Out of Japan: Fantasy fed by hot chocolate and summer snow

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - The Japanese mind has a truly wonderful capacity for fantasy. It is not just the comics that grown-up businessmen read in the train on the way to work, with their sci-fi robots, beautiful temptresses and golfing heroes. It transcends the suspension of disbelief at traditional kabuki theatre where the same plots are played over again with men playing both male and female roles.

It extends even to skiing on artificially crystallised snow indoors in the middle of summer. And drinking hot chocolate and eating apple pie afterwards as part of the 'winter-like' experience.

Fantasy, paradoxically, is very real in Japan - or as real as any other sphere of human activity, where role playing is a cultural norm. In a country where people cannot greet each other properly unless they know what social position the other occupies, role playing is a constant requirement. This is the reason for offering business cards at the very beginning of any meeting in Japan: until each person's ranking in their company has been established, there are no guidelines for who may talk to whom at what relative level of linguistic politeness.

Role playing extends to family life, the education system, the make-believe world of politics and to nightlife, with its sweet-talking hostesses. For any situation a citizen might find him or herself in, there is an appropriate role he or she is expected to assume. Signposts, warnings and official guidance abound to help remind one of the proper roles: it is the lack of such cultural signposts prescribing behaviour in foreign countries that makes many Japanese uneasy about travelling overseas.

But if the script is clearly legible, the roles will be played to perfection. Every golfer turns out on the first tee looking like Jack Nicklaus. Every weekend mountain hiker is kitted out with enough gear for a two-week trek in the Himalayas. Every half-drunk salaryman in a hostess bar is a reckless Lothario barely kept in check by the stern ministrations of the mama-san. And every skier in August wears long underwear against the cold.

Summer skiing takes place in the new indoor Skidome SSAWS in Funabashi, about 30 minutes from Tokyo by train. SSAWS stands for spring summer autumn winter snow. At 500 metres long and 80 metres high, it looks like an enormous escalator tube, supported on steel stilts. It was built by a joint venture between Mitsui Real Estate, Kajima Construction and NKK Corp: respectively the biggest property developer, building contractor and steel company in Japan. They say it is the first of its kind in the world.

The temperature inside the insulated building is close to freezing during the day, and drops to minus five at night. Ceiling nozzles emit a fine spray of water, which freezes into snowflakes and settles on the artificial slope. It's like skiing on the real thing.

The sloping, tunnel-like building is lit by dim light-bulbs, suggesting a late winter's afternoon. But this does not stop the fantasy skiers from wearing their reflective blue lens sunglasses. After a couple of hours on the slope, which is served by two rapid ski-lifts to make up for the shortness of the run, there are the Alpine coffee shops, serving cake and cocoa, or heated Jacuzzis. Outside the building last week people walked around in shorts and T-shirts in the summer sun, but no one had any difficulty in shifting into 'winter mode' inside the Skidome.

The Skidome is only the latest in a series of elaborate fantasy-lands built to indulge the appetite for make-believe in Japan. Disneyland is perhaps the most famous and successful experiment: opened in 1983, Tokyo Disneyland has had 125 million visitors, more than the entire population of Japan. And with an average visitor spending 8,000 yen ( pounds 50), it has become a fantasy with a golden lining for its owners.

Other theme parks are dotted all over the country: French and German folk villages, where visitors can dress up in period costumes and pretend they are in Napoleonic France or in the Black Forest with lederhosen and large jugs of beer. A Dutch village, Huis Ten Bosch, near the southern city of Nagasaki, hopes to combine a daily tourist trade with a settled population of Japanese residents who would live permanently in a setting of Dutch farmhouses with a post office and other amenities built in 18th-century designs.

And for those who want to go to the beach in the summer, but don't trust the weather, there is always Wild Blue Yokohama, an indoor 'tropical' resort with sand, surf generated by a wave machine, and fake palm trees. But 'fake' is a bit strong . . . they are just another legitimate part of the fantasy.