Huis Ten Bosch, JapanPerched on the edge of Kyushu I closed my eyes, and apart form the salty tang to the air, could almost believe that I was back in Holland. It may come as some surprise that Holland and Japan have always had strong links since the first Dutch ships arrived nearly 400 years ago. Considering they were aiming for the Dutch West Indies this was either a stroke of genius or exceedingly bad navigation. In a glorious celebration of Japanese-Dutch harmony the Huis Ten Bosch project began on March 25, 1992, on the island of Hario-jima in Omura Bay. Here, on land of about 1.52 million square meters, 400,000 trees have been planted, 300,000 flowers now bloom, and canals stretching to over six kilometres have been channelled to give the area that classic Dutch feeling. Huis Ten Bosch, which is Dutch for "House in the Woods", is the name of the Dutch Royal Family?s residence, a complete replica of which forms the centre piece of the town. Like 40% of the Netherlands, the town is built on reclaimed land. The park is divided into areas each having a Dutch name. Travelling between these areas can involve some serious show pounding and its more enjoyable to hop on a canal boat or rent a bicycle and explore the park in this way. It is often said that Japan is at its best when it imitates, and this is never more true then at Huis Ten Bosch, but it is still mind numbing to see the attention to detail. Even to the extent of shipping in a building from Leiden University and a flock of Dutch students. Even the most cynical of my Dutch friends found it difficult to tell the difference between a picture of a street in Huis Ten Bosch and a real Dutch street. My own happy memories of Holland seem to fall predominantly into the windmills and tulips category. Thankfully, the designers of Huis Ten Bosch share my fascination with the stereotypical and shortly after passing through the impressive wrought iron entrance gates into Breukelen, I found myself transported into beautiful rural Holland, with a sweeping view of windmills and 300,000 tulips. I felt as if I had stepped out of Japan and into an Old Master canvas, depicting an age more noble. Only the insistent announcements in Japanese fractured my dreams. Unfortunately, little time was left to ponder as there was still much to see. Nieuwstad is the area to head to for most of main high technology attractions. Top of my list was the 'Mysterious Escher' theatre. Escher was a prominent Dutch artist who specialised in geometrically improbably drawings. The vivid 3D cinemascope presentation brought many of his more surreal and captivating drawings to life and took me back to a sticky lecture theatre of my student days when Escher was something we all dreaded. I am glad to say things have improved somewhat since then. An English soundtrack is available and headphones for this can be obtained from the Information desks dotted about the park. Close to this is the Theatre of Noah ride. This uses some clever in seat vibration and movement to recreate the effect of flying over the Dutch landscape, dodging windmills and generally saving the planet from ecological meltdown. Something my Dutch friends felt was definitely in keeping with the Dutch ethos. Conveniently located near to the theatre is the World Liquor Shop, which is a great place to stock up on Dutch and other European beer, much of which is generally unavailable in Japan. Unfortunately, the free samples of the wonderful Dutch beers were less then forthcoming. Next to this is the technically impressive, and just the right side of surreal, Horizon Adventure. In which after being strapped into your vibrating seat you can experience being in the middle of a typically Dutch monsoon, complete with thunder and lightning. You mean you didn't know Holland was plagued by monsoons? Neither did I, but this is one attraction that definitely should not be missed. Try to avoid sitting at the front unless you want to spend the rest of the day wandering around with embarrassingly wet trousers as I unfortunately did. Trying to cover my wet spot with a Dutch magazine, I headed over to Museumstad. Surprisingly enough, this area is dedicated to museums and the nostalgic sounds of carillons and music boxes, bringing alive the sounds of a typical Dutch village. It's also a great place to leisurely stroll around and soak up the ambience of a provincial Dutch town. The attention to detail in the entire park is extraordinary. No expense has been spared, even down to the cobbled streets and the large number of tulips which make Huis Ten Bosch such a colourful day out - even if, like me, you are unfortunate enough to visit on a day when it's torrentially raining. To escape the rain, which was now coming down in biblical proportions, I dived into the Crystal Dream theatre which using a clever combination of mirrors, fountains and classical music magically creates the story of Pan and his love for Venus. Again, the technology is impressive, but the link to all things Dutch is quite tenuous. I was getting hungry now and was keen to sample some wonderful Dutch cooking. Besides, what would a trip to Holland be without a trip to a cheese market? This takes place each day outside the Stadhaus (city hall) which stands in the bustling Prinz Willem Alexanderplein. However, there is a limit to how many free samples you can eat without drawing too much attention to yourself and so I headed off in search of another Dutch dining experience in Utrecht. Utrecht has always been my favourite town in Holland as I have spent an inordinate amount of time supporting the local economy in bars there. I wasn't disappointed with Utrecht Japanese style either. Utrecht is dominated by the Domtoren. This is a replica of Utrecht's 105m tall church tower (the tallest in Holland). Taking the elevator to the observation platform (80m) of this sumptuous structure (** stars) affords a view over the whole park and Omura bay, which is definitely an improvement on the real thing which looks out over an urban wasteland. Surrounding the tower is a plethora of restaurants, serving food from places diverse as Italy, India and Champon, the traditional food of Nagasaki, which seemed to be getting rave reviews from the crowds of Japanese. Many of these restaurants are along the canal, and on a sunny day nothing is better then sitting on a canal side terrace, sipping a Dutch beer whilst watching the canal boats. The terraces are also an fine place to watch the grand finale of the evening, which takes place at 8pm every night, and involves a sensational canal boat ballet which really has to be seen to be believed. Get there early to make sure of a good view. After overdosing on a dreamy cheese fondue, I strolled toward the Spakenburg area. This is the most comely area of the park and is situated along the tranquil Omura bay and is dominated by a life size replica of the Dutch ship De Liefde, which was the first Dutch ship to arrive in Japan. The nautical theme is carried through in the Grand Voyage theatre, where an animatronic Anjin-san, of Shogun fame, narrates the tale of the voyage of De Liefde from Amsterdam, through the fabled Magellan's strait, to Japan's windswept shores. Hold on to your seats because you are in for a rough ride across the storm tossed seas and this is absolutely not recommended to anyone who suffers from sea sickness. Again, an English translation is available, though it does brush over some of the more interesting Dutch slang used by the sailors. The De Liefde forms the centre piece for the end of day son et lumiere. The insistent rain had dampened my enthusiasm a bit, but the visual and oral onslaught of Dutch music, multicoloured lasers and enough fire works to start a revolution soon stirred my spirits and sent me in search of a late night beer in one of the numerous bars. This unmissable event takes place each evening at 9pm unless the weather is particularly awful. Directly opposite the harbour is the Dutch auction house. In true Dutch fashion the bidding goes in reverse, starting at a high price and gradually reducing until someone makes a bid. Not only is this great fun, but it allows you to pick up some great bargains. Many of the items available in the shops dotted about the park can be bought at the auction at a greatly reduced price, and let's be honest, who can resist having a Dutch flag on their wall? Away from the hustle and bustle is the palace Huis Ten Bosch. This is a direct replica of the palace of her Royal Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Apart from the excellent Baroque gardens, which are situated overlooking the windswept Omura bay and make an excellent escape from the crowds, the palace also contains a remarkable collection of 17th century paintings. Many of these have been loaned from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the world famous Mauritshuis collection. On the second floor of the palace is a temporary exhibition space, which is currently celebrating 400 years of Dutch-Japanese relations with a Dick Bruna exhibition. The Dutch artist Bruner has achieved distinction in Japan as the creator of Miffy-chan and her friends, which seems almost as ubiquitous as Hello Kitty these days (but, definitely less cloying). The exhibition covers his work from the very beginning and includes some rare original sketches.
* * * * *
Published on 8/26/02