Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more

Collage picture of the entrance to Nara Dreamland, Japan's amusement park, made of photographs by Victor Habchy (before demolition) and Ivan Kralj (after demolition)
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Barbed wire at the entrance gate to Nara Dreamland site in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Barbed wire at the entrance gate to Nara Dreamland site in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Pipeaway's blogger Ivan Kralj climbing over the fence of the Nara Dreamland site in Nara, Japan, photo by Mladen Koncar
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Pipeaway's blogger Ivan Kralj climbing over the fence of the Nara Dreamland site in Nara, Japan, photo by Mladen Koncar. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Ruins of the swimming pool at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Ruins of the swimming pool at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Locomotive of the train that was once driving the visitors around Nara Dreamland theme park, in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Locomotive of the train that was once driving the visitors around Nara Dreamland theme park, in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Ruins of stairs at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Ruins of stairs at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Sayonara, Nara Dreamland : Ghostly amusement park exists no more
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Debris at the site of the former amusement park Nara Dreamland in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj. Note: All photographs in this gallery have been made after dark, with very low light source, and have been artificially enlightened in post-processing

Even if major world websites, such as the Lonely Planet, still promote Nara Dreamland as Japan’s abandoned amusement park like an urban explorer’s dream come through, I have to break the sad news to you: Nara Dreamland does not exist anymore! Sure, you might know that this amusement park was officially closed in 2006 and afterward became the urbex mecca with its ghostly atmosphere of decay. But today there are no even ruins worth exploring! Quite a few of the online resources say that the demolition of the site will finish in 2018, but the truth is, as I found out during my visit in late March, Dreamland’s story is already just a history!

Pipeaway's blogger Ivan Kralj climbing over the fence of the Nara Dreamland site in Nara, Japan, photo by Mladen Koncar
Pipeaway’s blogger climbing over the fence of the Nara Dreamland site, reinforced with barbed wire
Breaking into Nara Dreamland

It was the fresh spring night in Nara. Even if hanami, the traditional watching and admiring the beauty of sakura, should have already started, cherry trees in front of the famous Todai-Ji temple were still shy on March 25. After hanging around with hundreds of deer freely roaming over Nara’s meadows and parks, I started to walk towards the Dreamland coordinates when the sun rays were already fading away. I knew that entering the amusement park area is officially considered as trespassing, so I thought that some twilight cover could only help. After the fear I went through when I was smuggling a dead pet into Vietnam, the nervosis around the issue of trespassing in Japan seemed to be a natural self-defensive mechanism.

Online resources were mentioning 100.000 Yen fine for trespassing (some 800 Euros), the sum I certainly didn’t have in my pockets

The high metal fence, reinforced with the barbed wire (the kind that Hungarians use to protect themselves from the most dangerous enemies, i.e. the refugees), was a clear message that no one should attempt to cross these gates. For those who can read, there was also a sign board with big Japanese letters probably threatening trespassers with significant fines or chopping their hands off. Well, in my imagination, at least. Later I have found out that the sign says: “Private property, no entry allowed without a permit.” Online resources were mentioning 100.000 Yen fine for trespassing (some 800 Euros), the sum I certainly didn’t have in my pockets.

In 2016, the young French photographer Victor Habchy was another explorer that managed to photograph some of the last images of Nara Dreamland before the demolition
Even the ghosts left the ghostly amusement park

If I would have arrived here just 15 years ago, the excitement of crossing over the fence couldn’t compare with jumping on a roller coaster. Actually, for the amount of the trespassing fine, I could have easily ridden it 167 times in those days. OK, I guess after so many rides the adrenaline levels would not have given me a high kick anymore. So now, at dusk, standing alone in the middle of the debris that was once amusing Japanese kids, trying to listen to any little clue that would say the security guy is coming to charge me my most expensive fun ride ticket, was preciously exciting.

I was clicking with my camera, mainly shooting pure guesses. I knew my eyes couldn’t see as much as my camera could, and using the flashlight was not an option, as it would definitely draw the attention of the guards. With the daylight extinguishing, my camera’s aperture was doing its best to let in as much light as it could find, while my hand tried to keep steady as much as possible. No tripod bringing was in question for this get in-get out photo shooting.

My eyes still adapting to the arriving pitch darkness, while I was trying not to get lost among the theme park’s wreckage, didn’t provide much information about where the hell am I walking; uneven grounds with holes and traps might have resembled the experience of the haunted witch cave a few decades ago. I wouldn’t know. But this place was certainly not haunted anymore. Even the ghosts have left.

What is Nara Dreamland’s story then?

The Japanese businessman Kunizo Matsuo visited California in the ’50s, and the brand-new Disneyland (opened in Anaheim in 1955) caught his attention. He was determined to bring the attraction to his homeland. But as we know, Tokyo Disneyland will not open until 1983. Matsuo’s idea was to bring Disneyland to Nara, the city that served as Japan’s first permanent capital, in the 8th century. However, Walt Disney‘s financial demands for the licenses were too high in Matsuo’s eyes, so he decided to open the Dreamland instead. The park still looked like Disneyland, as American engineers were traveling to Japan before the love broke towards the end of the construction phase.

Some were saying that Nara Dreamland was Disneyland rip-off, offering the same kind of attractions. When Disneyland was finally opened in Tokyo, Nara’s copy was not so interesting for visitors anymore

Nara Dreamland was opened in 1961, cloning Disneyland’s attractions like the Sleeping Beauty Castle, Main Street USA, Tea Party Cup Ride, the monorail, the pirate ship and so on. But when Disneyland finally arrived in Japan (Tokyo) in the ’80s, and especially after Universal Studios Japan opened in 2001 in Osaka, just 40 kilometers west of Nara, it put the last nail in the coffin of Nara’s dream to have its own amusement park. Visitor numbers dropped from 1,6 million a year to merely 400 thousand. Dreamland’s doors closed on August 31st, 2006.

Urban exploring in the forbidden zone

But haikyoists (Japanese version of urban explorers) were keeping the dream of this abandoned ruin alive. Domestic and international explorers were taking their cameras into the forbidden zone, risking to be caught by the security (some actually were), and delivering their photographs to the world.

Gareth Pon’s photograph from the top of the Aska rollercoaster in 2016, while Nara Dreamland was still holding up

South African Instagrammer Gareth Pon visited the place in summer 2016. He recalled standing on the ruin of the 30-meters high rollercoaster that was, when operating, taking its visitors on an 80 km/h speed ride, producing 2.8 G-Force. “Standing on top of the Aska Roller Coaster, it felt brittle under my feet. Being several stories up, I kept telling myself that the sound of creaking wood didn’t represent the sturdy structure beneath me. Looking down through the complexity of wood beams below, I couldn’t help but appreciate the original craftsmanship”, said Gareth. “A group of people were successful in building a ride that people loved — an experience where people raised their hands and let the inner joy of their childhood take over. It made me wonder how something so magnificent was left to rot.”

Locomotive of the train that was once driving the visitors around Nara Dreamland theme park, in Nara, Japan, photo by Ivan Kralj
Locomotive of the train in Nara Dreamland not scheduled to ride soon
No crematorium in the ashes of Nara Dreamland

Indeed, walking through the wreckage of the theme park that was promising 32 hectares of fun in its heyday, I experience only emptiness and rot. Some preserved stairs, broken brick walls, tires, hills of unidentified attraction parts, pools of water… No much haikyo really. Just the feeling of a messed-up puzzle, with so many parts missing. The only element still standing was a locomotive of a train that was riding on Dreamland’s tracks. Covered in blue plastic, as it would protect it from the unpredictable weather or demolition. No more rides here.

With the heritage of unpaid taxes and no rescuer in sight, Dreamland just had to go. The city wanted to reclaim the grounds and make the crematorium on the site, but locals did not like the idea. Finally, the real estate company SK Housing bought the abandoned theme park as the only bidder at the auction. They plan to build the housing for retired people here. Housing for maybe the only ones who still remember the days of Dreamland’s glory.

Nara Dreamland in 2016, photos by Victor Habchy
Nara Dreamland in 2017, photos by Ivan Kralj
If you want to see how Nara Dreamland looked like in the era of urban exploration (with some extracts of when it was open for public), here’s a short video by Michael Oswald you can check!

 

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Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

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