I decided to go on a little trip this weekend, and after a restful night at my hotel (THAT is worth a story in itself), found myself this morning -- uneasily -- standing at the foot of New York's World Trade Center, looking up. While there gaping at the sight, I took that picture you see there on the right.
Yes, the date above is correct. No, I don't own a time machine, nor have I gone insane. What I did, was travel by train an hour north out of Tokyo to Tochigi Prefecture, and visit what, on the surface, is an extremely cheesy and overpriced tourist attraction that I nevertheless found strangely compelling.
Where I went, on the Kinugawa Line off from the main line to Nikko, at a place halfway betwwen Kosagoe and Kinugawa-Onsen stations, was a sort of miniature architectural theme park built and owned by the Tobu Corporation. Well, back in the late 1980s, the Tobu Company, which owns the Tobu Railway Company that runs trains up to Nikko, was hoping to increase tourism to the area. You remember the miniature buildings from the Godzilla movies, the intricately detailed buildings of Tokyo which were smashed flat by the big guy in a rubber suit? Someone at the Tobu company had a bright idea of hiring these guys to build an entire park full of miniature representations of famous world buildings.
So in 1993, Tobu World Square opened, with about 100 meticulously detailed structures, all constructed the same scale, 1:25, the same as those Revell model car kits I used to see as a kid (do they still make those?), and lumped together in a few acres of land, grouped loosely by region, including a Europe Zone, Asia Zone, Japan Zone, Egypt Zone -- and an America Zone, of course.
The centerpiece of the America Zone, of course, is a miniature chunk of New York City, featuring the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty --- and, of course, the World Trade Center.
Do the math: even as miniatures at the 25 to 1 scale used, the models of the 1,362 ft (415 m)-tall World Trade Center towers are rendered as 54½ feet (16.6 meters) tall, so they're still pretty damned tall -- and when I was standing at the foot of this detailed model, it was disturbingly like my first trip to New York City in the early 1980s, when I stood in the plaza of the World Trade Center looked up at the towers from there. It was spooky in ways I have difficulty describing.
There it was, a typical hot summer day, this families with kids and pushing baby carriages or wandering around admiring all the miniature buildings, and here I am, having my weird nostalgic American patriotism moment, something I sure was completely unnoticed by everyone around me.
The first time I went to New York City, I flew by budget airline on an afternoon flight to Newark. arriving around 9:00 in the evening, and from Newark Airport the first thing you could see across the bay was the lit-up towers of the World Trade Center at the foot of Manhattan. The glowing towers were my first sight of New York, and I'll always remember that sight.
I circled that building, staring upward, remembering the original. I came around to the side where the plaza was, and was startled to recognize in the center in miniature representation of the sculpture (Fritz Koenig's "Sphere") that once stood at the center of the plaza -- the ruins of which I had seen standing in Battery Park in New York City just a few months ago, where it had been moved as a sort of memorial. Around this miniature but intact sculpture, miniature people walked in the plaza and sat at the benches enjoying the sunshine, much like the real, much-larger people in Tobu World Square were doing.
|On the left: the miniature WTC Plaza at Tobu World Square.
On the right: The ruins of Fritz Koenig's 'Sphere' standing in New York's Battery Park
There is a certain thrill to seeing miniature representation of the familiar: anyone anyone who's admire a model railroad lay out understands this. I had the same feeling when walking through the Japan Zone, on the way to this spot, admiring the miniature reconstructions of Tokyo Station, the Tokyo Tower, and even Terminal 2 at Narita International Airport (complete with miniature 747s taxiing up and down the tarmac -- why somebody thought this was worth building I don't know). But seeing this familar echo of the now-gone was disturbing in ways -- well, if I were Susan Sontag or Calvin Trillin or Jon Carroll I might be able to put it into words, but I don't think I have the tools for the job.
Lest you think I spent the entire day moping, that's not true: it was a bright sunny day (albeit hot), and I shook off my feelings of unease and continued my tour, enjoying myself far more than I thought I would. At the buildings that I had been to, I envisioned myself back there again (for example, in effect walking through Beijing's Forbidden City again, being able to follow my exact path through the central area represented) or imagining myself visiting the places I haven't been to yet (St. Peter's Basilica and Square is a lot bigger than I'd first imagined). I bent down and squinted, trying to place myself at the proper level I would be, and admired the level of detail and odd touches -- the New York area has one street dug up for a sewer replacement project, an alley in the Harlem area looks like it has a few dancers from West Side Story kicking up their heels, and on the Great Wall of China can be seen the characters from Journey to the West (the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his three guardians, including the Monkey King). Naturally, I took a few hundred photos while I was at it.
One thing struck me: given that all of the famous buildings depicted here are tourist attractions in their own right, the designers have, of course, populated their settings with plenty of miniature tourists. So we have the spectacle of crowds of real tourists looking at crowds of fake tourists.
All in all, I spent at least 4 hours walking around the relatively compact space, losing myself in a little virtual tourism before heading back to Tokyo by the evening. My forearms, it wound up, were badly sunburned, but thanks to the big floppy Tilley Endurable I wore, mostly on a whim -- I haven't worn it in years, not since my Peru trip -- my face was completely protected.