On the Southern island of Miyakojima in Japan there is an unusual amusement park – the Ueno German Cultural Village. The main attraction of the German Cultural Village is the original-sized “Marksburg”. The prototype of this German castle on Miyakojima is a castle above the German River Rhine: Marksburg in German means Mark’s Castle.
A German castle on Miyakojima as an amusement park
“Where are you from? Oh, from Germany?”
“Ich habe Deutsch gelernt!“the bus driver blurts out
We are boarding the rare local bus to the village of Ueno. The grey-haired man with the friendly smile definitely does not have many opportunities to practice his language skills. After all, we are on the Okinawan Island of Miyakojima, about 1000 km south of mainland Japan.
About an hour later he drops us near the Ueno German Culture Village, where we find ourselves in front of a huge grey stone slab at the roadside. „Gerhard-Schroeder-Staße“ is engraved in huge white sanserif letters. The street is commemorating the visit of the former German chancellor on the occasion of the G8 summit in Okinawa. Large German and Japanese flags underneath further illustrate the Japanese-German connection. The Gerhard Schroeder Road runs all the way from Miyakojima’s small airport to the German Culture Village. We trot along the sugar cane fields and around a knoll. And then suddenly a European-style mediaeval fortress complete with tower and battlements appears before the glittering blue ocean. The Marksburg is the main attraction of the Germany-themed amusement park. The original-sized German castle on Miyakojima seems to be a draw for Japanese travellers.
The German connection on Miyakojima
“No, I have never been to Germany. But I would pretty much like to go…” Ota-san, the park’s manager, answers our questions over a cup of coffee in the museum shop on the castle’s ground floor.
First, we learn about the background. The culture park opened in 1997 aiming to enhance German-Japanese relations in general. „The concept we had in mind was fraternity” Ota-san states somewhat pompously.
The ties between Germany and Ueno go back a long time: In a storm in 1873 the German merchant ship Robertson, sailing from Fuzhou to Australia, shipwrecked off the coast of Miyakojima. It was then that the Ueno inhabitants rescued the stranded sailors. They gave them shelter and food until the Germans were able to travel back to China and finally to Germany. In 1937, Japan’s Ministry of Education introduced this story of altruistic help in the national elementary schoolbooks, and the people of Miyakojima earned some modest fame nationwide.
Today Hänsel and Gretel, the local goose couple, waddle lazily between the half-timbered houses. On a Wednesday outside the main tourist season, the Ueno German Culture Village is deserted. One of the park’s tour guides, Iwasa-san, shows us around the exhibition rooms in the castle. She is proudly wearing a burgundy-coloured dirndl designed by the Japanese staff.
In the Medieval room of the German castle on Miyakojima, a Roman legionnaire has mysteriously joined the armoured knights. Plastic samples of sausages, Sauerkraut and square white bread are on the table. Clearly one of the functions of the Japanese Marksburg is to inform the Japanese visitors about German eating culture! Outside, a wedding chapel in distinctly Japanese taste awaits happy couples.
Finally we march over the courtyard to the backdrop of a Bavarian brass orchestra from the sound system to the other exhibition building. The “Children’s House” combines a shop with a huge collection of Diddle Mouse merchandises, a Märklin train model, a small library of children’s books in various languages. Next to the colourful books we see two slabs of the original Berlin wall together with some explanation on the divided Germany and grizzly photos of soldiers and barbed wire. “Japanese visitors also think this is an odd mix,” Iwasa-san admits without even trying to suggest a concept behind the jumble of vague “German-ness” in the park.
The present of the German Emperor
Back in the small capital of Miyakojima we visit the “Philanthropy Monument,” a stele that German Emperor Wilhelm I sent in 1876 to be set up here. “We, Wilhelm, by the grace of god German Emperor…,” he expresses his gratitude for the rescue of his subjects, starting Miyakojima’s German boom. A family from Chiba, a small town near Tokyo, is less impressed. “We have a German village in Chiba, too. I think it’s more authentic!“ We will consider Chiba for a day out from Tokyo.
Should you visit the German castle on Miyakojima?
The Ueno German Culture Village is of some interest for Japanese and people interested in the 19th century history of Okinawa. For Germans, it can also be fun in a hilarious way. We assume that for most other travellers, the strange German castle on Miyakojima Island is not really a top attraction. However, Miyakojima Island itself is absolutely worth going! It is a beautiful remote island in the tropical Okinawa island chain with perfect beaches and a laid-back atmosphere. If you read German you can find out more about the Marksburg on Miyakojima in our Loose Japan guidebook.
NB: We were on Miyakojima for a guidebook research. We got free entry into the German Culture Village and the German Castle, but otherwise paid all expenses related to our visit ourselves. We were not sponsored to write this blog post.
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