artificial vs natural: new japanese landscapes, from teahouse to skidome

(Rachaporn Choochuey, Stefano Mirti, first published on Domus 828, July/August 2000)

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To a Western eye these pictures represent some very strange setting, a completely artificial landscape, a concept that seems to have come from a sci-fi movie. From the Japanese point of view however, there is nothing new in the attitude they convey; indeed it is deeply embedded in local traditions and habits.

Think, for instance, of the traditional teahouse and the way it works. You have the little wooden hut, the tatami mats on the floor, the tea ceremony utensils. Then, when you start to sip your green tea, your eye is caught by a small window, through which you glimpse a garden. The window is a passage to a parallel dimension. You are sitting in the teahouse but your mind floats away, borne by the incredible trickery used in the organization of Japanese gardens.

The teahouse and garden are a very sophisticated machine. It allows you to make incredible mind trips without moving as much as a centimeter from your special. It is a “controlled environment”, a system in which it is impossible to distinguish the natural from the artificial. Natural and artificial are a Western concept, originating from Western tradition. And it is very useful to define Western products.

Is a Bonsai, for instance, natural or artificial?

And the Zen garden of Ryoanji, or Ikebana compositions? It is not so distant from the pictures shown here. Is this a real French town, or is it the most successful shopping mall built in Japan in the last five years? Are we in a squalid suburb of Tokyo, or on a tropical beach? Basically it is impossible to clearly define the boundary. The Japanese mind doesn’t make much difference. If you have the chance you go skiing in Nagano or Sapporo, but it is simpler to go instead to the Skidome, which is only half of an hour from downtown Tokyo.

What is interesting is to notice the continuous process of blurring of this boundary. First you start to build environments that look exactly like nature. Then, you force nature into the artificial environment; and in this sense the Sea Observatory is something absolutely extraordinary: an artificial box through which to get a view of the Ocean. The concept of place is flattened out, the seasons don’t exist anymore, and this peculiar approach begins to affect everyday life too: golfing on the top of a parking lot, skiing in a box, bathing on a beach with fake sand and surfing on fake waves, go shopping in a place that looks exactly like Florence or Nice.

Where will all this lead next? Will the next step be to add psychedelic features to the working environment or to make the living room of your house look like the dark side of the moon?

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Yokohama Wild Blue (unfortunately, since we wrote the article the place was closed down)

You are on the metropolitan train bound to Yokohama, and you notice teenagers with surfboards. Where are they going? It is early March, the ocean must be freezing. Who prefers a tropical setting to the Alps, he can go to this paradise on the outskirts of Yokohama.
As you would expect, the temperature is 35 degrees and people are sweating under the artificial lamps waiting for the big waves to come in every 15 minutes.
If the waves are not enough you can lay on the plastic sand and gaze at the painted sky on the roof of the metal box that contains this other artificial world.

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Golf Driving Range – (just outside Oji Station on the Namboku Line)

If you are keen on golf and are a Japanese, this could be a problem (especially if you are not extremely rich). If you want to play golf in a natural setting, it is cheaper to fly to Thailand or Bali than to pay the rates of a Japanese golf course.
The solution is easy: a building with hundreds of little cells, open towards a huge net (one of the most common urban landmarks of Japanese cities, and now spreading all over Asia, from Indonesia to China). From 6 am to 1 am they are filled by a constant flow of players, of both sexes and all limits.

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Skidome – (2-3-1 Hama-cho, Funabashi-shi, Chiba Prefecture. Minami Funabashi station on Keiyo Line).

We are in a Tokyo suburb, with low-cost housing all around, factories, docklands, as far as you could possibly imagine from a natural environment.
Regardless of the season, witner or summer, week in week out, thousands of people troop into this freezing artificial landscape. From outside it looks like some prehistoric monster, an enormous standing caterpillar. Inside, it is colder than Siberia, with real snow, skiers and snowboarders. Not to mention the funniest things of all: escalators instead of ski lifts!

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Sea Observatory Deck – (6 Rinkai-cho, Edogawa-ku. JR Kasai Rinkai-koen Station on Keiyo Line).

There are some places where the difference between Japan and the rest of the world can be measured in light-years. A seaside resort might be imagined as a place where you can smell the briny ocean, feel the wind and sun on your skin, and hear the seagulls in the distance. Actually, it is exactly the opposite.
When you get to the sea, you enter a sealed box. There is no smell, no wind, nothing but the sense of sight. If this is not enough, at the back there are video-boxes, explanatory panels and computer animations to tell you what it really feels like to be by the sea.

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Venus Fort
– (Aomi Station on Yurikamone Monorail (you take it at Nihonbashi Station on Yamanote Line).

The latest step.
The previous places are built for people to spend their free time in. But in this place, leisure is mixed with shopping. You go shopping in a theme park. Fake city, fake streets, fake sky. The only real things are products on sale. With one million visitors per month, this is the smoothest selling device in Japan for this beginning of new millennium.

This Venus Fort shopping mall really caught my heart. It is strange, because in theory I should dislike it very much (at least upon the values I was educated to like). It is something like an horror-movie. It is horror, still you are very happy to pay the ticket to watch it…

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Image on top: Yokohama Wildblue

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