'DOWN THE OCEAN' -- JAPANESE-STYLE For many, $300 million indoor park offers fun in the sun without the hassles


YOKOHAMA -- It's almost summertime in Japan, which means it's time to head for the beach.

Not, of course, the gritty stretch that separates Japan from the ocean. That's a combination garbage dump and drag-race strip, atop dark volcanic sand. Instead, it's time to head for the indoor beach park, with predictable waves; clean, rubberized, sand-grained flooring; and perfect weather rain or shine.

"It's the instant noodles of beaches," explains Rie Kato, as she lies under a sunlamp at a $300 million indoor beach park in Yokohama, burnishing away any trace of winter pallor. "Real noodles are great, but instant noodles can be filling too."

"I'd prefer a real beach," says Hiroyuki Ishii, her boyfriend, recovering from a night of drinking.

But maybe not too real. One eye opens and looks toward water, then slams shut. "It's too tiring," Mr. Ishii says, as an attendant clicks on the sunlamp for another cycle.

That's one way of spending the day at Wild Blue, an enormous structure best described as a multi-functional humidifier accommodating 4,000 people during an average Saturday. Inside, simulated fog is sprayed into the temperature-controlled 90-degree environment as artificially created waves (temperature-controlled at 86 degrees) crash onto simulated sand (also 86 degrees). A few scant rays of the real sun filter down from dispersed skylights to mingle with time-controlled illumination providing simulated midday light as well as sunsets.

"Why on earth would anyone have this indoors when you can go to the ocean?" says John Hamilton, whose design and construction company builds indoor parks. "The simple answer is, they can't go to the ocean so they create an alternative using technology and design."

To elaborate, Mr. Hamilton calls in an expert witness: his 10-year-old son, Greg.

"Why don't you want to go to the real beach?"

"Too dirty," says Greg.

"There you have it," Mr. Hamilton nods. He is understandably proud of his company's accomplishments: "We build nature ourselves."

That concept isn't all that radical in Japan. The indoor beach, and a sister indoor ski slope, are the newest examples, but attempts to improve on the environment while keeping the general framework intact has a long history. Japanese gardens and the miniature bonsai trees are supposed to be cultivated and trimmed into perfection. Nature isn't expected to happen naturally.

Wild Blue's concession to the outdoors is the presence of palm trees, along with the kind of symbols typically found in a fish tank. A reproduction of half an old galley is built into one wall, a castle motif dominates another; there's the inevitable make-believe treasure chest and a cave.

"It's a southern atmosphere," says Mamoru Shibata, a Wild Blue employee.

Kind of. Maybe. But even this explanation absolutely fails to account for a second-floor restaurant. Or the library of English language reference books inside, visible when the clouds of mist are not streaming by.

Beyond aesthetics, Wild Blue seems to have succeeded among some customers by creating the least wild environment possible. On the second-floor mezzanine, a young woman sleeps soundly on a bench, covered by a Mickey Mouse towel. Down below, a stream circumvents the building's interior. People in the water appear to be swimming, but that is just an illusion based on a slow moving current.

"If you look closely at these people, they rarely swim," says Mr. Shibata. A paper boat can make the loop in the same 10 minutes taken by everyone else.

Those wanting more activity seek other spots.

Small waves (precisely 30 centimeters high, or just short of 1 foot) slosh for the first 30 minutes of each hour. Bigger waves (precisely 2 meters, or about 6 1/2 feet) fill the remaining time -- but swimmers must use a body board and get in line to ride a wave.

In the few minutes scheduled in between one of the shifts, there is the opportunity to line up to swing into the water on a rope. Reservations are required.

This provokes different feelings among patrons.

"I'd like a bit of freedom," says Julian Kinsley, an English publisher. "I don't understand why they say, 'Now you can swim, now you can surf, now you can use the rope.' Why can't we do all three?"

And those are hardly the only rules. Not permitted are tattoos (because they are favored by mobsters), nudity, swimming clothed, or picnics (though restaurants do a booming business providing food, and a place for many of the women swimmers to retouch make-up).

The cost for these restrictions is steep: up to $46 to get in, plus $12 for a beach chair, plus $24 for the one-day rental of a body board, and so on.

Bad deal? Eriko Shimomato and Akihito Nakayama are making their fifth visit of the year and plan to return. They have staked a claim to a choice spot, lying between fake rocks and a fake wood fence near a fake stream on top of fake earth.

"It's artificial, that's why we like it," says Ms. Nakayama. "You open the door and find this -- summer all the time, any time, under a nice palm tree."


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