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MAY 1, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 17

Illustration for TIME by Greg Hargreaves
Who Needs Nature? Japan Does It Better

The sun beats down from the clear blue sky, waves lap softly at the shore and children with floats frolic at the water's edge. A perfect day at the beach? Actually, more than perfect. It's the Ocean Dome in the southern Japanese prefecture of Miyazaki, where human hands have shaped the "natural" environment. Swimmers here don't have to worry about such inconveniences as tides and currents, and they are shielded from the quirks of sea creatures. Even the sand, actually crushed marble designed to not stick to your skin, is new and improved.

Within the mammoth structure -- 100 m high and 300 m across -- Japanese engineers have entered what used to be the exclusive preserve of God. At the stroke of a keyboard, the artificial ocean can be adjusted from a calm seascape perfect for kids and sandcastles to a surfer's paradise with swells of up to 2.5 m, sufficiently wavy for pro surfing competitions. The roof can be opened or closed, depending on the desirability of the outside weather.

Technological efforts in Japan have often been devoted to recreating the real world, and the result is a bewildering array of virtual-reality fun around the country. Snow-covered indoor hills such as Ski Dome, half an hour outside Tokyo, provide a year-round wintry experience. Simulation is a staple of life in the Japanese entertainment industry, which has created reproductions of Spain, Germany, Russia and Holland. Just an hour from Nagasaki is Huis ten Bosch, a 152-hectare, fully functioning 17th-century Dutch village replete with canals, wooden shoes and rounds of gouda cheese. The only things missing from a true Amsterdam experience are legalized marijuana and the red light district. But perhaps that would be a little too real.

Who Needs Nature? Japan Does It Better
Technological efforts in Japan have often been devoted to recreating the real world, and the result is a bewildering array of virtual-reality fun around the country.

Osamu Tezuka is often called the Walt Disney of Japan.

Hot Spot
Virtual fun can build up a very real appetite.

Short Cuts
The Park Hyatt Tokyo is ideal for those who feel they have earned a little pampering.

Web Crawling
Japan in your Palm.

Michitaka Hirose, a professor specializing in virtual-reality technology at Tokyo University, traces Japan's thriving artificial entertainment industry to the art of bonsai, in which medieval nobility honed the reshaping of nature into an art form. Today, a Kyoto facility designed by game maker Sega lets people experience Mother Nature's nasty streak: a virtual-reality earthquake. When customers strap themselves into a moving seat and slip on 3D glasses, they perceive themselves sitting on a tatami mattress in a bedroom. Suddenly, a tremor rocks them, causing books to tumble from the shelves, and then drawers, lamps, walls and eventually the ceiling to collapse on top of the "victims." The educational ride, run by the Kyoto city fire department (81-75 662-1849), has been a hit with virtual thrill seekers. The best part is, it's free.

Hirose says the penchant for creating small, controllable worlds has nothing to do with escapism or isolationism. But perhaps there are exceptions. In a step beyond the virtual pet Tamagotchi, computer simulations like the PlayStation game Tokimeki Memorial provide the lovelorn with the experience of dating a girl. In the latest version, the virtual woman, Hikaru Hinomoto, responds to the player by his real name.

Elsewhere in the arcades, virtual entertainment abounds. These include games that mimic skiing, golf, horseback riding, surfing and soccer. Some of the country's most high-tech theme parks-like Sega's Joypolis (81-3 5500-1801) in Tokyo-are entirely dedicated to virtual reality. One of the biggest hits at Joypolis is a 3D adventure in which treasure-hunting players explore a castle and try to fend off creepy zombies.

Some entertainment gimmicks blur the line between simulation and reality, like game manufacturer Namco's audition machine. It tests players' acting or singing skills, but besides awarding them a score, it gives participants a shot at making it big: talent agents will be in touch if you perform particularly well. And then there's the simulated white-water rafting adventure at Miyazaki's Ocean Dome (81-985 21-1111), which injects a little bit of "real" reality by splashing actual water at riders as they drift down a violent torrent on the screen. Rafters would probably prefer a perfect world where shooting the rapids doesn't get your hair wet, but sometimes reality has its price.

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