We stared out towards the decaying wasteland; towards the rotting rollercoaster, the festering ferris wheels, and the crumbling castle, once grande but now graffitied and beyond repair. Abandoned. My nose fills with the scent of damp wood, stagnant water, and sawdust. After years of pining and planning and searching, me and friends had finally reached Nara Dreamland, and in September of 2016, we became the last people to see the park still standing.
(There’s a lot of unnecessary prelude to this story. I begun transcribing our tale of Nara Dreamland for a nomadic writing competition last year, so I’ve made sure to include a long, whimsical introduction. If you’d prefer to not read any of that, which I wouldn’t judge you if you didn’t, scroll down to about a quarter through this entry, until you reach the ***. That’s where the actual story starts. Enjoy!)
From a young age, me and my best friends, Joe and Jeremy, had been budding urban explorers. Actually, in hindsight, budding is probably the wrong word to use; aspiring is more accurate. We’d never mustered up the courage to actually explore anything ourselves, whether for fear of trespassing or endangering our own lives. One destination that was always on our list, however, was Nara Dreamland.
Japans answer to Disneyland began in the early 1960’s as Nara Dreamland. To say they were ‘inspired’ by Disney would be to do the park an injustice: the place had essentially stolen the design of many of Disney’s flagship attractions, including Main Street, the Matterhorn and even the iconic Sleeping Beauty Tower.
By the 80’s and 90’s, Disney themselves had opened their own Japanese theme park that you may have heard of, as had Universal Studios just a mere 40km away, causing a steady decline in local crowds. Dreamlands attendance had dwindled so much by the mid-naughties that the entire park was essentially a ghost town.
It was at this point during the parks long lifespan that caught the attention of my friends and me. We scoured forums, watched incredibly low quality YouTube videos, cyber-mingled with employees online and coerced them into sharing their stories. Bear in mind, this was in the early years of the internet, the digital Wild West, and information as valuable as this was far and few between. We’d poured hours of research into this strange anomaly. Nara Dreamland had become a point of obsession for us young adolescents.
And then disaster struck.
We were devastated when the park announced in 2008 that it was closing its doors to the public. Yes, this monstrosity had finally accepted its fate as one of the many defunct amusement parks of the 21st century. However, something strange happened a few years later that arose our interest.
You may have heard of Nara Dreamland in more recent years, as the park has become a hotbed for bloggers and urban explorers everywhere: ‘An Instagrammers Fantasy’. The park took on a second life after death. Photos of the abandoned park began to circulate on social media, causing a spike in attendance; far more so than when the park was actually open. You see, the interesting thing about Nara Dreamland is that it had been left completely intact. For whatever reason, the park seemed to have been abandoned overnight: rides remained standing, arcade machines were left to rot, and the park was left to decay as if it was still operational.
Over time the park had gained some notoriety on social media, and no sooner had my friends and I had abandoned all hope of ever visiting said abandoned park, we would see a picture of the infamous Nara Dreamland castle, vandalised and destroyed, pop up on our Facebook timeline. In life, it was mediocre, but in death it had been made iconic.
Back in September of 2016, Jeremy, Joe and I embarked on our first joint trip overseas. We’d made many attempts to travel together in the past: we’d discussed running ski lodges in the Great White North, of hitchhiking across the old West, of a road-trip across central Australia, before finally settling on a 3-week trip to Japan. This in part had to do with us reading about Nara Dreamland’s accidental revival.
Our rendezvous through Nara was to be extremely brief, as we were continuing our trip to southern Japan later that evening, and this stolen day halfway through our trip was the only time that was both spare and geographically convenient. Our 3 week trip to the Orient was jam-packed, and the only time we had spare was a half-day, on our journey from Tokyo to Osaka. We would be sharing this day with a visit to Hiroshima, so we knew that our time in Nara Dreamland itself was going to be quite slim, but that did not dissuade us. This was the moment we’d been waiting for.
We first arrived at Nara Station just after 7am without a plan in place. From the station, the journey to theme park itself is not a particular strenuous, only half an hour on foot, but we unfortunately did not have the luxury of time. Our train departing for Osaka (where we would make a transfer to get to Hiroshima) left just before 11, so we had to act fast.
After dumping our luggage in the nearest lockers, we set off downtown to the local bicycle rental. We found the rental store with ease, having researched it beforehand, hidden tucked away down a side street across from the train station.
In extremely broken Japanese, I attempted to rent three bicycles. We did consider a triple tandem, but decided that, under the circumstances, three annoying tourists on a tandem bicycle trying to trespass into an abandoned theme park would do more harm than the novelty would provide. So we chose a simpler option: two geared bikes and one mountain bike, costing me and Jeremy 700YEN and Joe 1000YEN, approximately $7 and $10 each, respectively. In lieu of a Japanese license, the man took hold of our passports for safe keeping, which Jeremy assured me was standard practice to stop me from worrying that he would sell them and vanish without a trace (I watch way too many police procedurals.)
With our cameras in our hands and a bike between our legs, we ventured onwards alongside narrow roads and unknown streets. Truth be told, we didn’t even really know where we were heading. With a lack of mobile phone reception, we were forced to take the word of our printed map for gospel. To make matters worse, our navigator, Joe, had decided to fly off into the unknown on a solo adventure, leaving Jeremy and I left to try and figure out the way.
Following our map was pointless. It took us off the road and down winding, forested streets darkened by the ominous trees and vegetation. We were fooled for a second by a bodiless Japanese voice being creakily projected by an old PA system. We thought, for a second, perhaps we were close. Perhaps this was a recorded warning, an alarm used to spook or deter willing trespassers. But the streets led us to nowhere. There was no hidden entrance, no gate, no people at all. Nothing that would suggest there was an amazing, decaying amusement park anywhere in the local area.
After a confusing bike ride, and after finally tracking down Joe, we had to accept the fact that we were lost. This ‘half an hour walk’ had translated into a 40 minute bike ride which, mathematically, made no damn sense at all. We needed help.
Something we didn’t realise about the city of Nara is that no one actually lives there. OK, that’s most likely not true, but whether everyone was at work, or out to lunch, or maybe just avoiding the annoying Western tourists, the fact remains is we barely spotted anybody who could point us in the right direction, and certainly not anyone who would be willing to help us break into a derelict theme park. We eventually spotted a young Japanese boy, jogging along the side of the road. Our saviour.
“Konichiwa,” I exclaimed, approaching the lad with a false sense of overconfidence
“Are you looking for Nara Dreamland?” the boy responded, in perfect English. Ahh, I see this isn’t his first time.
Of course, we didn’t need to explain ourselves. I’m sure this sort of thing happens a lot. The boy gleefully recanted his own experiences with the park, but warned us that the park was to be demolished soon, so the area was slightly more dangerous, and the security was slightly heightened.
The prospect of actually sneaking into the theme park was rather daunting, as we were uncertain what the punishment of getting caught would be. Others before us have reportedly been fined, and arrested, where as others have been let off with a warning. However a change in ownership had left us hopeful, as the new owners were less interesting in punishing trespassers. Regardless, it was not pleasing to hear that the security had been heightened.
We’d all spoken beforehand and agreed that we’d be happy to just observe the park from a distance to avoid persecution. Even just seeing the outside of the area: the infamous Nara Dreamland entrance sign, the top of the Aska rollercoaster, and the abandoned train station, would be enough for us.
The boy directed us towards the top of a hill, alongside a rusty, barbed wire fence, and after thanking him, once again in broken Japanese, he disappeared. So we followed the fence, away from where the guides had told us to enter, and after making it to the top of the hill realised we were no closer to park then we were before. There was nothing here.
“There it is!” Joe yelled.
Jeremy and I scrambled back down the hill to where Joe was. Had he discovered a gate, or a sign, or seen the park in the distance? No, none of those. He had found a small hole in the fence, cut open and barely large enough for a person, let alone a bike, and beyond the gate was nothing but flat concrete. This couldn’t have been the entrance. At this point, we were getting desperate, and quickly running out of time. This wasn’t the entrance to Nara Dreamland, of that I was sure, but I was hoping that just maybe it would lead to somewhere where we could see the park.
So we snuck through, listening out for passing traffic and trying to look inconspicuous every time a car passed. Not that it would matter; to the residents of Nara, this was probably a common sight. When one would sneak under, we would pass our bikes over the fence. It was not an easy task, but leaving 3 bicycles, ones that we have to return to get our passports back, outside of a broken fence to an abandoned amusement park did not seems like the smartest idea.
After all successfully sneaking through, we hopped on our bikes and drove along the concrete towards a distant forrest. I’m gonna be honest, it was pretty spooky. It was quiet… forgive the cliche, but too quiet. Only the sounds of our panting breaths and spinning bicycle gears could be heard. We dared not speak a word to each other, for risk of being heard amongst the absolute silence. But whether there was anyone to hear us, we didn’t know, but we weren’t keen to find out.
To our relief, we eventually came across a pathway, giving us guidance and stripping us of the necessity to blindly cycle into nothingness. The pathway in turn led us to a garage which, upon investigation, held a miniature train carriage. Could this be the Nara Dreamland train, we thought to ourselves? Of course it was. How many miniature trains can one town have. It was only now that we noticed faint tire tracks along the floor leading away from the garage. We knew what we had to do.
We cycled faster than we had before into the distance, eventually running parallel to overhead monorail. We cycled until we saw it. Peaking its tracks out over the untamed vegetation, the enormous wooden Aska rollercoaster slowly came into view. Then came the artificial snowcapped mountain, their knockoff Matterhorn; vandalised by mankind and decayed by Mother Nature. More and more structured and rides came into view as we ventured forth into the dilapidated wasteland.
We had found our El Dorado. Only instead of gold, we found broken glass and litter. It was both a joyous and somber occasion. To think of how incredible the sight would be to behold had it been left to the Earth, and left untouched by the very people who gave it a second wind. Unfortunately, vandals have taken more life from the park than nature has at this point. Smashed glass filled the floor, trash dumped in every corner, and no wall left clean from graffiti.
However as I’ve mentioned many times before, we didn’t have the time to stop and reflect on the inherent destruction of mankind. We kept cycling through, trying to take in as much as the park as we could, but one sound stopped us dead in our tracks. The deafening silence was broken by the sounds of construction equipment. The loud buzz of a bulldozer and mechanical creaks of a crane could be heard off in the distance, behind the Aska rollercoaster.
Rumours of the parks demolition, and the boys warning that the park had heightened security were true. We weren’t in an abandoned theme park; we were in a soon-to-be demolished theme park. We REALLY didn’t have much time. If we wanted to see as much of the park as we could, we had to move fast, and we had to be on guard. Any minute, a construction team could turn the corner. In fact, during our brief exploration, we encountered many close calls, and we’d constantly hear voices coming our way, causing us to dive off the path into hiding. Luckily, the sounds of demolition were loud enough to hide the many accidentally bell rings whenever Joe would slip on his handlebars.
We must have spent over 30 minutes in the park, cycling around and taking in all that lay in front of us. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but as I’ve said, we were running out of time. We had less than half an hour to get ourselves back to civilisation, to return our bikes, to collect our luggage and to hop on our train to Hiroshima. We were also concerned by the ever-growing presence of voices in the distance, and didn’t want to risk getting caught and potentially sabotaging the rest of our day.
There were things we didn’t get to experience in Nara Dreamland. We never walked into the monorail, like so many before us. We didn’t get to see the ‘Nara Dreamland entrance sign’, mostly because it appeared to be on the other side of the park. We never climbed the Aska Rollercoaster, because we were certain we’d be caught by the looming security presence. We knew we couldn’t leave, however, without catching a sight of infamous castle, this unintentional parody of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.
The castle itself was a fairly monumentous structure. It could be seen in the background wherever we ventured through the park, so we were sure we kind find it with ease. However, every attempt to approach it allowed us to catch glimpses of the demolition team and saw us scrambling to hide. We knew we had to pick our time appropriately and to be as quick as possible. Once the coast was finally clear, we ran in, snapped our pictures, and ran out. We barely had time to catch our breathes before we heard a brief commotion and alarmed voices: we’d been spotted.
Kicking up our bike stands, we fled into the forest, elated that we’d accomplished our childhood dream, but scared as hell! We did not stop cycling until long after we’d reached the main road, barely looking back, but we knew we were free. We took nothing. We left nothing. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Our trip to Nara Dreamland was nothing special, by most senses of the word. It’s not unique, having been visited by thousands of people in the past. But it was special to me. I’d dreamed of this place for so long, for over decade, even before it had gained the reputation that overshadowed it. Heck, before it had even closed its doors to the public. My friends and I had wanted to see this knock-off Disneyland, this blatant disregard of copyright law, even when it was just some dirty, low attendance park in the middle of rural Japan. And we were some of the last people to see it in it’s glory.
We visited Nara Dreamland on the 21st of September 2016, and according to online reports, the park had begun prep work for demolition just a few days prior. By early October, much of Main Street had been demolished. If our trip had been one week later, or even a few days later, we probably wouldn’t have had anything to visit.
The park had been something we’d bonded over, three weirdos with an obsession for all things dodgy and dingy and crap. And thankfully, we did manage to pay our respects before it had disappeared. And over the years, through vandalism, and natural decay, and looming destruction, the park remained just that. Dodgy. And dingy. And Crap
Nara Dreamland was a Dream Come True.
All pictures were taken and edited by me. That’s a first!