Gabled houses lining the streets, delicious smell of pancakes wafting through the air, fountains spraying plumes of water, a cathedral grazing the sky, miles of meandering canals dotted with ducks and swans, windmills rotating slowly against the blue sky and beds of tulips and lillies.
As I walk through the lanes of Huis Ten Bosch, a gargantuan Dutch-themed park, I almost forget that I am in the town of Sasaebo, near Nagasaki in Japan.
Huis Ten Bosch, built in the late 80s by a Japanese tycoon, is named after the palace Huis Ten Bosch, residence of Queen Beatrix in Netherland’s political capital The Hague. The park has seen several vicissitudes in the past due to economic recession, but a huge investment was pumped in later and it became a crowd-puller.
So, why did a theme park in Japan go Dutch, I ask my Japanese guide Toshi San. She explains that Nagasaki have had trade links with the Dutch for centuries, ever since Dutch East India Company was established in 1602.
Dejima, a man-made island outside Nagasaki used by the Dutch as a trading post from 1641 till 1853, was the only western trading partner of Japan during its Edo Period (period of isolation). Moreover, the Japanese find European building styles novel and exotic; they love the orderliness of foreign cities, Toshi San says.
The park has different zones, each with its own attractions, including museums, a zip line, mirror mazes and teddy bear galleries. A shop is dedicated to international cheese (the park is especially famous for its cheesecake). Nagasaki’s signature dessert—Castella, a yellow sponge cake—is sold all across the park.
Six kilometres of canals meander through the Huis Ten Bosch. The centrepiece of the park is a replica of the three-tiered Gothic Dom Tower of Utrecht, the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. We take an elevator to the top to get a bird’s eye view. From this height, the panorama of the park is impressive with lavish luxury hotels, greenery, the Omura Bay, the Ocean Park with slides.
To roam around, one can rent a variety of bikes, including tandems, or board the free shuttle buses that ply through the park. Along the cobbled streets are shops with red-brick facades and gabled roofs. Toshi San tells me that “to ensure the reproduction was as authentic as possible, everything from bricks to tiles was imported from Holland.”
We walk through a lane lined with a canopy of colourful umbrellas. Shops sell everything from huge chunks of cheese to chocolate to wooden clogs. ‘Miffy’, a little Dutch rabbit who wears a dress, illustrated by children’s book author Dick Bruna, is as popular as ‘Hello Kitty’ and is found on a lot of merchandise.
Quite impressive is an exact replica of the Huis ten Bosch Palace, outside which we pose for selfies against beds of lilies—from the largest lily festival in Japan with 300 varieties of flowers. Behind the palace is a baroque-style garden.
In the harbour stands an actual-sized recreation of De Liefde, the first Dutch ship that wrecked on the shores of Japan near Oita on April 19, 1600. Of the two dozen survivors, two men made history—the Shogun ruler wanted them for their knowledge of European politics, wars and foreign affairs.
William Adams, the English captain, became a foreign policy advisor to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Jan Joosten van Lodensteyn, who was allowed to engage in foreign trade and even had a Japanese wife, has a Tokyo subway station named after him.
We visit the newly opened robot-operated Henn-na Hotel. This is truly a hotel of the future, with only seven per cent of human staff, for housekeeping and at restaurant. Android and dinosaur robots man the reception desks; porter robots and even a tiny bot called Churri San render service in rooms. They operate the lights according to your instructions. Robotic musicians play songs in the lobby; the locker room is also run by a robot.
Huis Ten Bosch is built on reclaimed land and utilises solar power. It also recycles its water. It could have been just another cheesy, kitschy theme park without context, but for the unerring eye for perfection of the Japanese. Instead, it is a strange, surreal, but interesting place.