The only unplanned thing I should mention is that, on the way to Kyuritsu, I stopped at Meguro to look at the hotel Meguro Gajoen, which was used (so Miho had informed me) as one of the models of Spirited Away, and was in any case well worth a visit in its own right, especially the toilets. I always feel a bit self-conscious going into a hotel where I'm not actually a guest, so I didn't take any pictures - and the toilet would have been a particularly problematic place to start snapping - but I can certainly confirm that it's quite an astounding building, even if I didn't (in the ten minutes available) notice any obvious Miyazaki references. If you'd like to see more, check out this blog, especially the toilet and waterfall.
It was there, lost in admiration of the ceiling tiles, that I accidentally left my tablet computer, on which I had been anxiously checking the subway times. I was halfway back to Meguro station by the time I realised my error, which necessitated my running back down the hill, bearding the reception staff in their den, and then bursting into the toilet, quite unlike the demure creature who had been there 10 minutes before. Luckily, the clientele of the Gajoen are not only rich but also honest (a rare combination), and the tablet was lying neatly on a side table, as if expecting me.
But the main business of this post is British Hills in Fukushima. This was (and at the time of writing still is) the first stop on my "Britain in Japan tour", a 90-minute shinkansen ride north-ish of Tokyo. I stopped at Shin-Shirakawa - a fairly small town/city - and a while later a green shuttle bus arrived to take me (and several Japanese people) the 40-minute hairpin drive up into the mountains, nestled amidst which was this oasis of Britishness.
Could those hills be British? Read on...
Welcome to British Hills
I wasn't quite sure before I arrived what kind of place British Hills was. Was it a theme park? A holiday resort? An educational centre? A dedicated homage to a certain vision of Britishness? To an extent all of these answers are correct, but especially the latter ones. Certainly, to think of it in terms of theme parks does no justice to the seriousness of the endeavour. If I show you the building where I'm writing right now, the for example - which goes by the name of "Drake" -
- you might be forgiven for imagining that this is some kind of lath-and-plaster simulacrum of the real thing; but no, this is a genuine half-timbered building, made with specially imported English oak. To the untutored eye the only thing that distinguishes it from "the real thing" is age - but then, even old things were once new. So much oak was needed to build British Hills, I was told yesterday, that the construction of Shakespeare's Globe, which happened at the same time, was delayed by some 3 years. The same level of care has gone into the other fittings, such as the claw-foot bath and basin (basin from Staffordshire, bath taps from Ross-on-Wye).
(It's true the toilet is still Japanese, but you can only take authenticity so far. As far as I know, the customers at the Globe don't have to shit into a pit, either.)
At first, I made a mistake by greeting the people at reception in Japanese. A major part of the British hills ethos, it turns out, is that it's an immersive experience, in which English is the common language spoken by all the staff, and (as far as possible) the guests too. This principle extends to food and drink: when I asked for green tea at lunch, I was eventually brought some, but with the warning that it was "top secret", and that the drink of choice was Earl Grey, English Breakfast or Darjeeling.
The place is, in short, very large, very solid, and mostly made of oak. I have a lot more to say about it than can be fitted into an LJ post, but let me give you a brief selection of photos, as a mere flavour:
A Bard in Mist and Sun
Old and New Meet in Pepper-kun
In the Library
This room contains fully 10% of Japan's snooker tables
Grotesques Guard the More Private Areas
Homer nods in one or two places, as with Ye Shop, which stocks baseball bat toys and American footballs purporting to be Rugby balls:
And of course, the geography dictates some differences - hence the warning against wild boar, and the fact that when I went for a walk in the woods I was advised to take a "bear bell" with me:
The view at the end of the walk was considerably more Japanese than English, too.
A View of Lake Hatori
But, given the unavoidable constraints, they've made an excellent job of things, including the food and drink. I've got to say that the staff were incredibly generous with their time in giving me interviews about the history, ethos and running of the place. The visitors, by the way, are mostly school and university students, who come in groups to improve their English and get some exposure to British culture. Private guests and cosplayers are also on the guest list. The staff are about 50:50 English-speaking Japanese and British (or Commonwealth - Americans apparently need not apply).
The founders even provided British Hills with a history. The original castle was built in the 12th century, apparently, with later modifications; although there are hints of a far older settlement, as evidenced by this ruined chapel with its Celtic cross:
Inevitably, perhaps, places such as the refectory remind visitors of Harry Potter, since they share a common inspiration in the refectories of Oxbridge colleges and the like - but who knows or cares about Oxbridge?
And, as for the cloaks provided to guests when the weather is a little chilly - it's no use pointing out that they were designed before the films were a twinkle in Time Warner's eye...
A Little Touch of Harry in the Night?
Excitingly for me, however, it turns out that Kore Yamazaki, the mangaka of The Ancient Magus' Bride, came here for research purposes, and even included the following tribute in Volume 7 of the manga. Perhaps she was in this very room...
I love it when a project comes together.