet are beginning to assume. I could go on; indeed, I could go on at book length, but I’ll leave you, obliquely, with this.

There was a small bookcase in the other corner, and Winston had already gravitated towards it. It contained nothing but rubbish. The hunting-down and destruction of books had been done with the same thoroughness in the prole quarters as everywhere else. It was very unlikely that there existed anywhere in Oceania a copy of a book printed earlier than 1960.

1984, George Orwell

For a book as supposedly well known and widely read as 1984, this passage garners very few citations on the Internet, which makes me wonder—and worry—about the depth of the conversations we have. Noone (in their right minds) would suggest that the West, or any fraction of it, is about to become a totalitarian state ruled over by IngSoc, but if we blithely surrender our libraries, both public and personal, as we seem with alacrity to be doing, to digitization by the Lords of the Cloud, then where will reside the control of the past? Not with you or me. None of the AGFA quartet of lords—Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple—is even middle-aged, two are teenagers, and one is still in short trousers. You might assume, as do their self-appointed overlords in their self-perceived benignity, that they’ll be around forever, immune to overthrow by more malign forces. It seems unlikely.

“What shall it be this time?” he said, still with the same faint suggestion of irony. “To the confusion of the Thought Police? To the death of Big Brother? To humanity? To the future?”
“To the past,” said Winston.
“The past is more important,” agreed O’Brien gravely.

1984, George Orwell

Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention—although I will. There’s many a half-finished essay moldering in the bowels of the desktop, from ones for which I took all the photos, such as Utsunomiya: Nest of Loansharks, but neglected to do the requisite but intimidatingly vast research into Japan’s consumer-finance industry, to ones with barely more than a title, such as Thirty Minutes to Toyota, about the dreariness of life in Toyota’s home prefecture of Aichi. But you don’t want to hear about the ones that got away.

Learnings? Aplenty. In the last four years, I’ve learned a lot about extremities, having visited, in the course of the performance of my writerly duties, the easternmost, northernmost, westernmost, and southernmost points of mainland Japan. Much more than that, though, I’ve learned the hard way how hard it is to write hard—how anything more than a thousand or so worthwhile words a day is well-nigh impossible, at least for me.

All that now remains is for me to give a tear-fragile Oscar speech in miniature: I’d like to thank Financial Times journalist Lindsay Whipp for the article that first gave impetus to Spike; The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Economist, thebrowser.com, and the other media outlets who have kindly profiled or linked to or featured Spike; everyone who, however briefly, has perused these pages; everyone who has taken the trouble to leave a comment, and in particular Jeffrey, Troy, and my fiercest critic, Kyushu Ranger; and above all Dr. T, aka Torquatus, aka Alphatuosity, my intellectual sparring partner—although with him, I often feel like a Whyte Melville pugilist punching feebly in a class above my weight.

“There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past,” he said. “Repeat it, if you please.’”
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” repeated Winston obediently.
“Who controls the present controls the past,” said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. “Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?”
Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial.

1984, George Orwell

Goodbye, forever?—Goodbye, Goodbye!

Kiyosato: High plains drifter

(part two of two)

“My brother dabbles in stocks,” said the winningly frank B&B landlady, slight, short-cropped, and in her mid-sixties, as she caught me leafing through the Nikkei over morning coffee on the terrace.

“Only as a hobby, mind. He’s retired now. He was a salaryman, back when times were good.” She meant the Bubble.

“But us self-employed folk, with our meager pension pots, well, we’ll just have to keep working until we drop.”

She would have had a little more in her pension pot, I reflected maliciously, if she hadn’t amassed the vast collections of ceramic clowns and brass reception bells arrayed in the lobby—not the last time that day I was to come face-to-face with the obsessions of the collector.

“We had a French intern with us this summer. After the accident, she was the only one in her class to come back. Loves it here, she does, wants to get a job here after she graduates. But things aren’t the way they used to be, are they?” I agreed they weren’t; they rarely are, these days.

“What brings you to Kiyosato?”

“I was wondering what there is to do here.”

“Do?”

“Yes, do. In Kiyosato.” Aside from letting a Jersey ice-cream dribble down your fingers while rifling through knick-knacks in the last few souvenir emporia.

“Well, there’s golf. Putting courses, park golf, real golf, we’ve got it all.”

“Not much of one for golf, I’m afraid.”

“Tennis?”

“I’m on my own.”

“There’s skiing, in winter of course.”

“In winter.”

“Down at Cote de Vert, you can pet farm animals and let your dog off the leash, let it run free.”

A pause ensued.

“Here,” she said, handing me a local brochure, “you can read.”

After meandering the highways and byways for a day, at least five distinct ecosystems in Kiyosato revealed themselves: the tumbledown center, built up and brought low by the Bubble: the farmers—of corn and cabbages and cows—who have their own sad tales to tell, some forebears having arrived before the war from dam-flooded villages near Tokyo and some forebears after the war, repatriates from ill-starred settler colonies in Manchuria and elsewhere in the empire, forebears who found scratching a living from the unforgiving high plains almost intolerably hard at first; the owners of besso holiday homes, homes that run the gamut from rustic pine dachas to old-money piles with private tennis courts and hypermodern concrete-and-glass affairs; a crescent of lavish dormitories to the north-west belonging to universities—Meiji, Aoyama Gakuin, and Nihon—and to Tokyo commuter-belt cities—Tachikawa, Fuchu, Chofu, Kodaira, and Hino, short stays at which are free for their lucky residents; and a community of potters, weavers, woodworkers and other artisans in the cheaper, lower foothills to the south-east. The economy will truly have to fall into rack and ruin before the farmers, the bessoites, and the dormitory sojourners feel much anguish, and it is they who provide the residual flicker of vitality, although none of them can be of any comfort to the hoteliers and little to the restaurateurs.
Then there were the museums.

Down a long and winding lane that swung between fields of corn, now as high as an elephant’s eye, and prim and proper besso, stood the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, which likes to style itself K*MoPA. The staff were stiff, the echoes were cavernous, and the lavs were marble. Museum-goers were notable only by their absence. The exhibition, titled Great Spirit: Photographs of Curtis, Sardar-Afkhami, and Yagi, showcased the early twentieth century “noble savage” Native American photos of Edward S. Curtis, some jaw-clenching and jaw-dropping Mongol images by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, of whom I’d never heard, and in a sop to the locals, some tepid Aleut shots by Kiyoshi Yagi.

Of as much interest, though, was how the museum could possibly finance itself. Its negligently maintained website reveals superfluously that its restaurant, La Premiere (I did say we were very French around here) closed in 2006. I sat where its terrace had been, sipping a watery vending-machine coffee. Its resort facility, Patrie (I did say), closed at the same time—it was clear the museum was now clad in concrete clothes far too big for its shrunken dimensions. Its funding sources and ownership structure have defied my best attempts to prise them out, however, so I can only conclude it is a yakuza money-laundering front.

***

Down at Cote de Vert (I did say we were very French, if grammatically inaccurately so, around here), lay another museum, the unimaginatively named Kiyosato Bokujodori (“Ranchroad”) Antiques. This was more of a one-woman affair; in her mid-fifties, the owner fussed intrusively over slipper provisions while revealing she had lived a decade and a half in Australia. The second-floor museum, dedicated largely to old Noritake porcelain, was half shop; the first floor was all shop. As an occasional though now largely dormant collector of ceramics, mostly somber Bizen-yaki and neoclassical celadon, I have strong opinions about old Noritake: most of what remains should be piled in a heap in the road and run over by a fleet of steam-rollers, although I would spare the occasional late pre-war Art Deco piece, such as this sugar bowl.

It wasn’t wholly the fault of the Noritake company, to be fair; they were catering to fantastically depraved late Victorian tastes. The owner explained that some eighty percent of old Noritake went to the US, ten percent to the UK, and ten percent to the UK colonies; nowhere was the attempt to accommodate local sensitivities better on display than in this plate for the Australian market, depicting a pair of not very lifelike Kookaburras sitting in the old gum tree.

I wondered about the impulses behind the retrieval and repatriation of old Noritake: by my book, at least, it is severely subtracting from rather than adding to Japan’s GDP (gross domestic pulchritude).

“So what did you like the most?”

“The Satsuma-ware was quite attractive.” Although at $6,000 or so for this tea caddy, it was just out of my price range.

“Oh yes, all the foreigners like that. It’s so colorful, gaudy even.”

Your old Noritake is not a model of understatement, I thought to myself.

“I’ll be closing for winter next month. I spend six months here and six months on the road abroad, collecting.”

“Nice life.”

“Oh no, not at all!” She recoiled, horrified at the accusation, and I made my excuses.

***

Damned hard to find, the Kiyosato Museum of Contemporary Art was an implausibly modernist confection to come across at the end of a rutted gravel road best navigated by a four-by-four. By “contemporary”, the curators meant bleeding-edge avant garde from World War One Duchamp Dadaism through to Christo’s wrapped “environmental art”, with an accent on the High Dadaesque Modernism of Fluxus (“purge the world of bourgeois sickness”) and John Cage from the fifties and sixties. Their clock had stopped in 1990 or thereabouts; there was nothing “contemporary” on show at all. Most ultramodern art has always struck this determined middlebrow as the province of charlatans, fraudsters, and conmen, and there was little the museum offered to change my mind, although I was smitten with Christo’s oil drums,

Bernard and Hilla Becher’s beautiful typologies of functional industrial ugliness,

and this shot of the lunatic Lithuanian George Maciunas, Fluxus guru and inadvertent pioneering gentrifier of New York’s SoHo warehouse district, unsung hero to the bourgeoisie he professed in his too short life to despise. 

As intriguing as the art on its floors and walls and doors was the museum itself, which, in betrayal of any minimalist aesthetic that might be associated with much of modernism, was brimful to bursting with piles of posters and books and assorted paraphernalia.

Clearly the museum was the product of a very personal mania; while there were no truly costly works on display, no Duchamp Fountain, say, or Yves Klein monochrome, the collection must have cost a small fortune to assemble. In an annex at the back, a man in late middle age, leafing through a catalogue, struck up a conversation.

“We don’t get many foreign visitors. Where are you from?”

“Britain.”

“Oh, Britain’s been very helpful to us,” he said with a gratitude that made me feel personally responsible for the assistance rendered.

“Sotheby’s offloaded some Beuys

for us a while back. The thing is, the museum can’t truly pay its way, not on the admission fees. The season’s so short, the visitors are gone by October.”

“That’s my brother.” He gestured at another man in late middle age, leading around a small tour party, whose members were also uniformly in late middle age. “He built this place, twenty years ago. I retired and joined him last year.

“Japanese people,” he harrumphed, “they’ve got no time for modern art. Thirty seconds in here is enough for most of them.”

I tried an upbeat tack. “But things were different back in the sixties, weren’t they? More folk were interested in those days, no?”

“Not really. Most people were only interested in getting rich. It’s a shame. I lost my house building up this collection. Now I guess we’ll have to sell up and close down in a few years, if things go on this way.”

There can be little doubt that things will go on, kono mama, in this way. To have spent one’s adult life acquiring, accumulating, above all collecting, and to be faced in old age only with dissolution, the brutal whittling away of what was so patiently and painstakingly amassed; well, it would be more than this curatorial heart could bear.

***

Like its better-looking and better-off sibling, Karuizawa, whose flagging fortunes were reputedly restored by a Scottish-Canadian theologian, Alexander Croft Shaw (1846-1902), a foreign missionary godfather (of a later generation) was instrumental in the development of Kiyosato: American Paul Rusch (1897-1979), who orchestrated the construction of Seisenryo, a “Christian fellowship youth retreat” in Kiyosato in 1938. It’s fitting, if regrettable, that otherwise godless Kiyosato, devoid of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, a once creamy cheesecake slice of the foreign set upon a native plate, should have had a Bible-thumping mentor.

At the now sprawling Seisenryo complex, there were suddenly tourists, busloads of them shipped in on daytrips from the plains to do not very much, save buy trinkets and slurp ices and admire Mount Fuji from afar.

Busloads, but not busloads enough to save the heart of Kiyosato from an aortic aneurysm.

There were other, still more curious attractions to explore—The Japan American Football Hall of Fame and the Dormouse Museum (“no live dormice were used in the creation of this exhibition”, the sign assured)—but for museumed-out me they would have to wait. A faint fondness for Kiyosato welled up as I prepared to take my leave: where else in the world, after all, can you run across a mid-sixties Mazda whimsically plomped on the roof of a roadside flower-shop shipping container,

a searing photomontage condemnation of Adolf Hitler by John Heartfield/Helmut Herzfeld (1891-1968), Nur keine angst, er is vegetarier,

and still be home in time for tea?

 

Kiyosato: High plains drifter

Hey, I can hear it, the Eros of Mozart
The romantic breeze is the violin
Wait for the Eros of Mozart to touch you
When it pulls the strings of your heart
A gorgeous September
Pink no Mozart, Seiko Matsuda (1984)

I got an inkling of the pastel troubles in store when I left the Chuo Expressway at the Sutama interchange in the northernmost Yamanashi city of Hokuto, an artificial 2004-2006 amalgam of eight towns and villages provoked by ruinous local government finances, and turned right up Rte 141, only to find that the very first roadside structure was an abandoned gas station,

which fell in combat so recently it remains on the latest maps, followed in immediate succession by an abandoned ramen noodle and gyoza potsticker place, fronted by a Merry Land ice-cream stand,

next to which reposed an abandoned yakiniku grilled meat eatery, Tomato.

A couple of hundred yards further up, a sweetly smiling blue-and-white concrete cow with a mysterious pastel-pink door in her chest lured me, Alice-like, down a sideroad to an abandoned karaoke parlor, Moon River 69, its name an unholy collision between Hank Mancini and Sonic Youth,

which jutted out over a nameless sun-dappled stream and moldered on next to an abandoned high-Bubble wedding hall.

Another couple of hundred yards further up, and right on cue, came the abandoned pachinko parlor.

All that was missing from this concatenation of desolation was an abandoned convenience store—but there’d be a few of them to be found over the next couple of days, I wagered.

Back in the eighties, there were three summer retreats (避暑地, “escape-heat-land”) of choice for sweltering plains-dwellers: Karuizawa in Nagano, which has thrived thanks to its bullet-train link to Tokyo, Nasu in Tochigi, which has survived thanks to the luster thrown off by the presence of an Imperial villa, and Kiyosato, which is in its last death throes.

A wreath for your dreams, I muttered to myself on entering town. Odd and crumbling edifices not to be found in the lowlands, such as a rotting mock-up of a Wild West wagon that might have once served as a putting-course ticket-booth, were strewn across the sides of Rte 141, but the first truly Olympian ruin was One Happy Park, a cyclorama of despair.

A man with a brush-cutter scythed tidily away at weeds that pushed up with irrepressible life through the cracks in the paving. It must have been sweaty work, as he was clad in boots, gloves, a face-mask, and a neck-flap hat, for late-summer insects do not take kindly to having their late-summer abodes destroyed, and after a while the reaper rested.

“When was this place built?”
“It must’ve been on the border of the Showa and Heisei eras, I suppose.”
“So that would be around 1989,” I ventured, but he had no concept of the Western calendar and merely shrugged.
“And when did it close down?”
“I guess it was about four years ago the last shop shut.”

I wondered about the precision of his recall—there was a dormant crêperie (who can forget the eighties crêpe boom) that appeared to form part of the complex and which bore a sign “Since 1979”—but even if the pastel palette of the fake windows above the gift shops dates us to the early rather than the late eighties, the miserable brevity of One Happy Park’s life is testament to the spectacular ephemerality of the Kiyosato boom and bust.

I strolled along the rusting colonnade, admiring the signs.

Oh yes, Petit (pronounced “puchi”) Road—we were all so high and mightily French back in the eighties, weren’t we? It was “puchi” this and “puchi” that and “puchi” the other. Impressionable and affected youth went so far as to append an honorific prefix to the name of the honorable country—“Ofuransu”. Japan, you see, was going to become a lifestyle superpower, just like France. Crêpes, it was rumored, if ingested frequently enough and in sufficient quantity, would turn your very blood and bones French—and you would then have no compunctions about loafing around at the beach for the whole of August. A wistful backward glance at One Happy Land is enough to show just how that dream turned out.

It struck me that One Happy Land would make the perfect stage for a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, rescored with glutinous idol melodies of the eighties, starring Seiko Matsuda as Brünnhilde, Hiromi Go as Siegfried, and Onyanko Club as the Rhinemaidens. I could already hear a parade of what I dub Seiko Matsuda’s “no” hits streaming through the mind’s speakers: “Tengoku no Kiss” (A Heavenly Kiss), “Tenshi no Wink” (An Angel’s Wink), “Boy no Kisestsu” (A Season for Boys), and my favorite, “Pink no Mozart”, to name but a few. A more fitting backdrop could scarcely be imagined, as it was the legions of Seiko-worshipping burikko airheads with their Seiko-chan haircuts that decamped to Kiyosato in droves to stay at meruhentic pensions and plunder cute goodies by the designer bagful that were responsible for the boom, the irony being that the career of Seiko Matsuda, known as the “Everlasting Idol” (and also, curiously, as the “King of Idols”) has outlasted that of the town to which her idolatrous fans—now, like her, pushing fifty—once thronged.

The main street of Kiyosato forms a hind dogleg with the station at its knee. Up the foot arch, an old hotel was held together with string and hope and glue.

I parked up at the top end of town in the municipal car park, which had space for a couple of hundred vehicles; I was the second car in at three in the afternoon (and I suspect the other one belonged to the car park attendant). Yes, it’s a weekday, I told myself, yes, high season is only a memory, but even so… Strolling back into town, I crossed the tracks of the Koumi line, the cause of at least some of the travails of Kiyosato.

A lovely little line, to be sure, the Koumi, with all sorts of records (including nine of the ten highest stations on the Japan Railways network) to get train geek tickers beating faster, but despite all the fanfare that attended its 2007 debut of a hybrid train, not a line that can deliver swarms of pleasure-seekers to resorts at any speed, and in a nation that pays everlasting homage to the deities of convenience, it chugs and ambles and puffs its way across the mountains with inconsiderate leisure; indeed, its neck would have been on the chopper years ago if, post-privatization, East Japan Railways had really been run, to the delight of its shareholders but to the misery of the rural elderly, as a profit-maximizing private-sector enterprise, as the line loses roughly Y200 for every Y100 it takes in.

Just over the crossing, the One Happy family took me to its bosom again, this time with a plaza rather than a park.

Freeze-thaw in spring and autumn, the deep freeze of winter, and the deep heat of summer are exacting a swift and brutal toll on gimcrack and neglected Bubble-era construction. Never have I seen so many uri bukken property-for-sale and kashi tempo store-for-lease signs clustered together; this one, desperately delusional in its bid to flog off one of the shops in the One Happy Plaza complex, Norwegian Blue dead and far beyond the most heroic cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts, is framed by a backdrop of local milk bottles.

Architecturally, the predominant Kiyosato style might be described as Rococo fairy-tale whimsy; in the case of the enigmatically named and very defunct Green Prab, with a dash of salty Victorian seaside thrown in for good measure.

This trio—jolly tree ogre, toadstool, and cheery snail—have become, in death, the symbol of the whimsical mayfly life of Kiyosato. That fly agaric, the toadstool that inspired the design, is both poisonous and psychoactive and hence a humbling metaphor for toxic Bubble-era hallucinations, of which Kiyosato is one of the most delirious, was an irony not lost on this observer.

As the mountain shadows deepened, I strolled the length of the main street, crossing paths only with a couple in early retirement, struggling with words for each other. Half of everything was definitively shuttered; some businesses, in the shame of defeat, carried somber signs protesting that they were readying to open or that this was their weekly day off, but returning later or the next day, the same signs were still in place. Could Kiyosato really once have been known as the “Harajuku of the highlands”, after the impeccably coiffed Tokyo fashion mecca?

At the junction of Rte 141 and the Kiyosato turn-off, the world had ground to a halt: inky shadows consumed a pachinko parlor, gone nigh on a decade by my reckoning, brush reclaimed a karaoke joint clad in white clapboard, restaurants and museums and hotels of every hue lay felled like giants slain by a horde of Jacks.

Writing in the commendably eccentric Wonder Japan magazine of one hotel, the Sunpark Hotel Kiyosato, whose ruination is most advanced and whose entranceway is pictured above, author and haikyoist Toru Kurihara relates how Kiyosato, like some Impressionist painting or Italian sports car, was enmeshed in the net of the Bubble:

Other tourist spots had genuine tourist assets—hot springs, historical buildings, giant waterfalls—but the attraction of Kiyosato was largely status. The very act of going there was the objective: young women would snap up armfuls of gifts as proof of their visit and brag of their trip while doling them out to friends and family.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Wow, cool! I wanna go too!”
Just to be able to utter these words imbued a sense of superiority—the trip’s mission was accomplished.
But then there came a time when no one felt jealous any longer.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Eh? To do what?!?”
Naturally the objective couldn’t be attained if there was no sense of superiority to be gained. There was no lingering sense of comfort and ease you get from a hot-spring resort, no sense of being moved by a giant waterfall. Western food that you could get in Tokyo—it didn’t even taste good, it was just pricey. And then there were the trashy souvenirs you bought at the shop of some has-been celebrity or over-the-hill idol, for which you had no use when you got home. Asked if you wanted to go there again, the answer was naturally “no”.
So disappeared the crowds of people so thick they made walking hard, and the shuttered streets that make the town so quiet now tell of how the illusory values of the Bubble have vanished and things have returned to their normal state, just the way they were before. Sun Hotel Kiyosato embodies the waxing and waning of that era.

This being statistics-drenched Japan, it was easy enough to dredge up the data in which to drape the decay: by 1998 visitor numbers in the Yatsugatake area, the jewel in the crown of which was once Kiyosato, were down 60% from their peak just a decade earlier in 1988 (the year Seiko Matsuda notched up the last of her twenty-four consecutive number ones), and have continued to slide, albeit at a gentler pace, dropping to 5.1mn in 2009 from 5.9mn in 2002. Most shocking of late, though, has been the collapse in overnighters, to 550,000 in 2009 from 935,000 in 2002, a slump of 40%, as purse-strings have been pulled ever tighter.   

As darkness fell, the fey apparitions of the Bubble took on more ghastly demeanors: the lamp-lit milk-pot was a distended bladder, full to bursting, ready to spray noxious liquid on passersby

and the exoskeletal church, an innocuous pastel-pink by day, was now a monstrous robot arthropod programmed to kill and primed to attack.

Later, though, I was to learn of some sunnier microclimates in the otherworldly biosphere of Kiyosato…
(to be continued)

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part three of three)

The gardens of the real Paleis Huis ten Bosch were never finished; obviously that would not do for the hyperreal Paleis Huis ten Bosch. The hyperreal sent Professor Treib into rapture: “a magnificent tunnelo encircles the principal parterre, itself kept in eloquent trim.”

A gilt plaque at the entrance to the gardens carries the words of Yumi Katsura, bridal mother since 2006, who would like you to know that:

Here I declare this land as “Lover’s Sanctuary” to impart the joy and the magic of encounters, blissful marriages, and raising a happy home. I send my blessings to your encounters and wish you a wonderful future.

Belonging only to a single lover, the gardens must be a solitary sanctuary.

Much of the Paleis is open to the public; while once its exhibits may have served to educate, today they came across, bereft of explanation, as a folkloric freakshow.

More cutouts, these two to inform you that a modern Dutchman, at 184cm, is considerably taller than his 17th century forebear, at 160cm.

In many rooms, either the inspiration of ideas or the perspiration of money had run out.

Then suddenly, breathtakingly, in the midst of kitsch there was art, art that had somehow snuck past the sullen sentries of bad taste guarding the perimeter of the park. The room equates to the Orangezaal (Orange Hall) in the real Huis ten Bosch, which looked like this in a 1650 painting by Caesar Van Everdingen:

Huis ten Bosch was built in the mid-17th century for Princess Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, a grandmother, incidentally, of King William III of England, who after the death in 1647 of her husband, Stadtholder Frederik Hendrik, the freer of the Republic from the Spanish boot, had the central hall of the palace converted into a mausoleum in his memory, covered with allegorical murals glorifying the triumph over the Spanish by a dozen of the most celebrated artists of the day.

Queen Beatrix baulked at a reproduction of the Orangezaal in Japan, perhaps feeling that it was too private, perhaps feeling that it was too martial. Thwarted, Kamichika and company turned to a former director of the Rijksmuseum, Simon Levie, to commission a contemporary Dutch artist, and he chose Rob Scholte, known in some quarters as the Dutch Andy Warhol, who had recently gained notoriety for a parody of Manet’s Olympia in which the recumbent woman is replaced by a wooden puppet.

Scholte’s reaction, as Levie explained what the Huis ten Bosch of the east entailed, was one of someone grounded in fashionable critical theory:

I immediately thought: this seems absurd, this is postmodernism in its purest form.
(Ik dacht meteen: dit lijkt me absurd, dit is postmodernisme in zijn zuiverste vorm.)

The massive 1,200m2 mural, Après nous le Déluge, took four years, 1991-1995, to complete, the project delayed by a hand grenade that exploded under Scholte’s car outside his Amsterdam studio in November 1994 and resulted in the amputation of both his legs in a case of mistaken identity, a bombing which ironically prevented the mural from being unveiled, as intended, on August 9, 1995, the 50th anniversary of another bombing, that of Nagasaki. 

Après nous le Déluge is at once provocative and playful: provocative in its stridently apocalyptic vision of warfare in an Orangezaal for an anti-war age, playful in the way it toys with reproduction—in its appropriation of Golden Age painters—and originality, with its Dutch traffic light chandeliers and its bicycle pump cordon posts, topped by a marvelous trompe l’oeil cupola which serves to submerge the naval battles on the walls, and by so submerging them, consigns them to history. In its interplay of reproduction and originality it stands as a commentary, half-amused perhaps, perhaps half-affectionate, on the theme park in which it finds itself.

All realist art, in which the Dutch Golden Age excelled, aspires to be a trompe l’oeil. In his 1642 pamphlet, Praise of Painting, Dutch painter Philips Angel recounts approvingly the Greek legend, as told Pliny the Elder, of the rivalry between two painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so real that birds would peck at them, while Parrhasius, determined to outdo his rival, invited Zeuxis to inspect one of his paintings, covered with a curtain. Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to draw the curtain aside, but the curtain was the painting, and Zeuxis confessed himself vanquished, exclaiming, “Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself!”

Theme parks, too, aspire to be a trompe l’oeil, escapist landscapes deceiving the consenting visitor into a willing suspension of disbelief in both space and time. Strolling around Huis ten Bosch, I found it easy enough to summon up the mental elisions necessary to gloss over the asynchronous putter of the internal combustion engine and the anachronous cha-ching of the cash register, to drift in and out of a 17th century, albeit one scrubbed neatly clean of pox and pestilence, disastrous inundation and public execution, war and art. Space was a different matter, though, as an un-Dutch world made endless intrusion. At one moment, the intrusion took the shape of a too elegantly Oriental arrangement of fronds and fenceposts outside a Japanese restaurant.

At another, it was the view from the Domtoren over grim military housing for the local US naval base, Fleet Activities Sasebo.

The grinding heat and humidity, coupled with the backdrop of mountains, were constant reminders that we weren’t in Groningen anymore. When dawn came the next day, the sky was so low and the rain came down in sheets so thick that it was hard to tell if night had left off and day had begun, as islands reared up in Omura Bay like the backs of giant prehistoric crocodiles and billows of cloud hugged the mountains around the bay as if emanations from some undousable subterranean fire destined to burn forever. No, this definitely wasn’t Groningen anymore.

While I’ve scarcely set an adult foot in the Netherlands, I was weaned on Golden Age art, courtesy of the local picture gallery, and above all the landscapes of long-forgotten artists like Aelbert Cuyp, Philips Wouwerman, and Meindert Hobbema, where for instance windmills are not charming scenic adornments, their phony sails electric powered, but mighty instruments of dominion over water, as in The Mill at Wijk by Jacob van Ruysdael in the Rijksmuseum,

and this was a huge hindrance to the suspension of disbelief.

Before I set out for Kyushu and Huis ten Bosch, I told a female colleague not known for mincing words where I was going. “Eeeh, yada! Norimono bakari.” Ew, yuck! It’s just rides. How wrong she was. There are almost no rides, indeed very little for kids to do at all, and that was Kamichika’s intention, for Huis ten Bosch was meant to be a theme park for adults, and especially perhaps for what the Japanese, torturing a noun out of a French preposition, call “avec”, young courting couples. At some point, though, someone had realized the error of this but, lacking funds, tacked on a feeble funfair that has now been stilled.

In what a state of delightful innocence the creator of Corky must dwell.

Huis ten Bosch has been beset from the outset by three great failings: the failure of geography, the failure of underinvestment, and the failure of conception. The failure of geography we’ve dealt with: tucked away in a hard-to-access corner of Kyushu, its catchment area shrank hard and fast once the Bubble fashion for extravagant airborne weekends of indulgence gave way to the sobering realities of the hangover. The failure of underinvestment was a necessary consequence of the extortionate amount Huis ten Bosch cost to build. Without unending investment in novelty, theme parks cannot attract the repeat visitor, and in Japan, still the land of shinhatsubai, the freshest and newest on sale, novelty matters. Most grievous of all, though, has been the failure of conception: while I adore the humility in riches of the Dutch Golden Age—surely no other place and time has scripted its history so diligently and beautifully in its art—and abhor the vacuity and disingenuity of Disney’s “The Happiest Place on Earth”, I realize that most people are not like me, and Huis ten Bosch has always lacked a compelling theme and the characters to go with it. While Disneylands have Mickey and Minnie and a cast of thousands, while Universal Studios has Spiderman and Shrek and Sesame Street, to name but a few, Huis ten Bosch has, well, Miffy.

Not that Miffy is a bad little rabbit to have on your side. In a 2008 interview in UK newspaper The Telegraph with Miffy’s creator, Dutch artist and illustrator Dick Bruna, journalist Horatia Harrod reports that Japan is home to Miffy’s most ardent fans and her most lavish consumers:

In Bruna’s studio there are gifts from children all around the world, but most numerous are the cards artfully crafted from patterned paper, and flocks of origami birds which are sent for good luck. When Bruna goes for his morning coffee, he says, ‘there are often Japanese people waiting there—they know’. And when he toured Britain on Miffy’s 50th anniversary, he was followed from venue to venue by a middle-aged Japanese woman who sported a Miffy painted on each cheek.

It’s just that Huis ten Bosch seems incompletely capable of exploiting the Miffyverse, with its 118 picture books, to the full, to say nothing of Miffy’s friends, Boris and Barbara Bear and Poppy Pig, who are nowhere to be found. Where were the Miffy rides? Where were the adults dressed as Miffy ready to pose for snapshots with excited children (and middle-aged women)? Where was the Miffy experience?

Travel agency H.I.S. took over Huis ten Bosch in April 2010, and here and there were signs of investment.

An encouragingly quadrilingual hoarding announced that a haunted house was about to open.

An exhibit, running for three months, replicating famous scenes from the long-running TV anime One Piece, was also about to open.

At the February 2010 news conference announcing the takeover, H.I.S. Chairman Hideo Sawada exuded a breezy confidence: “We aim to take the firm into the black in as early as two years. We are 99% sure we will succeed.” Plans include an H.I.S. call center, enabling the company to cut its own costs, an outlet mall, and a business center. In an August 2010 interview with The Nikkei Weekly, Sawada offered an incisive enough analysis of the problems of Huis ten Bosch:

I think it is essential for a successful theme park to have not only a good location but also characters and content attractive enough to make visitors want to come again. The old Huis ten Bosch was just a rehash of good old Dutch streets. A single visit was enough for people. For the newborn Huis ten Bosch, we plan to lure a diverse range of companies, making use of its vast stretch of land.

There have been early glimmers of success: visitor numbers leapt 24% on the year in the Golden Week holidays in late April and early May and 38% over the summer. But before we break out the champagne to celebrate the rebirth of the phoenix of Huis ten Bosch from the ashes of insolvency, some words of caution are warranted. In its FY10/10 results, H.I.S. crowed:

Therefore, the company [Huis ten Bosch], which was included in the scope of the consolidation this year, recorded Y5,570mn [$67.8mn] in sales but an operating loss of Y113mn [$1.38mn] for the period from April 1, 2010 to September 30, 2010. However, the company recorded a recurring profit of Y429mn [$5.22mn] for the period, for the first time ever since its establishment, and was able to form a base of profitability.

What H.I.S. doesn’t deign to tell us is what caused the remarkable turnaround from the loss at the operating line to the profit at the recurring line. My bet is that it was almost certainly the subsidies from Sasebo. Far from having “a base of profitability”, Huis ten Bosch remains effectively in the red, even with the jump in visitor numbers.

H.I.S. said in February 2010 it planned to invest only Y2bn ($22.2mn), with local worthies such as Kyushu Electric Power stumping up another Y1bn, altogether less than a third committed back in 2003 by Nomura, which also enjoyed a dead cat bounce in visitor numbers when it took over, and although H.I.S. has Y46.3bn ($564mn) in cash stashed away, its pockets will not be bottomlessly deep. As early as September there was a hint in the Nikkei that its budget for investment is already being whittled down. 

If Huis ten Bosch presented a desolate spectacle by day, then by night, with the day-trippers gone, it gave off a still more despondent air. A lugubrious rain came on, and I bought a made-in-China Huis ten Bosch umbrella whose spokes broke at the first gust of wind. Muzak, of which there were at least half a dozen types, from jauntily fluty to accordion schmaltzy, noodled on and on. Being at Huis ten Bosch was like being put on hold by a corporate call center—for eternity. There was live muzak to be had, too. 

A pair of Frenchmen sawed and crooned their way through Maurice Chevalier’s Sous les Toits de Paris to the faintest smattering of applause. These were the only foreign entertainers I came across, the rest having been dismissed—like many hundreds of the Japanese staff—long ago. As Elvis felt with his New Amsterdam, so I felt with mine: it had all become much too much, and I had to step on the brakes to get out of her clutches. 

I retreated to the wholly deserted Bar Astral at the ANA Hotel to make some acerbic, gin-sodden notes, one of which reads, “Huis ten Bosch is an idea so monumentally and catastrophically bizarre that it can hold its head high in the exalted company of the greatest delusional fantasies of all time—Operation Barbarossa, say, or Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Softened by the passage of time and the accumulation of research, Huis ten Bosch is now in retrospect my most beloved example of a favorite kind of place, one like Seagaia that clings tenaciously by its fingertips to the cliff of life, against all odds. Of one thing we can be certain, though: until Huis ten Bosch, the greatest artifact by far of those crazy eighties years, finally fails or flourishes, the boil of the Bubble will not have been lanced from the body of Japan for good.

What chances of survival for Huis ten Bosch, still very much in the intensive care unit? As a fan from childhood of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I’d put them at worse than even, but only time, envious time, fortune’s Ferris-wheel, and the efforts and the wallets of all now involved will tell. I fear, though, that the plans of H.I.S. are incoherent, no better than the heavy application of lipstick on a pig. I fear that the shackles of the Bubble fetter escape from the miasmas of the past. I fear, Huis ten Bosch, that only Miffy—and Jude the Apostle—can save you now.

Postscript: There remains one loose end that needs to be tied. Whatever happened to the creator of Huis ten Bosch, Yoshikuni Kamichika? He’s still around. Runs his own management consultancy. Shouldn’t that be “mismanagement consultancy”? Calls it the Eco Research Institute, trading on Huis ten Bosch’s largely spurious green credentials. Looks like every other salaryman pushing seventy. If you met him on the street, you’d have no idea of the joy he brought and the trouble he caused.

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part two of three)

The first sign on the squally Sunday on which I visited that something was still rotten in the state of Huis ten Bosch came at the admission gates: of the 22, just two were staffed.

Since birth, Huis ten Bosch has been hamstrung by its location on the westernmost fringe of mainland Japan, but the plan now—as it has been since the Nomura days—is to turn that to its advantage by playing the China card. As the crow flies, Sasebo is closer to Shanghai (800km) than it is to Tokyo (960km). With the Boston Consulting Group forecasting in November 2010 that “the population of China’s middle-class consumers will increase from 150mn to more than 400mn over the next decade”, the China card seems a promising one to play—indeed, the entire Japanese tourism industry is trying to play it—and on the day I visited, maybe a quarter of the visitors were from the Sinosphere.

The Chinese were easy to spot: they foraged in larger flocks than the Japanese, in much the way for which Japanese tourists were mocked a couple of decades ago. They seemed contented enough, taking endless group portraits in front of the Domtoren, but will they rave about their experiences to friends? China Daily reported recently that China has 2,500 theme parks already, with Shanghai Disneyland due to open in 2014, adding that only a quarter are profitable—a sign that the lessons of Huis ten Bosch have not been learned.

While the ostensible theme of Huis ten Bosch is the Netherlands of the good old days—though some say it is Europe as a whole—it has been muddied down the years, as was evident by the presence of a North American interloper, the teddy bear. There were teds everywhere: concrete bondage teds,

XXL teds sporting suggestive leers,

out and proud teds,

and horseback-mounted teds clinging on for dear life.

In the cheese farm, Boerenkaas, with its little cheese clogs, hung little cheese people.

But wasn’t Huis ten Bosch one gigantic farm of cheese?

Outside the cheese farm, I ran into a hitherto unsuspected evolutionary development in bovine sexual dimorphism, with the sorely chipped adult Friesian bull half the size of the udderless heifer.

WINS Sasebo was not your granddad’s betting shop, old men enshrouded in plumes of smoke, licking stubs of pencils and crackling newspapers, pinning their hopes on She’s A Goer in the 3.30 at Chepstow.

A sprinkling of punters watched a giant screen of thoroughbreds being paraded in a paddock.

In the foyer, posters thundered against the evils of nomiya, unlicensed—and therefore illegal—bookies, many—maybe most—with links to the mob, who graft a dishonest living by being a little less greedy with their margins than the whopping 25% pari-mutuel take of the Japan Racing Association. House WINS again. Like monopolists the world over, the association is fervent in the protection of its monopoly.

At a very generous guesstimate, there were 10,000 fellow visitors with me on the day I was there but they are soon swallowed up in a place the size of Huis ten Bosch, and away from the tourist honeypot of the Domtoren, the streets were deserted—the theme park as ghost town, an edited cityscape that has expunged human tumult just as surely as the primacy given to architectural draughtsmanship in the Dutch Golden Era paintings of Jan van der Hayden (1637-1712) did.

How very different Huis ten Bosch must have been in its mid-1990s heyday, when ex-Python Michael Palin paid a visit in the course of making a TV travelogue, Full Circle:

I walk around, one of the four million annual visitors, and marvel for a while at the thoroughness of it all. Architectural detail is precise and well-crafted. There are occasional glimpses of actual Dutch people mainly engaged in ethnic activities, such as the cheese carriers or the bicycle band. The bicycle band is worth the price of admission alone. There is something almost transcendentally surreal about seeing a woman dressed in a large white bonnet, dirndl, black stockings and clogs riding a bicycle and at the same time playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on a trombone.

At its apogee, Huis ten Bosch employed more than 100 Dutch denizens to engage “in ethnic activities”, and tidbits like this might encourage the uncharitable observer to view the theme park as an unparalleled exercise in Occidentalism, not dissimilar in kind to the kowtows before Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the “dog shogun”, that German naturalist Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1716) reported the Dutch residents of Dejima were obliged to undergo on 20 April, 1692, almost three centuries to the day before Huis ten Bosch opened:

The shogun asked [the translator] to welcome us, have us sit upright, take off our coats, state our name and age, get up and walk, first act and dance, and then sing a song and pay compliments to each other, punish each other, get angry, prevail upon a guest, and hold a conversation. …

We had to play husband and wife, and the women laughed heartily about the kiss. Then we had to show how we saluted people of lesser rank, women, nobles, a king. After that, they said I was to sing another piece by myself, and I did this to their satisfaction by singing two, which all liked so much that they asked whether one had to learn this as an art. Then we had to take off our coats, and one after the other step in front of the blinds and bid farewell in the most exuberant fashion, as we would to a king in Europe, and after that we left. Judging from people’s expressions and laughter, they were all very pleased.

Except that in this demotic age, the obeisance was not to the shogun but to the masses, the inhabitants of a nation that had recently been crowned the wealthiest in the history of humankind, from one that had once held the title.

This exercise in Occidentalism, if that is what Huis ten Bosch is, was willed into being with the full complicity of those being objectified, from Queen Beatrix—who tops a very short list of celebrity visitors that unsurprisingly includes Michael Jackson—on down.

This cartoon pastiche decal of the Groot Rijkswapen, the coat of arms of the Netherlands, was created with the full permission of the Dutch royal family.

Not only were the canal streets devoid of life; so were most of the houses that lined them. One of Huis ten Bosch’s innovations was to have the theme park run entirely from the inside—unlike a Disneyland, say, there is no backstage, everything is mise en scène—so a few of the houses are given over to the nuts and bolts of the operations, but most are empty, their net curtains rustling behind leaded windows an attempt to conceal the purloined sham of the Potemkin village, a Potemkin village more immaculate and elaborate than any purportedly built to deceive Catherine the Great.

The lifeless neatness of Huis ten Bosch was beginning to gnaw and grate, and I could feel myself succumbing to a drowsy dullness of spirit that had me recalling some choice lines of William Gibson, that lover of the interstitial and the ill-at-ease, from his 1993 essay on Singapore, Disneyland with the Death Penalty:

But still. And after all. It’s boring here. And somehow it’s the same ennui that lies in wait in any theme park, but particularly in those that are somehow in too aggressively spiffy a state of repair.

As the ennui swept over me, I grew consumed by an irrational hatred, not of Kamichika and his vision, but of the stolid worthiness of the Dutch that had been his inspiration.

Such liberal people, the Dutch, a little blunt in their forthrightness perhaps, but really a beacon of hope for humanity. Why, some of my best friends are Dutch. Some of my relatives even, although only by marriage, I hasten to add. Everyone loves the Dutch, don’t they?

Not in the 17th century they didn’t. To the citrus-enriched seafarers among their Spanish overlords, scurvy, long before natural gas, was the original Dutch disease. To the Chinese, the Dutch were the terrifying hongmao Red Hairs, feared even more than the Japanese wokou Dwarf Pirates, more shocking than the—at least decently black-haired—Portuguese aoyi, the Macanese foreigners, and only one rung up the racial ladder from African slaves, known as heigui, Black Ghosts. The French weren’t all fans, either: a hack, Pierre le Jolle, writing for the Marquis de Louvois (1639-1691), the French Secretary of State for War, six years before 1672—the Dutch rampjaar, the annus horribilis of the French invasion in which the Marquis was instrumental, the year that marked the end of Dutch exceptionalism—dismissed the wonders of its capital, wonders that another Frenchman, René Descartes, in exile in 1631, had described as “an inventory of the possible”, with contempt:

Amsterdam, quoi qu’on loue
Est faite de merde et de boue
(Amsterdam, where’er you look,
Is made of shit and mud)

But no one hated the Dutch more than the English. The English fought three almost wholly naval wars against the Dutch between 1652 and 1674, winning the first, losing the second and the third, but as often happens, winning the peace. As England, a nation mad for war, readied in 1665 for the second encounter, the cry of “No clogs!” went up among English yeomen, supposing themselves freeborn and the Dutch peasantry to be enserfed. After a few hours at Huis ten Bosch, the cry began to resonate.

Andrew Marvell recycled a poem, The Character of Holland, written in the English republican interregnum, to serve the now royalist English cause:

Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,
As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand;
And so much earth as was contributed
By English pilots when they heav’d the lead;
Or what by th’ ocean’s slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrack’d cockle and the mussel-shell;
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety. 

Glad then, as miners that have found the ore,
They with mad labour fish’d the land to shore;
And div’d as desperately for each piece
Of earth, as if’t had been of ambergris;
Collecting anxiously small loads of clay,
Less than what building swallows bear away;
Or than those pills which sordid beetles roll,
Transfusing into them their dunghill soul.

The Dutch, long before the French, were the frogs to the English, as historian Simon Schama relates in his interpretation of Dutch Golden Age culture, The Embarrassment of Riches:

In the bestiary of popular xenophobia, the Dutchman was still the gross and comical Nick Frog, the “son of mud who worships mammon” and who needed a periodic drubbing to be reminded of his lowly station among the mighty of the world.

Some of the fear the Dutch inspired was due to the Republic’s tolerance—encouragement even—of religious heterodoxy.

“Is there a mongrel sect in Christendom,” complained another of Cromwell’s propagandists, “which does not croak and spawn and flourish in their Sooterkin bogs?”

[The republic] was, then, an organic menace, the “pestiduct of Europe” through whose conduits the poison of individualist skepticism might infiltrate the body politic of the European monarchies. Just as with the later, analogous anti-Semitism, Hollandophobia was possessed by a liquid terror. Commerce was the vector by it supposed the toxins of unbelief to be carried through an infinity of ducts and waterways, canals and capillaries: unstoppable, formless and lethal. 

Reeling in my—wholly synthetic—anti-Dutch sentiment, I began to notice how grievously Huis ten Bosch was fraying at the edges. Accounts from the mid-1990s zenith speak variously of 58 or 60 restaurants; by my count, from the guide map, there were only 22 left.

The still purring escalator at the World Food Plaza in Utrecht carries the unsuspecting promenader to a second floor on which not a single restaurant of the dozen or so once there remained in business: Korean Restaurant Seoul had served its last bibimbap, French Restaurant Bistro la Tour had poured its last vin rouge, and Viking Restaurant Omoyai had laid out its last buffet. Outside Tea Shop Naka no Chaya, an apologetic sign claimed that this was a temporary closure, for the purpose of refurbishment, but the gathering dust told a different story.

Another apologetic sign: this one says the Great Voyage Theater closed at the end of June, but neglects to mention the year—2008. The theater was described—and damned—by Professor Treib thus:

A nod in the direction of children is the Great Voyage Theater, large-screen film presentation of the sea voyage from Holland to Japan in the 17th century. The audience is set within a boxed area, which can jerk, shake, and shimmy in accord with the roughness of the seas and the severity of the perceived storm. These presentations are, for the most part, neither interesting nor impressive…

Down at the marina, still more restaurants had gone under, including Paella Restaurant Nueva Cataluña—poetic justice that the dish now most symbolic of the despised Spanish oppressors was no longer available (even though in the 17th century it had not yet been created). 

Yet another apologetic sign, this one in the vestibule of the Hotel Den Haag, informs passers-by that the hotel will be taking a break for a while, as if it were a resting actor between engagements, from July 1. On this occasion, the omitted year is 2009. Surely, I mused, surely the tourists can smell the must of the mildew, the stink of putrescence, the fear of failure?

As with the restaurants, so it was with the museums, which numbered around a dozen at the mid-1990s zenith and which by my measure were down to two.

The Porcelain Museum was not one of the survivors, although in this case the only way to tell was to tug at the doors. Porcelain, of course, is as Dutch as tea isn’t English, but it was the great prize of the East Asia trade in the 17th century—not initially the early Japanese porcelains, which only began to be fired years after the capture of Korean potters in the 1592-1598 invasions of the peninsula, but Chinese porcelains from the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, and especially the blue-and-white, with its brilliantly vivid colors, hard and lustrous glazes, and the walls of the finest pieces so thin they were translucent when held up to the light. Between 1600 and 1650, Timothy Brook imparts in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, the ships of the VOC ferried some three million pieces of porcelain to Europe—roughly ten for every Dutch household of the day.

Kamichika chose to ignore the Dutch preference for Chinese porcelain over Japanese. A credulous Chicago Tribune correspondent, Merrill Goozner, reported on his extravagant buying sprees, reminiscent of Citizen Kane for San Simeon, in 1993:

Company President Yoshikuni Kamichika, a connoisseur of Kyushu ceramics, scoured Europe to repurchase dozens of the world’s finest examples of Imari pottery, manufactured in nearby Arita and exported to Europe from the 17th through 19th centuries.

Langedijk, a Dutch auction house, had seen its last hammer go down. It was then I realized, in an irony so beautiful that if it could take human form, it would be a catwalk model, that Huis ten Bosch, the finest efflorescence of the most massive speculative mania in history, was a tribute to the nation and the era that was home to the mother of all bubbles, the Tulipmania of 1634-1637.

Disciples of the religion of the efficient market hypothesis and followers of its Christ, homo economicus, would have you believe that Tulipmania “was no more than a meaningless winter drinking game, played by a plague-ridden population that made use of the vibrant tulip market”, as Peter Garber writes in Famous First Bubbles: The Fundamentals of Early Manias, but something strange and new to the world must have been in the air in Haarlem and the other loci of the tulip trade in the plague-wracked and fear-drenched winter of 1636-1637 to drive the price of even common or garden bulbs such as the Witte Croonen from 64 florins for half a pound in January 1637 to 1,668 florins on February 5, the very last day of the mania, and then back down to 37.5 florins in 1642.

That the world’s first bubble should have been in the humble tulip strikes the modern eye as ridiculous, but tulips were still an exotic novelty in 1637, having arrived in Europe from Turkey only in 1559 and in the United Provinces only in 1593. At first the tulip was an aristocrat among flowers, the most prized cultivars being multihued “breaks”, the result of infection with an aphid-spread tulip-specific mosaic virus not then understood at all, with the prince among them the fabled Semper Augustus,

already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb by 1623, when a skilled artisan might hope to take home 200 florins a year. Soon the tulip was being associated with worldly folly: Amsterdam merchant and moralist Roemer Visscher used tulips to illustrate the epigram “a fool and his money are soon parted” in his Sinepoppen (Dolls for the Spirit) as early as 1614.

A confluence of factors conspired to cause Tulipmania, chief among them perhaps the advent of the world’s first sophisticated financial markets. Almost as soon as the Amsterdam Stock Exchange had been established, speculators were conducting organized bear raids, short selling the stock and spreading malicious rumors about the health of the company, and dealing in shares not in the possession of the seller, an act known as windhandel or “trading the wind”. Tulip bulbs themselves are only out of the ground between June and October; Tulipmania revolved largely around contracts for future delivery in what was one of the first formalized futures markets. With tulips needing seven years from seed to flowering bulb, there had been time for six tulip harvests between 1593 and 1634, increasing supply and variety, abetted in the early 1630s, narrates Simon Schama, by a “second generation of horticulturalists [with] aggressively entrepreneurial ambitions”. Trading innovations in the tulip market such as bulk weight contracts severed the link between prices and specific bulbs, reducing the level of expertise required to participate. More generally, trade was flourishing and there had been a huge increase in the supply of coin and bullion in the years leading up to the mania. Bubonic plague may have played a walk-on role, too, by spreading indifference to fate in the face of death: the plague took a third of the population of Leiden in 1635 and a fifth of the population in Haarlem between August and November 1636, just as tulip prices began their astronomical ascent.

As with many subsequent bubbles, a premonitory crash occurred in October 1636, which Earl Thompson, in Tulipmania, Fact or Artifact, ascribes to the victory of the Swedish alliance over the Imperial alliance at Wittstock October 4, 1636, in the Thirty Years’ War, reversing the fortunes of the German states, important tulip consumers—but perhaps it was merely due to the Mark Twain effect

Soon tulip prices were setting fresh highs, though, with a Semper Augustus now fetching 4,600 florins and a coach and dapple gray pair, worth around 2,000 florins alone.

A. Maurits van der Veen, in The Dutch Tulip Mania: The Social Politics of a Financial Bubble, tells of the auguries of collapse:

Things went sour in Haarlem first, on February 3. … Members of a college [groups of traders who met at taverns] decided to test market confidence by putting up for sale amongst themselves bulk quantities of common tulips—Switsers or Croonen. Just one buyer made any bids in three successive sales, and each of the sellers accepted his offer, even though the sum he offered was successively 15% below, 25% below, and finally 35% below recent prices for comparable bulbs. News of this precipitous drop in prices spread like wildfire throughout town, and the next day trading came to a complete halt, with traders simply staring at one another in stunned silence.

By the weekend of February 7-8, 1637, Tulipmania was over: the dearth of price data for the following weeks and months suggests that much of the market had simply evaporated. That the crash did not cause general suffering was due to the localized nature of the mania, which only involved a few hundred collegians, and an orderly resolution in which the futures contracts were converted to options contracts, relieving buyers of the unconditional obligation to buy the future tulips, with the option price eventually set at 3.5% for November 30, 1636 onward.

Inevitably, Tulipmania was followed by tulip-phobia. Anna Pavord, in The Tulip, writes of an unnamed professor of botany at Leiden, who “grew so to loathe them that he attacked them savagely wherever they stood, thwacking them with his cane”. Satirists of every stripe, from pamphleteer to printmaker, went swiftly to work.

In painter Hendrik Pots’ Floraes Mallewagen (Flora’s Car of Fools), Flora, dressed as a courtesan, clasps a cornucopia of tulips in one hand and three prized blooms, Semper Augustus, General Bol, and Admiral van Hoorn, in her other. Attending her are a trio of florists in jester’s costumes festooned with tulips, one brandishing his moneybags and another drinking to the gullible. A jester’s cap decorates the flag at the back of wind-chariot, while tacked to the mast of the chariot is the flag of the kermis festival, the verkeerde wereld, the world turned upside down, with an inverted cross attached to a globe. One woman weighs bulbs as the other, dubbed on a later print Idle Hope, releases a bird, Idle Hope Flown Away, while at the rear of the chariot burgers trample their looms, symbols of honest toil, and beg to be let on board as out in the shallows the wreck of the mania is foretold by a crew deserting their foundering chariot.

But we have strayed, I am well aware, far from Huis ten Bosch. Somehow I found myself down at the dockside, not thinking of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe, but of the even older days of Bakumatsu end-of-shogunate hero Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867)—for it was he in the cutout. Japan was going through one of its episodic infatuations with all things Ryoma, this time occasioned by Ryomaden (The Legend of Ryoma), the 49th Sunday night Taiga Drama serial on state-run TV broadcaster NHK that ran through most of 2010, and Huis ten Bosch was piggybacking the boom, with an exhibition for which they wanted an additional Y500 ($6.50) on top of the Y4,700 ($57) I had already forked out for my tokutoku special value ticket. The tenuous connection between Ryoma and Huis ten Bosch is the ship in the background: Ryoma is considered the founder of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the ship, a three-mast paddlewheel schooner, is a 1987 replica of Japan’s first steam warship, Soembing, gifted by the Dutch in 1855 and renamed Kanko Maru (観光丸) after a line in the I Ching, kankoku shi ko (觀國之光, to view the light of the country), which also happens to be the origin of the word tourism (kanko, 観光) in Japanese, although not, oddly enough, in Chinese. Ryoma, visionary modernizer and unifier though he may have been, cuts too parochial a figure to be the savior of Huis ten Bosch: whatever could the Chinese tourists have made of the cutout?

(to be continued)

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part one of three)

“By God,” says he, “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.”

Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy, in response to Dutch mopping-up operations along the length of the English coast in the aftermath of the Republic’s triumphant Raid on the Medway in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), quoted in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19th July, 1667 

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

Charles MacKay, preface to the 1852 edition of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

 

So…

Picture the scene: you’re on Family Feud (US) or Family Fortunes (UK), and the oily host summons you to go head-to-head with a member of the opposing family. “Hands on the buzzers, please. Top eight answers in this round. We asked 100 people…to name something associated with Holland.”

Suppress lewd thoughts of red-light districts, window brothels, and sex clubs—this is a family show—and quick, the buzzer!

Canals

Tulips

Clogs

Windmills

Cheese

Dykes

Bicycles

Cows

And that, in essence, is Huis ten Bosch, a $3bn theme park answer to a quiz show question nobody asked.

Monumental in its conception, extravagant in its execution, and epic in its failure, Huis ten Bosch is the greatest by far of all of the progeny of Japan’s Bubble era dreams.

Sprawling as it does over 152 hectares (375 acres) of Omura Bay shoreline in the western Nagasaki Prefecture city of Sasebo, the park is more than three times the size of Tokyo Disneyland and still bigger than Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea combined, awing the resident-visitor of these cramped lands with its sheer scale. Add in the 250 holiday homes in the 50-hectare Wassenaar zone, named after a chic suburb of The Hague, and the entire development is roughly the size of the Principality of Monaco. A 5km stretch of highway and the administrative district Huis ten Bosch occupies have been named after it, as has a station on the Omura line, seen here with the gargantuan 330-bedroom ANA Hotel (where I stayed) in the background.

So vast are the lands on which Huis ten Bosch lies it even has its own gas station within the park precincts, to serve the fleet of archly retro vehicles that ply its streets—one model, the Subaru Sambar Classic, was developed just for the park and later offered to the public.

The best place from which to gasp in marvel at the audacity of Huis ten Bosch is the 80m high observation deck of the almost facsimile replica of the Domtoren of Utrecht, at 112.5m the tallest church tower in the Netherlands.

At 105m, Huis ten Bosch’s Domtoren was when erected the tallest building in the prefecture, and for now remains its single tallest structure.

From the Domtoren looking north, with in the foreground the 328-room Hotel Europa, the setting for director Juzo Itami’s 1992 yakuza satire, Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion, for which he was beaten and slashed by three hoodlums just days after the movie opened and may, in 1997, have paid with his life in a mobster murder dressed as suicide. In the background to the left is the mothballed 228-room Hotel Den Haag, while in the background to the right, above the 105 low-slung grey rental villas of the Forest Park, is Paleis Huis ten Bosch (“house” “ten”, “boss”, “House in the Woods”), a near carbon copy of one of the four official residences of the Dutch monarchy and home to Her Majesty Beatrix, by the Grace of God Queen of the Netherlands.

From the Domtoren looking west into the Binnenstad district of Amsterdam, with Prince Willem Alexander Square, named after the current Prince of Orange and heir apparent to the Dutch throne, in the foreground, and the 202-room Hotel Amsterdam housed in the quadrangle to the right.

From the Domtoren looking southwest, with the shopping malls of Binnenstad in the foreground, the amusement quarter of Nieuwstad in the center, the windmills of Kinderdijk back and to the left, and in the top left corner the ANA Hotel, which lies just outside the park.

From the Domtoren looking south, with the ANA Hotel now top right. In the foreground are the ornamental flower gardens of Friesland, so named perhaps because, as with the real Friesland, there’s not much going on. Center picture is the Japan Racing Association’s off-course betting emporia, WINS Sasebo, modeled—externally at least—after the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and only opened in 2002. Back left in cream with a gray mansard roof is the 388-room Hotel Nikko, also outside the park. That completes our tour of the hotels of Huis ten Bosch, which all told have nearly 1,500 rooms.

Before we descend to earth to sample the delights of Huis ten Bosch close up, some back-story is called for. There are two back-stories, actually, the deep one and the shallow one. The deep one begins in the year 1600.

The first decade of the 17th century was a momentous one for a small waterlogged republic on the northwest fringe of continental Europe struggling to free itself from the Iberian yoke. It began with the routing of Spanish pikemen by the Dutch infantry in the Battle of Nieuwpoort on July 2, 1600, and ended with Spain’s de facto recognition of the Dutch Republic as a sovereign state in the Twelve Years’ Truce, signed in Antwerp on April 9, 1609.

Three events that were to prove pivotal in the evolution of capitalism and globalization were packed into the decade. The first was the foundation of the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), the world’s first large joint-stock corporation and arguably its first multinational enterprise, in 1602. The second was the foundation, in the same year, by the VOC, of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the world’s first securities bourse. The third was the world’s first formulation, by Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in The Free Sea (Mare Liberum, 1609) of the principle of free trade, in this case on the international territory of the sea.

In Asia, the Dutch were pushing east, seizing the Spice Islands, now Maluku, from the Portuguese in 1605, and establishing their first permanent trading post in Southeast Asia at Bantam in western Java in 1609. On April 19, 1600, Dutch merchant vessel de Liefde (Charity) made landfall on Kyushu, the only one of a convoy of five ships that set sail from Rotterdam in the summer of 1598 to reach its destination, with only 24 of its crew of 110 still alive. Among the half dozen of them still able to stand were the first Dutchmen to set foot in Japan, including Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, the second mate, who has given his (corrupted) name to the Yaesu side of Tokyo station, and Jacob Quaeckernaeck, the captain, as well as Will Adams, the English pilot, who inspired James Clavell’s Shogun.

Will Adams may have won fame, at least in the English-speaking world, as the “white samurai”, but as so often in those days, the Dutch engineered the commercial edge, establishing a trading factory on the island of Hirado to the north of Nagasaki in September 1609. In 1641, the Dutch were forced to move to an artificial fan-shaped island, Dejima, measuring just 120m by 75m, off Nagasaki, that had been reclaimed from the sea in 1636 for the Portuguese, who were expelled in 1639. And there the Dutch stayed for more than two centuries, Japan’s only window to the West.

What the Dutch wanted more than anything was the product of Japan’s silver mines, to grease the Asian trade and to compensate for the waning output of the great silver mountain, Cerro Rico, at Potosí in the Viceroyalty of Peru, and for almost three decades they got what they wanted, until the export of silver was banned by the shogunate in 1668, which was instrumental in the long, slow eclipse of the VOC in Asia. The Japan concession dwindled away into a backwater: only 600 or so Dutch ships put in at Dejima between 1641 and 1857, about the same number that could be seen dans le port d’Amsterdam on any afternoon in the mid-17th century.

Ultimately Dejima became much more significant for hosts than the hosted, as the sole conduit for Dutch Studies (Rangaku, 蘭学), the learning of the West, and I’m sure that today, Dejima occupies a far larger place in the Japanese consciousness than it does in the Dutch one. Only the other night I was flicking through the channels when I came across a docudrama about German botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), who was appointed as the resident Dejima physician in 1823 and who is barely known outside these isles.

That then is the—brutally abridged—deep back-story. The shallow back-story starts in summer 1979, with a vacation taken by a man born a nobody, Yoshikuni Kamichika (神近義邦). It’s invidious to transliterate Japanese names, particularly in the back-to-front, given-name-first order in which they appear in English, but this one is too delicious to resist: “Good country, close to God”. Exactly the sentiments of a Calvinist Dutch burgher of the 17th century toward his homeland.

Kamichika was born into poverty in 1942 in Seihi, a small town just south of Sasebo, which had fewer than 10,000 souls when in 2005 it was wiped from the map through a municipal merger. After graduating in 1962 from the local agricultural high school while working to support his family, he took up a post in the town hall, where he stayed for a decade, building a chrysanthemum nursery on the side. In the early 1970s, a high-end ryotei restaurant, Ichijo, catering to politicians in Tokyo’s political nerve-center of Nagatacho, surreptitiously cornered 550,000m2 of Seihi land on which to build, among other things, a love hotel, causing consternation in the town. The ryotei, however, collapsed in the wake of the 1973 Oil Crisis and, via a plot too convoluted to detail here, Kamichika ended up its general manager, catapulted from a provincial backwater to the very epicenter of power, and succeeded in turning the restaurant around.

On a busman’s holiday in the Mediterranean in 1979, so the legend goes, Kamichika and his businessman travelling companion, the president of the real estate division of ball-bearing maker Minebea (slogan: Passion is POWER, Passion is SPEED, Passion is the FUTURE), are surveying a shimmering seascape when his companion turns to him and asks:

“Is there a sea like this in all Japan?”

So many consequences were to flow from such a simple question.

“Yes,” Kamichika is reported to have replied vehemently, “the marvelous sea of Omura Bay in Nagasaki, where I was born and raised. It’s every bit as good as the Mediterranean. Why can’t we get people to visit it, just like the Mediterranean?”

Omura Bay, in places flanked by scrubbed hillsides of citrus groves tumbling to the water’s edge, does indeed occasionally have a Mediterranean feel.

On the plane home, Kamichika scribbled away making notes, as the idea for the precursor to Huis ten Bosch took shape in his mind. Enlisting the support of a few local enterprises and architect and president of major design firm Nihon Sekkei, Takekuni Ikeda, who had fallen in love with Omura Bay in the Second World War, Kamichika refurbished and expanded a fish restaurant in his hometown of Seihi and on July 22, 1983, Nagasaki Holland Village, initially not much more than a scrawny assortment of windmills, piers, and shops on a dozen hectares that had cost perhaps $10mn to build, welcomed its first visitors. The vision, as articulated by Kamichika, was to faithfully replicate a townscape of the Netherlands, with its deep ties to Nagasaki, down to the last cobblestone. The timing was propitious: Tokyo Disneyland had opened just three months before and soon an expanded Nagasaki Holland Village was being dubbed by the media “the Disneyland of the West”.

Emboldened by success—at its 1990 peak, Nagasaki Holland Village attracted 2mn visitors—in 1988 Kamichika began planning something a tad more ambitious: Huis ten Bosch. It was the Bubble; anything was possible. Six kilometers of canals, 3.2km of underground tunnels for the communications, energy, and water infrastructure, 400,000 trees, and 300,000 flowers and shrubs—sure, why not? Kamichika took his plans to the bankers and the bankers liked what they saw.

The bankers were led by the blue-blooded, white-shoed, and blue-chip Industrial Bank of Japan (IBJ), which in the heady high growth days of 1950s and 1960s had been a key mover and shaker in the reflorescence of war-ravaged heavy industry and which chipped in a cool $1bn. This was not by any measure the rashest Bubble loan extended by the IBJ: that prize must surely go to the Y240mn ($1.7bn as of January 1990) or so it lent to Nui Onoue (尾上縫), the Bubble Lady of Osaka, whose tale, the darkest and strangest of all the Bubble threw up, deserves a brief diversion.

The story kicks off in 1987 when then 57-year old spinster Onoue walked into the IBJ Osaka branch and began buying up huge quantities of IBJ debentures. Everything about Onoue is enveloped in mystery. She may be from, or have close links with, the burakumin underclass. It seems certain she was born, like Kamichika, in poverty and worked for a while as a waitress—or was it as a hostess?—before acquiring a couple of restaurants—or was she set up in them by a shadowy backer?—in the late 1960s in a sordid Osaka entertainment district. Some say the source of her seed money for the IBJ debentures, of which she eventually amassed Y290bn (just over $2bn), was a scion of the Matsushita electronics empire, some say the mob, some say a construction magnate. By the late 1980s, she had gained notoriety as the biggest speculator on the Tokyo stock market, and late at night scores of black limousines would park up outside one of her restaurants, Egawa, disgorging bankers for séances, inspired by esoteric mikkyo Buddhism, on the fourth floor, overseen by a giant ceramic toad standing a meter tall. In Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr reports (probably unreliably but undoubtedly entertainingly) the ritual thus:

Department chiefs from IBJ’s Tokyo headquarters would take the bullet train down from Tokyo to Osaka in order to attend a weekly ceremony presided over by the toad. On arriving at Nui’s house, the IBJ bankers would join elite stockbrokers from Yamaichi Securities and other trading houses in a midnight vigil. First they would pat the head of the toad. Then they would recite prayers in front of a set of Buddhist statues in Nui’s garden. Finally Madame Nui would seat herself in front of the toad, go into a trance, and deliver the oracle—which stocks to buy and which to sell. The financial markets in Tokyo trembled at the verdict. At his peak in 1990, the toad controlled more than $10bn in financial instruments, making its owner the world’s largest individual stock investor.

Onoue’s game—or that of the pullers of her puppet strings—appears to have been a house of straw built on the shifting sands of leverage and ever-rising stock prices, and as the Nikkei halved in the tumultuous first ten months of 1990, it came crashing down. By April 1991, she had resorted to using to crudely forged certificates of deposit with a face value of Y340bn ($2.4bn) from a tiny credit union, Toyo Shinkin, which had total deposits of a mere Y360bn ($2.5bn), to liberate her IBJ debentures from the bank’s own vaults so as to borrow more elsewhere. By the time of her August 1991 arrest, Onoue had stacked up a scarcely credible Y2.8trn ($19.4bn) in borrowings, eventually going bust with net debts of some Y430bn ($3bn) in the nation’s largest ever personal bankruptcy and bringing down Toyo Shinkin, another credit union, and the management of the IBJ with her. The IBJ, which at its peak was valued at $63bn, nearly twenty times the market capitalization of Wall Street’s Morgan Stanley, never recovered from its Bubble excesses and was swallowed up in 2002 in the merger that created Mizuho Financial Group—which became the main bank of Huis ten Bosch.

Onoue’s trial began in 1997, with the prosecutors baying for 15 years. Her lawyers cited an alleged IQ of 84 and claimed she could add and subtract, but not multiply or divide. She was sentenced to 12 years in 1998, a sentence not finalized by the Supreme Court until April 2003, fully 15 years after she first walked into the IBJ branch and 12 years after her arrest. Justice delayed is justice denied, and whoever spoke through the toad—my super-sleuth source believes it was the IBJ itself—we can be reasonably confident it wasn’t Onoue. It’s hard to see her as anything other than a sacrificial victim slaughtered on an altar to appease the gods of the Bubble.

While the tale of the Bubble Lady of Osaka was unfolding, the diggers, cranes, and dredgers were sculpting Huis ten Bosch out of a failed industrial park. Kamichika’s vision was breathtaking, some might say Pharonic: Huis ten Bosch was to be no ordinary theme park, but a resort city, a prototype community along the lines of Disney’s EPCOT, a future world, albeit one looking Janus-like to the past, too. Architecture professor Marc Treib, in an essay titled Theme park, themed living: The Case of Huis ten Bosch (published in 2002 but based on a 1995 visit), commented:

In fact, it is management’s hope—and intention—that when the massive construction debt has been amortized [sic] in about 20 years, the admission charge will be dropped completely. By that time, a community planned on Dutch lines will have developed incrementally around today’s theme park center; what had been a zone controlled by restrictive admission will have become the thriving city center of a new town on Omura Bay.

In an (undated) interview with photojournalist Graeme Simmons, Kamichika made it clear that Huis ten Bosch was not an end in itself, but merely the babysteps of a far grander march:

“My idea is to create a whole series of towns around Omura Bay”, he says, “Using the themes of water and greenery”. The next step, he says, is a Japanese Heritage Village, to remind visitors of their culture. Also on the agenda is a full-scale replica of Monaco itself.

In an interview with LA Times journalist Margaret Scott for a November 1993 article, The World According to Japan, the timescale on which Kamichika was dreaming was one measured not in years but decades and centuries:  

As Kamichika put it, “This will not always be a country of worker bees. What will be the main industry for the next 50 years? Leisure.”

Eventually, Kamichika says, he wants Huis ten Bosch to be about more than the allure of the exotic; he wants to make the exotic familiar. His idea is to have 100,000 people living along the canals by the sea. Already, a small settlement of 250 Dutch-style houses, with shuttered windows and steep alpine [sic] roofs, has gone up.

“We are selling life here—we are introducing Japanese to a new way of living,” he says. “Kyoto was modeled on a Chinese city 1,000 years ago. And now it is considered to be the most pure, most truly Japanese of all our cities. After 1,000 years, Huis ten Bosch is going to be just like Kyoto—the standard of a typical Japanese city.”

Even the normally skeptical leftist academic, Gavan McCormack, writing in The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (1996), was seduced by Kamichika’s vision:

Its founders claim that it is being built to last 1,000 years, and that, as the building of the city of Kyoto in the eighth century was modeled on that of T’ang China’s capital at Ch’ang-an so, in the future, Huis ten Bosch may be come to seen as the first type of postindustrial urban development, drawing upon European models but certainly no more Dutch than Kyoto is Chinese, and creating in the process a city that Dutch people can only look upon with astonishment.

What the whole project represents is still hard to say, but the claim to be pioneering ecological town planning, with emphasis on the needs of the coming “aging and leisure-oriented society of the 21st century,” is not easily dismissed. … It has been enormously expensive to build, but will leave something much more solid and interesting than other resorts. It has also been successful…

Huis ten Bosch opened, with atrociously impeccable timing, on March 25, 1992, as Japan was sliding into its first post-Bubble recession. In the LA Times article referenced above, Kunio Seiki, a managing director of IBJ, lauded Kamichika as “a visionary who also has an abacus for a brain”. If so, it was an abacus with a few beads missing. The target—never met—was for 5mn visitors a year. In its first full year of operation (the fiscal year to March 31, 1993 [FY3/93]), Huis ten Bosch pulled in only 3.75mn visitors, but it was nevertheless for a few glorious years in the middle of the decade possible to be persuaded that the theme park had been a success, as visitor numbers rose to peak at 4.25mn in FY3/97. Then the long, slow slide set in. By FY3/01, the visitor count was back to 3.76mn, where it had been the opening year, and in June 2000 Kamichika stepped down as CEO as the theme park pled for Y20bn ($187mn) in debt forgiveness from the IBJ. It retuned with cap in hand in autumn 2001, pleading for another Y33bn to be forgiven, but this was not enough and on February 26, 2003, Huis ten Bosch, never having come close to the sweet scent of black ink, applied for court protection from its creditors under the Corporate Rehabilitation Law with debts of Y229bn ($1.9bn), an event that made the national news and attracted the wistful comment of future Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, then Chief Cabinet Secretary: “I want the theme park to revive itself into a healthy company and entertain many Japanese people.” The following year, FY3/04, visitor numbers collapsed to just 2.15mn, as fickle tourists, alarmed by the bankruptcy, steered clear in droves. Kamichika’s dream was in shreds.

Nagasaki Holland Village, which had been operating in the shadow of its big brother since 1992, giving Nagasaki two Dutch theme parks a couple of dozen kilometers from each other, saw annual visitor numbers tumble to 220,000 in FY3/01 from the 2mn FY3/91 peak and closed its doors for good in October 2001. An effort was made to turn it into a food theme park, Cas Village, in 2005, but that ended in failure in just six months. By 2009, Nagasaki Holland Village was a moldering carcass savaged by termites (video here). Then in a supreme irony, one in which the story of Huis ten Bosch abounds, the city of Saiki, into which Kamichika’s birthplace of Seihi had been merged in 2005, voted in September 2009 to spend Y156mn ($1.7mn) restoring part of the park to house the Seihi municipal offices, where Kamichika had started out.

On approaching the Huis ten Bosch admission gates from the south, the visitor first passes the prototype community of Wassenaar.

Author Kyoichi Tsuzuki, in Baburu no Shozo: The Many Faces of Bubble, relates that the 250 elegant villas of Wassenaar were integral to Huis ten Bosch’s repayment of its monstrous debt. The goal was to sell all the villas, priced at a modest Y100mn-Y400mn ($1.5mn-$6mn), before the park opened, but only 10% found buyers, and by 2001, a decade after they had been erected, half remained unsold. Finally, their prices were knocked down by a half to two-thirds, and in 2004 the last one was offloaded. Tsuzuki remarks that the wasei (Japanese-made) Wassenaar looks like a movie set, and indeed it does: the set of The Truman Show. What struck this observer most, though, is an absence: the absence of the visual cacophony that is the Japanese street. Where were the half-abandoned bicycles, where were the ramshackle gantries for laundry, where, for our Pete’s sweet sake, where were the wires? While Wassenaar may have been conceived as a prototype community, most of the properties are besso holiday homes or time-shares and access is restricted to owners and their guests. By day there is barely a flicker of life and by night the few houselights that flip on and off smack of programmable timers.

Following the bankruptcy, a beauty contest was held by the courts to select a sponsor. Foreign private equity houses such as Ripplewood, dubbed chauvinistically and misleadingly in Japanese as “vulture funds”, circled the twitching corpse of the theme park, but to no one’s particular surprise, a homegrown suitor was deemed to be the most attractive, and in December 2003 Nomura Principal Finance, pledging an Y11bn ($100mn) investment, took over. Nomura tried various tricks to turn Huis ten Bosch around, among them the construction of a wedding chapel, White Symphony, and poured another Y10bn ($85mn) into the park in 2006, managing to keep visitor numbers above the 2mn mark until the financial crisis hit, when they sank to 1.87mn in FY3/09 and 1.41mn in FY3/10. In July 2009, the park still never having made a penny of profit, Nomura threw in the linen towel and a frantic quest for a new sponsor—for Huis ten Bosch should not, could not, must not be allowed to die—began, and in February 2010 travel agency H.I.S. (slogan: Love, Peace, TRAVEL), was chosen, in a very generous deal—a measure of the general desperation—that gives it Y900mn ($10mn) annually in tax breaks and the right to walk away after three years.

(to be continued…)

Phoenix Seagaia: Look on my works, ye Mighty

Heading north out of the eponymous prefectural capital of Miyazaki, the traveler soon finds the flotsam of modern life giving way to a more manicured world, one of trim box hedges, pansied plant troughs, and sedately whispering pines. Then from out of nowhere, there it looms, the loneliest skyscraper on earth.

 

Skyscrapers are by nature gregarious animals, to be found in dense hordes in city centers, in tight packs around the watering holes of international airports, and in majestic ranks along the beaches of a Benidorm or an Acapulco. They are even known to breed in small numbers in that most inhospitable of habitats, the antique European capital. But this skyscraper had been expelled from the herd and condemned to eternal exile in a prison of pines. 

For a decade after it was topped out in 1994, the 154m, 45 storey Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort—as it is now known—was the tallest building between Osaka and Taipei. It remains the tallest building in Japan west of Hiroshima and its nearest 100m plus companion is 150km to the north, in Oita. What a lonesome existence it must be, the life of a solitary skyscraper. 

At the Sheraton reception, it took several hundred keystrokes, a couple of phone calls, and a quarter of an hour to summon up the price of a single. “Y19,200,” (about $230) was the oddly precise answer. “Fine.” Picking up a resort map (“let’s design the you from tomorrow”, it said in Japanese), I made it to the 12th floor room in time to capture a Seagaia sunset, the lone and level pines stretching far away. 

 

The unfunny pun and bloky jokiness of the message on the plastic wrapping on the bathroom sponge—“Get yourself all in a lather”—and the enormous condescension of the instructions—“Just add shower gel”—brought on a grimace, although with the words only in English and French (“Enrobez-vous de mousse”), the nuances of the patter would be fortunately lost on almost every guest. 

I made a beeline for the top-of-the-tower 42nd floor bar, Stella, to snatch a sundowner, but a sign declared that it was closed due to that most embracing of catch-alls, tsugo (“circumstances”). Turning tail, I headed for the first floor cocktail bar, Pacifica, and settled in on a sofa for the long haul. 

An Australian lounge bar duo, Kishh, were tuning up and threatening schmaltz. Was that a spelling mistake, I wondered to myself. Shouldn’t it have been Kitschh? While navigating the drinks menu for ways to keep the tab below $100, I pondered ways of escape, but there were no other bars left in which to hide. Teeth grated, I braced myself for the first set, which went like this:

Sheryl Crow, If it makes you happy

Toto, Georgy Porgy/Africa

Roberta Flack, Killing me softly with his song

Olivia Newton-John, Have you never been mellow

The Carpenters, Close to you

Abba, Chiquitita

Carole King, It’s too late 

They knew their audience, full credit for that. ONJ’s Have you never been mellow was a 1975 flop around the world but a hit here. The heavily tattooed Mandy and Michael joined me for a drink between sets. 

“I’ve heard Killing me softly before, you know.”

“Tell me about it,” Mandy guffawed. “Thing is, when people here latch on to something, they never let it go. I mean, Abba, Whitney Houston, The Carpenters. Imagine playing The Carpenters to anyone under 60 back home!”

“This is our fifth six-month contract at Seagaia,” Michael said. “We love it here—open your window and you’ve got a fresh breeze coming in off the sea. We’ve played all over Japan, Chiba-chuo, Narita, but this is the best.”

He let slip that Seagaia had been hit hard by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease ravaging the prefecture, which had brought the shutters down on several eateries as well as “top bar” Stella.

“Tonight’s the busiest it’s been in months. This bar is the only place that’s making any money, apart from the breakfast restaurant.”

“Any requests”, asked Mandy as they prepared to take the stage for their second set.

“Got any Motorhead?” 

It turned into a lively enough Saturday night: a woman in tight denim shorts for which, despite her lithe figure, she was a touch too old, partied like it was 1989, dancing on a tabletop as if the Bubble had never popped. A party of minor-league rock stars and their groupies swilled champagne and guzzled cocktails at the table next door. Eventually one of their number asked drunken unsociable me in fractured English where I was from. I played my cruelest card. “I’m from the UK.” So simple yet so devastating, it floors the enquirer every time.

With all respect to the charming and competent Mandy and Michael, when Seagaia opened it was able to attract a different league of celebrity: Sting played the opening night concert on October 31, 1994. He also recorded a couple of TV commercials for Seagaia, ones that a definitely older and perhaps wiser Gordon Sumner almost certainly doesn’t want you to see today.

“OK Miyadzaki, let’s go,” exclaims the prickingly monikered one as he leaves his palatial country estate to his tune, Take me to the sunshine, written specifically for Seagaia, as the voiceover intones, “Our first guest is Sting. A resort of sun has been born. Miyazaki Seagaia.” 

In the second, a sleep refreshed Sting throws open his windows with a hale “Good morning, Seagaia,” to the chords of When we dance. The narrator continues, “A place abounding in sea, wide open spaces, and sun. Book now and relax big time. Miyazaki Seagaia, a global resort of sun,” leaving Sting to sign off with “Miyadzaki, I love it!” 

Dubiously reliable muckraking hack Christopher Sandford reports that Sting was paid around £500,000 for the Seagaia deal, which if true, works out to almost £50,000 a word, two out of the eleven of which he cheerfully mangles. (Although it is not beyond the realms of chance that he was told to mangle them, for that deftly clunky foreign touch.) 

There’s a national penchant for counting things in trios, the “Three Greats” (三大). Wikipedia lists 242 examples, ranging from the familiar, such as the three great gardens or the three great night views and the now obscure, such as the three great brushes of the Kan’ei era (1624-1643) and the three great centers of child kabuki actors, to the prosaic, such as the three great garbage bands (you read that right) of Kanto and the three great centers of seven-flavored pepper condiments. 

There is no listing, however, for the Three Great Structural Legacies of the Bubble (三大バブルの構造物遺産). With so much competition, one of the three is tricky to pick: could it be the absurd 158m Play Park Gold Tower in the tiny town of Utazu on the Inland Sea, with its gold throne and gold toilet slippers, the ridiculous recreation of a French chateau in the heart of Tokyo, Taillevent Robuchon, or the risible mock-medieval Hotel Kawakyu on the remotest tip of the Kii Peninsula? Two are shoo-ins, however: Dutch theme park Huis ten Bosch and Seagaia.

Desperate to regain the tourist luster it had lost since its days in the limelight as the locus of the honeymoon boom of the 1960s, the Miyazaki prefectural and city governments, spearheaded by six-term (1979-2003) governor Suketaka Matsukata (1918-2007), teamed up in 1988 with local travel and leisure firm Phoenix International Tourism and its president, Muneyoshi Sato (1919-), to begin planning Seagaia, the very first project approved under the notorious Resort Law of 1987, which offered tax breaks, flexible approval procedures, and—disastrously—easy financing from state-backed banks to resort plans that met with the blessing of the government.     

A prime spot on the coast north of Miyazaki was selected and 135 hectares (335 acres) of state-owned pine forest that had been planted as a windbreak on the sandy shores before the war was sold to the Phoenix Resort Group at a knock-down price. Garlanded modernist architect Yoshinobu Ashihara (1918-2003) drew up the plans, and with an initial budget of Y80bn (about $1.1bn at the time), construction of Seagaia—which for starters necessitated the uprooting of 100,000 pines—got underway in 1989. 

The sheer scale and audacity of the vision was—and remains—breathtaking: in addition to the centerpiece hotel, Ocean 45, which was to become the Sheraton, Seagaia was finally to be graced with three other hotel complexes, two 18-hole country clubs, a golf academy, a tennis club, an onsen, a spa, a marina, a bowling alley, a zoo, a world-class convention center, and last but very much not least, Ocean Dome. 

When it opened in advance of Ocean 45 in July 1993, Ocean Dome was a repository of superlatives: the world’s largest indoor pool, with a 140m long beach, featuring the world’s largest retractable dome, at 300m by 100m, and the world’s largest and most sophisticated wave-making equipment. The real beach was only 500m away, but how could cantankerous reality compete with the seductions of the hyperreal, a temperature-controlled, Caribbean-themed paradise where the water was maintained at a constant 28°c and the air at 30°c, where the “sea” had been purged of its saltiness and there were surf juggler shows, synchronized swimming spectaculars, and amusement arcades to keep boredom at bay? Mere sand, so humdrum, could not have been expected to satisfy the dictates of the hyperreal, although it could have been sourced from anywhere; instead, the beach was made of marble, imported from China and crushed to powder. 

Ocean Dome reached the apex of the hyperreal when the wave machines were cranked up and stoner surfer dudes were given free rein to frolic. Pinch yourself sporadically as you watch the following to recall that it all plays out indoors.

By the time Seagaia opened to the strains of Sting, the bill had spiraled north of Y200bn ($2.5bn) and it needed 5mn visitors a year—nearly 15,000 a day—to break even. At first, the planes to Miyazaki were crowded with pilgrims, but the prices were prohibitive: admission to Ocean Dome cost Y4,200 ($50) for an adult, more than Tokyo Disneyland, and a two-night trip for a family of four could easily eat up Y400,000 ($5,000). Not much support could come from the locals, either, in Japan’s poorest mainland prefecture, and from the outset Seagaia was losing around Y20bn ($250mn) a year. In February 2001, Seagaia collapsed under the weight of an accumulated Y326bn (nearly $4bn) in liabilities. The press conference following the bankruptcy filing was a battle of the octogenarians, with the businessman Sato (81) heaping the blame on himself and the governor Matsukata (83) washing his hands of all responsibility. 

The notoriety of Seagaia was now such that only foreigners were to be found sniffing around its corpse, and in June 2001 it was sold for just Y16.2bn ($200mn) to US private equity outfit Ripplewood Holdings, whose founder and CEO Tim Collins claimed the price was “reasonable”. Ripplewood set about restructuring: one of the early victims, in December 2002, was the Tom Watson golf course. 

 

Down to the last purple swirl on the carpet, the clubhouse interior was an insect preserved in amber.

 

Colors at the Seagaia Tennis Club had been bleached and washed out. Depth of perspective had been drained from the scene, like a David Hockney painting of California.

 

Ocean Dome first shut its doors from October 2002 until the following summer, before closing for good in September 2007. In December 2009, Ripplewood offered it to the city and the prefecture for free, but in August 2010 they spurned the offer, citing the crippling expense of maintenance and repair. 

Is there anything more sinister, I asked myself, than an abandoned multistory car park?

 

Yes, plenty, came the answer swiftly: a bank of vending machines was still dispensing drinks to no one at all. Then there was the bus parking lot, which had been taken over by the prefectural riot police.

  

Were they expecting an outbreak of mutinous assembly and disorderly conduct at the 19th hole?

Ocean Dome was a stupendous structure by any measure, a geometrician’s heaven and a photographer’s dream. In marvel I wandered past its vast and trunkless legs of stone and sauntered round the decay of its colossal wreck.

Back at the Sheraton, the aerial approach road struck me as the embodiment in concrete of an elephant in white.

 

Few conferences have gathered at the World Convention Center, with its main hall able to hold 5,000 people, since a G8 summit in 2000; this Sunday, it was largely given over to wedding ceremonies.   

 

The aesthetic spirit of Seagaia is that of the country club and the golf course, of palm and pine and gin and Jag, of Beverly Hills and the Home Counties, with a dash of Bauhaus Modernism and just a drizzle of Albert Speer.

The illusion of affluence conjured up by the Rolls-Royce is undercut by the building behind it, a hotel falling helplessly into ruin.

Ripplewood closed the Phoenix Sea-Side Hall in December 2001, giving nature ample time to go to work. Around the back, mossy pipes created lovely abstracts and a bicycle turned into a trellis.  

 

Frogs plopped into the pool on my approach and paint blistered painfully in the men’s washroom.

Bereft of the consolations of the hyperreal, holidaymakers now are forced to deal with the inconveniences of the real. Down by the sea, a lifeguard hosed down a rubber ring while a lady with parasol stepped out of a 19th century watercolor of the beach at Deauville.

Ripplewood CEO Tim Collins may be ruing the day he struck the Seagaia deal: it took until the year to March 2007 to turn an operating profit and until the year to March 2010 to turn the bottom line black, with Seagaia reporting net profit of a measly Y500mn ($6mn) on sales of Y11.2bn ($135mn), down 8.9% from the previous year due to an aggressive discounting campaign. 

The strategy, fraught with geopolitical risk, is to lure visitors from the Sinosphere, above all China. It’s hard to see what the appeal might be, though: while the Seagaia Sheraton is one of seven Sheratons in Japan, with no more planned, there are already 29 in China, many in resorts, and there will be 55 by the end of 2013. Why pay the premium to venture overseas only to struggle with a strange tongue and funny foreign food? 

The one thing that might have saved Seagaia is a casino, but debate on casino legalization has been dragging on for decades with no end in sight, stymied by the vested interests of the pachinko industry and the legislators in their pockets. My guess is that Seagaia will stagger on for a decade or two and that centuries hence, a hunter in pursuit of deer amid the pines will stumble on some fragments huge, and pause to wonder:

“What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”