Nara Dreamland: Japan’s last abandoned theme park
Nara Dreamland is the epitome of many haikyo dreams; an abandoned theme park with all its roller-coasters and rides still standing. I’ve heard many stories of haikyoists arriving only to be either deterred by the cameras, sensors, alarms and fines, or actually physically expelled by the furious security guard. For my visit I decided to bypass those risks altogether, and entered by night.
Orion (you can see the 3 stars of his belt) behind the Dreamland castle. Buy prints here.
Nara Dreamland opened in 1961, inspired by Disneyland in California. For 45 years its central fantasy castle, massive wooden rollercoaster Aska, and corkscrewing Screwcoaster pulled in the big crowds. By then though it was outdated, and dying a slow death as Universal Studios Japan (built 2001) in nearby Osaka sucked all the oxygen out of the business. It closed its doors permanently in 2006.
Shooting north towards the moon (off to the right), with this side of the castle in moon-shadow.
I’ve wanted to go to a standing abandoned theme park since I started haikyoing. I tried site after site, only to be disappointed at each. One was in the process of demolition (Kappa Pia), one had only concrete slabs where the rides had once been (Namegawa Island), one was wiped off the map completely (Gulliver`s Kingdom).
Shooting south, with the moon at my back-left and lighting this side of the castle.
Then there was Nara Dreamland, which had lots of strikes against it; it was only recently abandoned so would have little decay, it had heavy security, and it was far away. So I put it on the back burner, thinking I`d get to it in time.
Well, that time arrived. I had the weekend, I had a fellow haikyoist who knew the park’s layout well and had himself been expelled by security once (Florian of Abandoned Kansai), and I had the inclination, so we set it up.
The castle is at the center, with the Screwcoaster to its left and the wooden ride Aska at bottom right.
I arrived in Nara by Shinkansen a little after midnight. The streets were quiet and calm as we walked the 30 minutes to the Dreamland site. Both of us were pretty excited. There was always the possibility that the security guard might do night sweeps. There was still the threat of fines, motion sensors, alarms.
Access was easy. I changed into my ninja outfit (black jeans and black shirt), and we were in.
Googlemaps of Dreamland. Most striking is the oval-ish central fountain.
There’s something very ethereal about an empty theme park by moonlight. It’s not something you’re ever likely to see for yourself, and it`s very difficult to capture in photographs. There’s a stillness, an aloneness, that creeps into you. As Florian and I split up to explore separate sections of the park, I wandered in a kind of daze, drinking it in.
Of course I was reminded of my first ever night haikyo, at Sports World. There’s the excitement, the adrenaline pushing against growing exhaustion, and that unreal feeling of having briefly slipped through the cracks and found a place apart, somewhere that time forgot and left behind.
I love that feeling.
Boarded-up buildings and Orion.
Entry by night definitely made up for the general lack of overgrowth. Usually in a haikyo a large part of the appeal comes from the untouched nature of an all-new enivronment. It`s exploring, in this case the world built by nature in the places we once owned.
With Dreamland there wasn’t so much of that, as 4 years is not a long time for nature to run rampant. But going in by night made it a foreign land. That, combined with unlimited access to the rides, rails, and behind the scenes places, made this a stellar explore.
Screw Coaster and the Pole Star(?)
We wandered around for hours, occasionally pausing to snap long-exposure shots of the stars, rides, and castle. I climbed up Aska (the huge wooden coaster) a little, dropped my flashlight as I went over the fence, and spent 10 minutes scrabbling amongst the brambles to find it. Occasionally I`d see a flashlight go by and wonder if it was Florian or a security guard.
Shooting within the wooden coaster Aska. The stars are blurry because they`re moving through my long-exposure time window.
By around 5am I was pretty shattered, so curled up in the bucket seat of a kids ride and napped for about 30 minutes. When I woke up everything was blue, and the sun was coming up.
This is where I napped.It wasn`t very comfortable.
I`ve rarely been awake for many dawn-rises in my life, so just took people`s word for it when they said `dawn is the best time for photography`. It certainly wasn`t true of the first 30 minutes of dawn at Dreamland. For all that time, as we rushed around feeling knackered and worried about the security guard, the light was blue and cold and really unpleasant. After that 30 minutes though it began to warm up, and I got some nice sunrise shots through the rides.
Some weeds are beginning to sprout through the tarmac. Give it 10-20 years and it`ll be gorgeous.
Screwcoaster`s double corkscrew and the sun.
Towards the entrance and the the sunrise.
Main street sunrise.
After that it was a question of re-exploring the areas we’d already seen by night. I walked around the front area and took in the train station entrance (for delivering people from the far car park).
Train Station with 1961 branding.
Train Station in blue-ish color.
Main entrance to the Main Street. Black and white because it was too blue-ish to rescue.
I walked the wooden coaster Aska to its highest peak and looked down on the park.
Aska resting silent. I wonder if this huge tarmac space before it would have had tents and stalls. Otherwise it would have surely seemed quite empty then too.
Ride, and Matterhorn-like mountain off in the park.
Florian taking shots of Aska.
Apparently this ride was awesome when alive, and got great air. I thought about climbing down, but it was really too steep.
The most overgrowth anywhere in the park. I lost my flashlight for 10 minutes in all that foliage at night.
I was on top of the big one.
I went into the GALLANTRY shooting gallery, which was quite pathetic inside. In the dark I suppose its crapness would be less obvious.
GALLANTRY shooting gallery. It looks awesome, right?
Hmm. Surely better in the dark.
I saw the Jungle river Cruise and its sinking boats. I wish I could have gotten over to them, but the bridges were all down.
I checked out the water park, which looked pretty much as it would have 4 years ago when still open. Most interesting was the clock that told the correct time. I guess the park still has power.
I investigated the cable-car ride through the Matterhorn-like mountain. Some good shots of heavy machinery.
Mountain. A coaster ride goes round the outside, while the cable-car goes through.
Ah, some good overgrowth here too.
Love this color. Is it rust? Could it have rusted so quickly?
Shooting towards the mountain.
Most of the buildings and indoor rides were sealed up. I could have broken in, but there was no point- I could see through the windows of most, and it was obvious they were only empty shells. I meandered through the park a final time picking up any extra shots that stood out.
Fantasy castle by day.
And, this is Napoleon. There wasn`t any obvious reason why he should be there. He was opposite Abraham Lincoln.
Please keep arms, legs, and head within the car at all times.
Around 7am-ish I headed out, to wait for Florian who was still stalking around shooting like crazy.
Some Dreamland walkthrough video:
After this I headed over to Kobe to hike up a mountain and shoot the famous ruined Maya Hotel. I`ll post the convoluted story of how I over-hiked by about 3 hours (on 30mins sleep) next time.
I’ve also since added a Dreamland: Heyday article, featuring photos from visitors to Dreamland from across its 45 year lifespan. If you’d like to see the place only a few years after it was opened in 1961, take a look.
See more haikyo here.