Anirut Jeungsutprasoet had a dream – one that he was sure no other Thai could have had. The 61-year-old businessman wanted to replicate in Thailand the Japanese town where he spent almost 20 years. He had two reasons.
“First, I fell in love with Japan and I’m really impressed with its people, and I wanted to share that feeling with my countrymen,” Anirut says, grinning.
Second, he wanted to give Thais who are unable for whatever reason to travel to Japan the chance to sample the experience and learn something about Japanese tradition and culture.
As has been said, no dream is out of reach. Anirut opened what he called “Hinoki Land” this past October, in Chiang Mai, after 17 months of construction.
The Japanese theme park worth 1.3bil baht (RM170mil) is in Chaiya Prakan district, about 120km from downtown Chiang Mai, and it’s quickly proven popular. Tourists are flowing in, signalling their visits with “check-ins” on social media.
Anirut, who was born in Si Sa Ket but whose wife hails from Chiang Mai, designed the landscaping and interior decoration and oversaw construction so it would be as faithful as possible to the original in Japan.
The name Hinoki is borrowed from Chamaecyparis obtusa, a cypress tree native to central Japan, whose wood is used to build palaces, temples, shrines and noh theatres and also makes a fine incense, admired for its light, earthy aroma.
Discovering that hinoki grows in Laos as well, Anirut realised he had a chance to pursue his dream. In 2002 he acquired a concession to fell enough of the trees to erect all of the buildings for his town.
Among these are landmarks well known enough even in Thailand that visitors feel like they’re exploring the real places. The entrance gate with its gigantic lantern mimics Kaminarimon, the “Thunder Gate” of the famous Sensoji Temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district.
What many people do upon arrival is rent a traditional Japanese kimono to wear while enjoying the tour, making the visit that much more memorable. As part of his aim to celebrate the culture, Anirut actually imports the kimonos from Japan.
The next amazing sight to see is a palisade of 88 red torii, a copy of the one at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine. A pleasant stroll through the arches includes a few pauses to pose for pictures, resplendent in your classical Japanese garb.
At the end stands the largest torii of all, directly in front of Hinoki Castle, a grand wooden structure four storeys tall that replicates Kyoto’s Kinkakuji Temple – the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Alongside is a building housing “Japan Town”, a great place to dine, drink and shop. The items on sale are all imported.
Anirut is planning more. Over the next two years he’ll build a ryokan – one of those terrific traditional inns where Japanese and foreign tourists still can stay all over Japan. He wants everything to seem as authentic as possible. “This is a real Japanese town – not just something similar,” he says.
Hinoki Land is indeed a genuine town, and just 1km away is cosy Japanese village – just as realistic and just as charming. Ban Suan Kolak, known in English as Kolak Thai Date Farm, was the first farm in Southeast Asia to grow dates in large quantities and it too welcomes visitors, as well as hosting date exporters on a regular basis.
The “Kolak” in the name refers to Sak Ko Lak Lamjuan, who founded the farm 20 years ago after developing the original Thai species of date.
Now 64, Sak says the dates grown there are better than the ones grown in arid countries overseas – the more common sources – thanks to Thailand’s rainfall. The farm initially only grew dates to sell to tourists passing through and to export to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, where the populations are primarily Muslim.
Five years ago Sak began promoting the farm as a tourist attraction, drawing interest with Japanese-style architecture inspired by visits to Japan by his daughter-in-law Pannarat. Souvenirs, teas, sweets and dried fruit are sold at the main pavilion near the entrance to the garden, which boasts a simple yet exquisite design.
Pannarat dispatched an architect to Osaka to learn how to build the copper roof by hand. The gorgeous and tranquil Japanese garden is half Arab-style date farm. A small, red arched bridge over the beautiful pond between a cafe and the main shop is perfect for keepsake snapshots.
Also near the main pavilion is a staircase of stones that leads to a large red torii and then the date farm. The reception area and a Muslim prayer hall are inside a chalet with a triangular roof that’s a replica of one seen at Shirakawa-go, a traditional village and World Heritage site in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture.
The best time to visit Ban Suan Kolak is between July and October, when the palms are yielding fruit. Sak even encourages guests to get involved in the harvesting. But, at any time of the year, the farm is a marvellous place to take a rest and sip date tea.
Try the sweetened sticky rice mixed with date fruit and perilla seeds – and don’t miss sampling fresh dates, which taste completely different from dried dates. – The Nation/Asia News Network/Jintana Panyaarvudh