Nara Dreamland: The End of a Dream
Nara Dreamland was an abandoned amusement park at Nara. I’ve mentioned it several times on this site : here for my first visit and here for a stroll around the roller coasters. I’ve just spent a year in Nara (2015-2016), a kilometre from the park, and it was after I went back to Tokyo recently that the destruction began. So it’s time for me to write a little epilogue, evoking a few memories and photos.
In 2015, I felt the urge to leave Tokyo and detach myself from the meltdown world of work. I wanted to find myself again, breath fresh air, have time to think and get on with my own projects. Around the same time a couple of my best mates decided to come and study Japanese at Tenri University, 10 km from Nara. So I thought … why not join them?
A year in Nara
I quit my job, co-rented a house with seven others in central Nara, near the park, and began a Japanese language course at Tenri in September 2015. The fact that one of my favourite haikyo was just a kilometre away was pure chance but great good luck.
I got my own car, bought a drone, and the course began. One of our profs comes from Kobe, he’s great. Funny, sympathetic, endless stories, the whole class had a blast. I showed him a copy of my just-published book, Abandoned Japan (Abandoned Japan on Amazon) and he recognized Nara Dreamland as well as the famous Maya Hotel, of course. But hang on, aren’t visitors banned from there? And … the ghosts!?
My new life in Kansai region was like a dream. The days consisted of language classes, exploring the Nara area (learning to) fly the drone at Nara Dreamland, chatting in Japanese or French (whereas in Tokyo it was mostly in English) and evenings spent cooking and joking with my housemates. I often took them along to Nara Dreamland.
One sunny afternoon while I was absorbed in controlling the drone, someone jumped out at me. Are you Meow-san? This is how I met Sanzyuyon (三十四), a Japanese urban explorer who happens to live in Nara too. He’d already seen my blogs and therefore inside my head!
We got along fine and began to meet regularly at Nara Dreamland. Sanzyuyon (三十四) is the guy likely to have visited the park most often, in all weathers and all seasons, and who’s taken photos of every hidden corner as he clambers all over the place 🙂 It’s also thanks to him – because of him – that I began to feel rather too much at home inside this abandoned park.
I went there with him, with other friends, sometimes alone, and met others at random, over a coffee or a beer if in the mood. Indeed I was so relaxed I forgot about the security guards who were supposed to work there.
Nara Dreamland owner, plus police
But one day, with me again at the drone controls (and still concentrating hard), right in the middle of the park, things took a turn for the worse.
A car was approaching so I ran into the undergrowth. Unluckily for me, the drone was still flying around and there was nowhere to bring it down. I tried to find a place quickly but I wasn’t quick enough – as the drone landed the guard came up behind me and ordered me not to move.
Next the owner arrived, in an old Mercedes. He was a great sweaty pig of a man, ironically squeezed into a suit. He yelled at me at the top of his voice until I was concerned for him – the impression being that his tobacco-clogged lungs would collapse any minute. Then I noticed he was showing a certain familiarity towards the guard, who turned out to be … his son.
The owner called the cops and two squad cars arrived, one after the other. I was right in the middle of Nara Dreamland, surrounded by four cars, the guard, the owner and four cops! Oh well … supposing I moved to Thailand? Or back to live in China? Plenty of great photo-reporting to be done from there, after all? 🙂
As it turned out the cops were very lenient and soon defused the situation (and finally the pig). Why are you here? To learn to fly my drone, without sending it over the heads of tourists or deer. More or less true … Can’t you do that somewhere else? Yes, but where? Nobody knew where. They suggested the rice fields, giving me the chance to claim that they’re private property and working land. That set the owner off again, bellowing like a cow this time.
The police asked me to apologize to the owner with a bow that doubled me over until my head touched the ground. Never thought I was so agile! And so, we’ll leave it at that.
Of course, my enthusiasm was a bit dampened. Suddenly surrounded by four cars, two of them cops, in the middle of a private property in Japan! I’d thought the game was up. As a result I didn’t go back to Dreamland for about three weeks, although it was just next door and I’d arranged to meet friends there the following weekend.
To recapture the mood, I began to make night visits again. Nara Dreamland was beginning to deteriorate very quickly that winter. Each time I found more debris, more attractions falling to pieces.
I felt the need to do something for the park, a place well-loved by many people, to finally make a contribution to promoting Nara as a special place, perfect for photography or an original experience.
My projects for Nara Dreamland
I approached Nara town hall about joint projects with them, of course not specifically for Nara Dreamland, but gradually began to broach the subject.
I shared project ideas with the town hall that would not only keep Nara Dreamland alive and well but make it economically viable, while of course benefiting as many people as possible.
The idea would be to arrange a guided tour with a group of visitors once or twice a day. Evidently it would be out of the question to take them up on the roller coasters but the experience would still be very rich, with plenty of photographic opportunities.
Imagine yourself strolling along this street, in safety, with a camera. Wouldn’t that make you happy? Not to mention a fantastic break between visiting the Kyoto and Nara temples … 🙂
The project attracted interest but unfortunately the property was acquired around that time by a company in Osaka. I was told at the town hall that the former owner had been pressurized to try and avoid tarnishing Nara’s image by association with the amusement park. In any case the decision had already been made, the town hall didn’t want to discuss it further as housing was shortly to be built on the Nara Dreamland site.
With this bad news winter arrived, as well as the university vacation.
Winter, dreams over
I was impatiently waiting for snow to fall on Nara Dreamland but it didn’t happen, just a few flakes.
The university term began again but our new class was full of Asians who coped much better than us and we no longer had our favourite prof. Our spirits fell, especially for my friends stuck in Tenri. At least I could get around with the car.
Although it’s great to live in the Japanese countryside, there are only very young and very old people left there. I passed most time with my housemates but even they changed from time to time and the impermanence of the situation began to get to me.
Meanwhile I try to make the most of Nara Dreamland. According to the town hall, demolition is due to start early 2016 so not so urgent, so much the better.
I discover that you can walk along the roller coaster that runs around the fake mountain in Nara Dreamland. All you have to do is get inside the mountain and then climb the steps up the side of the ride.
I no longer fly my drone from inside the park, but from a parking lot outside. Big panic when I completely lost the connection with the drone and couldn’t restore it. Fortunately they do things well at DJI and the drone came back to me automatically, landing literally at my feet.
These were Nara Dreamland’s last days. I tried one last thing. The original owner of the park, who’d negotiated (in vain) with Walt Disney, was a kabuki theatre family company, strangely enough. I got in touch with the old business, which still exists, run by the daughter of the family.
When her father built the park she was young and must have known whatever was going on there. I thought that a compilation of her knowledge and anecdotes in a book about Nara Dreamland would be an exciting idea for all the old regulars. I was able to meet many long-standing fans of the park while it was still open. Unfortunately, the daughter is now a very sick old lady. There’s nothing to be done.
As for me, I’m partying with local friends, trying out all the Nara restaurants and … packing my bags to go back to Tokyo. That’s the very short version of events of course, it’s much more complicated than that 😉
Demolition of Dreamland
Nara Dreamland was demolished quickly. I went back one last time to see what was left of it, but there wasn’t much. Before my eyes two of the main sections of Aska, the famous wooden roller coaster, fell. It didn’t give in easily though.
And the mythical ascent of the roller coaster that so many explorers have climbed …
Return to Tokyo
Now back in Tokyo, I often think of that year in Nara. Nothing went as planned, really nothing at all, but there are no regrets. For a year I lived in another Japan.
With good and bad surprises, people and different situations. My car and its minor problems. The stray cats we took to the vet and then found them a new home. Jogging at dawn with the deer, or through Nara Dreamland.
All those French friends who came to see me at Nara, even from France, when I thought I was cut off from the world. Those interludes of tears and laughter. I find it hard to believe that last year, which was supposed to be so restful, turned out to be one of the most intense.
Just like Nara Dreamland … and if all this had been a dream?