My Japanese friends (and loved ones) need little encouragement to imagine, for the sheer pleasure of it. Even a tiny cue—the picture of a palm tree, a postcard from Spain—can trigger a pleasurable journey, inside one's head.
If the thing ain't real, so what? In your mind—and that's where it counts—it's both perfect and true. Real doesn't always mean better. Dreary old real.
That's why it gives me great pleasure, once again, to trace a web of imaginative tribute across the globe. Let's start in Munich, before we travel to Tokyo. In our minds, of course.
Fake #1: Gothic Noveau
Munich's most photographed building is a Gothic extravaganza: the Town Hall, or Rathaus. Here, we see it decked out for Munich's annual Christopher Street Day.
(By the way, does calling it Christopher Street Day seem more authentically homosexual than plain old Gay Pride, or its direct German translation, Schwulstolz?)
The Munich Town Hall oozes Gothic camp from every crumb of its aging mortar. Gargoyles, serpents, witches, seraphs, demons and angels abound.
They're all fraudulent, as well as fictitious. The so-called Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) opened in 1901.
Let's not call it fake Gothic. Let's call it Gothic Revival.
Fake #2: Fifties Refurb
Odd that the burghers should build a Gothic Town Hall, when the rest of the city was busy helping to invent art noveau. Doubly odd, since Munich has a real Gothic town hall, dating back to the 16th century, right next door.
Well, it's real-ish. The original was severely damaged in WWII bombing, and Eisenhower ordered remains bulldozed so tanks could roll into the Marienplatz, the city's central square.
It was rebuilt, from scratch, in the 1950s. So the old Gothic town hall is much newer than the new Gothic town hall. And much less Gothic, if the truth be known.
Today, it houses the Munich Toy Museum, showcasing the collection of cartoonist Ivan Steiger. Speaking of pretend, it just finished a Barbie exhibition.
Back to the New Town Hall. Taking pride of place in front, we see the famous Glockenspiel.
The top deck reprises a famous jousting match staged for Duke Wilhelm V on his marriage to Renata of Lothringen. The lower level shows a bunch of barrel-makers prancing about to celebrate the end of the plague.
Well, the jousting knights were knights errant. They've been playing a discordant note for two years, and nobody noticed. It wasn't fake, but it was wrong.
Fake #3. Make mine a Nama.
You'll hear no discord from the Glockenspiel in the picture below. It welcomes visitors to Yebisu Garden Place, a commercial and residental development in Tokyo's inner west—my office was in YGP Tower. It plays a cheerful mp3 file of an accordion and metal xylophone, perfect every time. And not a word about the plague.
Now, why would the good burghers of Ebisu, which nestles in trendy Shibuya-ku, want to cheese it up with a fake Munich?
The buildings have been designed to feel beery and European, right down to the fake brick facades. They used plastic tiles which look like terracotta, and draped them over a flexible steel frame.
Brick buildings spell danger in an earthquake-prone nation, and those few real brick buildings which survive in Japan get heavy structural reinforcement.
Fake #4. Construction Controlleé
One might assume that all the buildings in Yebisu Garden Place are safely fake. Not so. The French château which houses Joël Robuchon's Restaurant is a real French château, dissembled block-by-block and reconstructed on the plaza level. One hopes it's obtained seismic reinforcement, or the people shopping in the Mitsukoshi Department Store Food Hall beneath will be in for a surprise, someday.
Rumour has it that the food is so good, Ayumi Hamasaki keeps an apartment in YGP, just so she can pop across the street for a quick soufflé fromage.
Fake #5 Bavariental.
The East mimics the West more skillfully than the other way around. The story of the Chinese Tower shows that the good burghers of Munich got a little confused about what they were actually faking.
The story starts with the birth of a Mr. Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1753. By a strange turn of events, he found himself an officer of the Wittlesbach court in Munich, earning the title Reichsgraf von Rumford, or Count Rumford to the likes of you and me. He became the first scientist to properly understand the heat-producing effect of friction. As well, has the distinction of introducing the potato to Bavaria, thus beginning a centuries-long culinary love affair.
He will remain best-known, though, as the founder of Munich's magnificent English Garden. The "English" part refers to a style of park created by landscape gardener Capability Brown, in which paths meander around free-form lakes, in contrast to the squared-off formality of most noble gardens of the day.
The model for such a park was Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. As you may know, Kew Gardens features a bloody great pagoda in the middle of it. Muncheners felt, logically, for their garden to be a proper English one, it should feature one of those pagoda-thingys, too. Except nobody knew that they were called pagodas, so they called it the Chinese Tower. A Bavarian oompah band plays daily, on the second floor.
Fake #6. Arrrr. Or should that be allll?
You'd need to look long and hard to find such gauche fakery in the east. But the Pirate Ships of Lake Ashi, near Hakone in Japan, come close. These boats are really just commuter ferries that have been done up to look like pirate ships, as much as a commuter ferry ever can. The wrapped-up sail on the mast never unfurls; each is, in fact, but a plastic moulding of a furled-up sail.
This particular Japanese pirate ship seems to bear the Australian flag. Now, someone should point out that unless Australia has come adrift and floated into the Caribbean, one is unlikely to find an Australian pirate on the high seas.
No pirates. but plenty of thieves. The convict stock which settled Australia had light fingers around many things, and none so much as British names. Four Australian capital cities christened a suburb Cheltenham; three lifted Richmond; along with several Canterburys, Henleys, Hamptons, Hyde Parks and Darlingtons.
Mark Twain, in his book Following the Equator, bemoaned the lack of originality in antipodean place names. He sighed whenever he passed through yet another spot named Victoria.
(Interestingly, Twain's tour of Australia was entirely motivated by fraud. In the days before photography was common, fake Twains would tour the globe, and make a pretty penny reading from his books. Twain thought that he, too, should get in on the racket.)
However, like most fakes, the Australian places are better than the originals. Except—South Australians will back me up on this—the Adelaide suburb of Southwark.
And on that note, let me conclude our homage to homages. Echt is ugh.