David Boyle

The most artificial place on earth No. 1: Ocean Dome

The Ecologist, October 2003

It's real water, but that's about all that's genuine. Yet people who bathe in the artificial beach at Ocean Dome in Japan - with its artificial sunshine, artificial waves and artificial sand - expect something better than merely real.

And therein lies the problem.

It is now nearly two decades since the novelist Umberto Eco wandered around California looking at 3-D versions of Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper, describing the whole experience in an essay called 'Travels in Hyper-reality'.

He coined the word to describe the constant assurances he was receiving that the Last Supper experience was the most moving moment of his life, and better than seeing the real thing.

Since then, we have been overwhelmed with the hyper-real, by fake tastes, fake breasts, fake sounds, fake food and fake places - all hyped by powerful marketing as if they were somehow 'better than real', but actually downright artificial.

The country that really does hyper-real is Japan, and the artificial beach known as Ocean Dome (motto: 'Paradise within a paradise') - with its sliding roof, its wave machine and its constant 30 degrees - is its most extreme expression.

And since I was writing a book about authenticity, I felt I just had to see it myself.

Ocean Dome is part of the so-called Seagaia resort along the coastal highway outside the city of Myazaki in the far south of Japan. It's a longish journey from Tokyo, by train, plane and bus, before I drew up in the almost deserted forecourt.

It was Friday afternoon, and my arrival at the ticket counter created a small stir. Either it's the well-known Japanese recession or hyper-real is not currently in vogue, but I appeared to be almost the only visitor.

So I rented a pair of swimming trunks (orange with sailing ships on), and then it was a short semi-naked walk through the empty foyer and onto the beach itself.

The heat and humidity was inviting at first - like an overheated municipal swimming pool - but the size of the place was a shock. Ocean Dome is bigger than many ocean liners - over 1,000 feet long - and has space for 13,500 tons of salt water and 10,000 people, without the mild inconvenience of real salt water, real crabs, real seaweed or fish.

But there were two less inviting aspects that quickly became apparent. One was the feel of the artificial beach under my toes, made from small white pebbles like those you find on graves in English churchyards.

The other was the slight gloom. It was a beautiful summer's day outside, but the great dome above the beach stayed resolutely shut, for fear that the real world would tempt us away.

I watched an elderly lady paddling by herself and a couple of youngsters dashing in and out of the precisely regulated waves, and tried to pinpoint exactly why it was disconcerting.

It was pleasantly warm, but it felt faintly like a gymnasium - and they always remind me of exams. Also, the palm trees were too perfect to be real. The fruit behind the counter turned out to be plastic, and the backdrop was painted with small clouds and a deep blue sky as the Pacific view outside probably should have been.

There was the sound of a waterfall up one end, and the piped sound of Swing Low Sweet Chariot - which you wouldn't, let's face it, get on a real beach. Up the other was a fake volcano, complete with various water slides, called Bali Ha'i.

I wondered if it ever occurred to James Michener or Oscar Hammerstein, writing Tales of the South Pacific just after VJ Day, that their imaginary island would one day make it into a Japanese theme park.

There was something fascinating about Ocean Dome, but something unnerving too. I suppose the fear is that in the back of the mind is that this may soon be the only kind of beaches we've got left - having abandoned the rest into oil jetties or abandoned the rest to chemical jetties or oil slicks.

And I realised that this is exactly what we have been told throughout my life - either by those who were excited about this brave new artificial future or by those who felt powerless to stop it.

We have lived through more than half a century constantly told that the future of food was artificial, the future of books, newspapers, medicine and schools was virtual. And that we would soon deal entirely with computerised teachers and doctors through online.

For most of that time, the predictions seemed only too true. Highly-paid technologists and corporate apologists told us that somehow anyone who sketched out a different kind of vision of the future were 'standing in the way of progress'.

But if you look around today, despite Ocean Dome, McDonald's and Microsoft, the real world has been fighting back. Many of the technologies predicted over the past half century have come true, of course, but they haven't sent reality packing as we were led to expect.

We haven't had the genius machines, able to think for themselves (predicted in 1970). Or human embryo packets in shops (1966). Or robots to look after the elderly (1983). Or dish-making machines in the kitchen (1967). Or artificial moons instead of street-lighting (1968).

Despite the millions being pumped into the idea of replacing biological human life with a mixture of genetic engineering, cryogenics, artificial intelligence and nano-technology, a powerful minority of the population seems determined to defend at least the human option.

In fact, everywhere we look, there is an unremarked struggle between real and artificial. There is a quiet 'authentic' lobby, increasingly committed to real food, real culture, real politics, real schools, real community, real medicine, real culture, real stories…

They may eat fast food sometimes. They may shop online, but they also increasingly defend their right to an authentic option with increasing passion: GM genes, once released, threaten to turn the whole of agriculture fake.

They are the force behind the rise of local brands, real ale, reading groups, organic vegetables, slow food, poetry recitals, unmixed music, materiality in art and unbranded vintage fashions: all symptoms of the same thing - a demand for human-scale, face-to-face institutions and real experience.

Perhaps that was the problem with Ocean Dome: there comes a point when people react against the fake.

Japanese theme parks have risen and fallen over the past decade. There was a reproduction of Hans Andersen's house in Hokkaido, robots of American movie stars at Tochigi-ken, a whole British-style village at Shizuoka and a reproduction of the Santa Maria in Osaka - which is bizarrely twice the size of the original.

Presumably they were afraid that the smallness of the ship that discovered America would disappoint tourists.

Japan's recession has done for many of them, and one Friday afternoon at Ocean Dome was enough to confirm rumours of its financial struggle. Since my visit, the whole Seagaia resort has been snapped up by the New York-based corporate raider Timothy Collins of Ripplewood Holdings - who has been buying up struggling Japanese businesses without being able to speak much Japanese.

I wish him well with it - personally I could do without it, even after a demonstration of their wave machine that could produce ten-foot high waves for surfing at the press of a button, each one precisely the same as the last.

So after an hour or so writing postcards on the beach, I gave up. The real sunshine filtering through the glass at either end of the monstrous auditorium was just too tempting. And, after all, the real rolling waves of the Pacific were just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the highway.

In the head to head battle between real and unreal, I know which side I'm on.

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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers