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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004

OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

GOING DUTCH

A 'theme park' that's an eco-friendly dream


I recently went down to Nagasaki Prefecture to spend time with a dear old friend, Takekuni Ikeda, who lives on a little wooded peninsula jutting into Omura Bay. He's an incredible man.

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The deck (above) and thatched roof of the house designed by its occupant, Takekuni Ikeda, chief srchitect of Huis Ten Bosch theme park. PHOTOS COURTESY OF TAKEKUNI IKEDA
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During the Pacific War, Mr. Ikeda was the navigation officer of the cruiser Yahagi, which accompanied the mighty 65,000-ton battleship Yamato on its suicide mission to Okinawa in April 1945. On the way, both the Yahagi and Yamato were bombed, torpedoed and sunk by U.S. Navy planes. An explosion hurled Mr. Ikeda off the bridge into the sea. He suffered burns all over his head, hands and face, but made a scar-free recovery due to the chilly sea water and a covering of thick bunker oil, which kept the air off the burns. Now aged 80, he still has a shock of thick, natural black hair.

After the war, Mr. Ikeda went to university, and then went on to become a famous architect. He designed Japan's first high-rise buildings, including the Keio Plaza Hotel and the Mitsui Building in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward.

I met Mr. Ikeda for the first time about 14 years ago when we flew to Holland together for the sea trials of the Kanko Maru, a modern replica of a 19th-century Dutch warship, the Soembing, which was given to Shogun Iesada in 1855. The original warship was a sail- and steam-driven paddle-wheeler; this new Kanko Maru is a faithful copy of the old one, including the paddles, though it has diesel engines, a propeller, very modern communication and navigation equipment -- but no guns. Even so, it can still make way under sail.

This fine-looking ship sailed all the way from Holland to Nagasaki, where there were plans to use it for part of the year as an education and research vessel, visiting ports all around Japan.

Nit-picking regulations

Alas, nit-picking Transport Ministry regulations about the number of bunks have restricted the Kanko Maru to tootling around Omura Bay, where its mooring is at Huis Ten Bosch, a resort in Sasebo City built as a replica of an old Dutch town. The architect for this project, named after the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, was Mr. Ikeda.

Some people turn up their noses when they hear about Huis Ten Bosch, thinking of it as just another "theme park." It is far more than that, and though the outward appearances are Dutch, the inner philosophy is old Edo (present-day Tokyo). The shoguns' political capital had a comprehensive recycling system, as does Huis Ten Bosch -- except that Huis Ten Bosch's is far more modern.

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This view from the high clock tower at Huis Ten Bosch in Sasebo City, Nagasaki Prefecture, shows windmills at the Dutch theme park, as well as some of its many canals and 40,000 trees that have made the site a haven for wildlife. PHOTOS COURTESY OF HUIS TEN BOSCH

All sewage and raw garbage from Huis Ten Bosch is treated to produce energy, and a fine, odorless compost that is used mainly on the grounds. The waste water is so clean after processing that you could drink it.

When it opened in 1992, the resort cost 2.1 trillion yen to build, of which almost a third went toward environmental improvement. The site was originally an industrial landfill which the Japanese Imperial Navy took over during the war for the Harioko Navy College, in order to help train naval cadets because the famous, and still functioning, Etajima Naval College in Hiroshima Prefecture was overflowing. After the war, the college was torn down and the land lay disused until the construction of Huis Ten Bosch.

As a key part of the project, both saltwater canals and freshwater ponds were dug, and besides the extensive tulip beds, a mix of some 40,000 deciduous and evergreen broadleaf trees were planted, including oaks, walnut, chestnut, horse chestnut, camellia, arbutus wild strawberry trees, Chinese hackberry, holly, paulownia, magnolia, laurel, planes, mountain cherry, rhododendrons and a whole other swath whose names I can only find in either Japanese or Latin.

All this open water and greenery had already attracted 30 species of birds and 70 species of insects by the time Huis Ten Bosch opened. Ten years later, this had increased to 61 species of birds and 150 species of insects, including a butterfly that is on the Environment Ministry's endangered species list. The trees have grown so well that probably, in less than 20 years, they will have to thin some of them out in order for the others to continue growing.

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Located on the shore of Omura Bay, where it can be reached by boat from Nagasaki airport, or by bus from the city itself, Huis Ten Bosch is not only pleasing to the eye, but it is also a model of recycling and environmental awarenss.

The site is now also favored by so many small birds that a pair of peregrine falcons have taken up residence in the resort's high clock tower, and there are so many fish, such as mullet, in the canals and along the shore that you can see ospreys, herons and kingfishers there too. Wagtails flit along the water edges and families of swans glide on the canals, together with ducks, grebes, and other water birds. The water in the canals is cleaner than the water of Omura Bay, and oysters grow in profusion on banks, faced -- not with dreaded concrete -- but natural rock.

Financial stress

On the downside, however, the unusual emphasis in Mr. Ikeda's resort design on enhancing the environment put financial stress on the company. The number of guests Huis Ten Bosch attracts adequately pays for the operation, but it was built during the heyday of the bubble economy, and times are now much tougher.

Nonetheless, the improvement to the environment is a huge gain for Nagasaki Prefecture, which the central government fails to appreciate. Not only that, but taxpayers' money continues to be poured into monstrously expensive and environmentally disastrous construction projects such as the Nagara River Dam in Gifu Prefecture and the huge dikes that dried out and killed what used to be a superb tidal wetland in Isahaya Bay, Nagasaki Prefecture, that was formerly a highly diversified fishery rich in bird life.

While I was attending an environmental meeting at the Prime Minister's Official Residence, I handed over a report written by Mr. Ikeda on the financial and environmental enhancement of Huis Ten Bosch. This ended up in the hands of a minister in the Koizumi Cabinet, who dismissed it with a sneer, declaring that "inferior projects such as this deserve to go under."

Actually, the inferior old fart had to resign and go under himself during this year's pension-fund furor -- but that's another story.

Mr. Ikeda is now retired, but when I went to visit him he drank until 11 at night and then was up at 6 the next morning to enter his yacht (named Yahagi) in a big race. Those old navy men are tough!

I spent a couple of evenings at Mr. Ikeda's house, which he designed with all modern conveniences, but on traditional lines, with great thick pillars and beams, a central firepit (for which we send him charcoal from our kiln here in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture) and a lashed, thatched roof.

Low hills yonder

It also has a thatch-covered open deck which looks out across lapping waves to low hills yonder covered to the shore with broadleaf evergreens and thickets of bamboo. From the deck, which is designed as a noh stage, you can watch the sunset across the bay, and with a breeze and the water out in front and below, it feels as if you're on board a ship.

I don't mean this to be an advertisement, but it seems worth mentioning that Huis Ten Bosch also has a fine marina, from which you can sail or sea-kayak, and the food and service at their Hotel Europa is excellent. The resort features are very well done, and if you ask, they will give you a behind-the-scenes tour of their environmental facilities.

You can reach Huis Ten Bosch by boat across Omura Bay from Nagasaki airport, or by an hourlong bus ride from the city -- but if you take the boat, you may be lucky enough to see a few dolphins, too!

Here's a joke sent to me from Wales, and which I feel obliged to inflict on Notebook readers.

A huge Emperor penguin waddles into a bar and looks up at the barman.

"Can I help you?" asks the barman.

"Yes, I'm looking for my brother," says the penguin.

"What does he look like?" asks the barman


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